By V Shoba with Kevin Lobo, Kamal Saiyed, Shikha Sharma and Partha Sarathi Biswas
At the height of summer in Madurai, a mysterious drink with a hint of dark fruity-ness flourishes in refrigerators. Its placebo effect in case of an upset stomach is legendary. Locals will tell you that it is the one thing you should drink after a kari dosa or other fiery eats from Madurai’s streets. So when crates of Kalimark’s Bovonto are unloaded from Sendhur Mani’s old cycle-trailer at small tea stalls flanking West Veli Street, there is a happy clamour. “Bovonto is timeless,” says S Umar of Zam Zam Tea Shop, receiving three crates of south India’s oldest homegrown soft drink. Forty-seven-year-old Mani, one of over two dozen Kalimark distributors in town, supplies to 60 shops every morning before popping open a bottle of grapey goodness for himself. “I don’t think Bovonto will ever go out of business,” he says.
For a generation of Tamils, soft drink is “colour” and colour is the neon orange pop of Torino or the caramel tint of Bovonto. “It is the taste of my childhood,” says R. Sivasailam, 39, a software engineer in Chennai. “We would add salt and lime to Bovonto and pour it on ice. Tell me which foreign soda can taste so good with Indian food.” A true-blue Indian soda pop that refused to cede the battleground to multinational colas, Bovonto is a formulation of the century-old Kali Aerated Water Works. Worth over Rs 100 crore, it continues to expand its footprint in south India.
Every year, the cola wars pit blue against red, Pepsi against Coke, 7Up against Dew as the multinationals stake out their territories across India. But, like the last outpost of Gaul defiance against the Romans, homegrown sodas survive in many parts of India — their fabled histories reminders of older times, their quirky flavours a part of many memories.
In 1977, as Coca-Cola was beating a retreat from India under the provisions of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, Torino, an orange soda with a prodigious use of sugar, entered the market in south India. “In no time, we had captured 90 per cent of Karnataka’s orange soda market,” says Pankaj Lakhani, the second-generation owner and MD of Bangalore Soft Drinks. Torino has since been re-launched in PET bottles across Karnataka, where it has over 60 distributors, and Tamil Nadu, where doctors still recommend it as a high-calorie fluid in summer.
For homegrown soft drinks, trouble began to bubble over with the consolidation in the Indian carbonated beverage industry in 1993. Coca-Cola staged a comeback, acquiring Parle’s classic Indian sodas — Thums Up, Limca, Citra and Gold Spot —and small local brands began a continued…