It is a small nameless shop housed in one of the tumbledown buildings in Bara Bazar. To a regular visitor it is just another inconsequential shop selling “something” not very striking. But for a weary visitor to the wholesale market, the warren of narrow passages always leads to Ramprasad Gewali’s soda shop.
With the temperature in Shillong rising above the comfortable level, the 56-year-old shop owner is the busiest these days as customers flock to the soda outlet for refreshment.
A look at the shop does not make much of an impression until one carefully watches Gewali skilfully filling up glasses with soda, lime juice and black salt, a perfect recipe for rejuvenation. The recipe is simple and age-old. Gewali prepares the aerated drink with water and carbon dioxide. “It is a skill I learned from my father,” says Gewali sitting in the 60-year-old shop one morning as he waits for customers.
Rows of empty soda bottles covered with a layer of dust sit on the shelves in the matchbox structure. Cylinders of carbon dioxide are stacked in one corner. An old soda making machine lies in another corner. A wooden ladder leans lazily to the wall leaving just enough space for Gewali to move around.
The shop owner informs that he got into the business immediately after finishing school. “I learned how to make soda from my father. I would work with my father till 4 in the evening and then rush for the evening college. It has been years now in this worn out shop,” he recollects.
Gewali says the last few weeks had been hectic as the temperature was high and he would rarely get time to speak to visitors. “It is a lucky morning,” I say to myself as I sip my soda and list my questions for the soda maker.
The machine that is used to make the aerated drink is as old as the shop but “my father was wise enough to buy a few spare parts which are hard to get now”, he says as he pops open a bottle for a group of young and curious customers, sweating and out of breath. A huge cardboard box dumped beside them is the cause of their tiredness.
The machine, fitted with a cylinder, makes two bottles at a time. Gewali puts water in the bottles and fits to the nozzles and rotates the handle. That is how the gas gets into the bottle turning the plain water into aerated drinks. There is a regulator attached to the machine that checks the flow of gas into the bottles. When there are less customers, Gewali keeps the bottles ready so that one does not have to wait at the counter for long.
Gewali’s is probably the only soda counter in the bazar where thousands of people, not only from the outskirts of Shillong but also from faraway villages, visit everyday.
As the conversation tends to move forward customers gather at the shop and Gewali excuses himself to serve them. The pop and fizz create a faint harmony though one has to strain the ears to listen to the ‘soda’ music amid the cacophony. As the customers leave Gewali, a soft-spoken man of less words, gets back to the conversation. He says refilling the carbon dioxide cylinders costs him around Rs 1,700-1,800 and each cylinder lasts for a week or longer depending on the rush. “The daily income is not constant and depends on many variables, the most important being weather,” he says.
Each glass of soda costs Rs 15 and guarantees full refreshment. Raja Das, who has been visiting the soda shop since childhood, says he would be amazed as a child to see the bottles pop open and would wait at the counter to see Gewali prepare “the poor man’s refreshment”.
“As a child I would not understand the science behind it and would be wonderstruck at his (Gewali’s) expertise. It was magic that I would try out at home with a simple water bottle. But no popping, obviously,” says the young man in his mid twenties.
Kordor Sohtun remembers visiting the soda shop as a child but “it has been years since I went there”.
But Gewali says the machine that he is using to make the soda water will last for another month as he does not have any more spare parts.
“I have to look for some other business after this,” he says without sparing much thought about the gravity of his statement. With the old machine’s life coming to an end, it will be an end of a pop story that played and replayed for decades now. It will also mean giving in to the changing times, the modern world devoid of small pleasures and humble surprises.
Asked whether his children are interested to take over the business, Gewali says his college-going son will have no interest until a facelift and a new machine is brought in. So is he thinking of buying one? “Well, I have not decided yet. Let’s see what happens,” he says without any emotion on his face.
“I want to take my children to the shop once before the owner stops making soda using the age-old machine. It is fun to watch it and also, the shop is part of the old Bara Bazar that we knew,” says Sohtun, the father of two children.