Inside Smriti Irani’s textiles strategy


Inside Smriti Irani’s textiles strategy

It all started with an animated conversation on Modinagar shikanji that I overhead at a mall. Shikanji, Hindi for lemonade, is a cultural gem. A summer favourite across India, the cooling drink has dozens of localized versions.

Some spiked with fresh mint leaves, others sprinkled with roasted cumin powder or black salt and a pinch of sugar and most hand-blended with banta to give it a cheery fizz. Banta, which even has a Wiki entry, is the colloquial name for goli soda (goli for marble as each soda bottle is sealed by a marble). Banta is quite a character in our lives as Indians and I don’t mean it as one half of the Santa Banta jokes.

But let me get back to the Modinagar shikanji. Served as a cold drink at Chaayos, a tea café chain, this lemonade apparently had been made famous by the name of Jain shikanji in Modinagar town in Uttar Pradesh. Introduced by a small local enterprise, it grew in popularity over the years as people started swearing by the refreshing quality of the lemon drink. You can even buy the powder mix on the Internet, said the salesgirl at a Chaayos outlet in a Delhi mall, gushing about how it had become a brand.

It piqued my interest enough to spend some time looking up versions of lemonade and assorted summer drinks that are being smartly appropriated by posh restaurants. They never make it to ‘Incredible India’ tourist attractions. The tamarind and berry pulp shikanji—called the shikanji Bin—is in fact a super seller at Soda Bottle Openerwalla restaurant—an urbane version of Bombay’s old Irani cafés.

So, when I spotted a roadside cart selling what else but “Modinagar shikanji” not far from the mall where its fandom was being spread, I stopped to chat with the seller. He showed me his jar of spices, nothing great—the usual white salt, black pepper powder, a pinch of mango powder and cumin. However the “jadoo” (magic), said the 22-year-old Bitoo, who had quit school after the seventh class, lay in the proportion of the spices that his father mixed at home. Bitoo, like the owner of Chaayos, didn’t belong to Modinagar but was making a business out of someone else’s brand. I tried to repeat Bitoo’s magic at home. It didn’t work. My father had never taught me how to make lemonade.

The crucial difference between foods that remind us of home, mother, family, hometown, culture or community and drinks that may do the same is the aroma. Food is about a certain smell, which gets entwined with a thousand memories. A drink may tickle the same neurons in the brain, but you must first sip something to trail it back to an anecdote or the memory of your mom.

Scorching Indian summers can also be about discovering long-buried memories around summer coolers. The Punjabi mango panna, the Parsi Raspberry soda, the North Indian jal jeera (water with cumin powder quite literally), kala khatta—a black-red, sweet and sour sherbet, khus (vetiver) syrup, the terrific thandai (translated as coolant) made from pounded dry fruits to be mixed with milk or water or the heavenly sweet sugarcane juice served with a few drops of fresh lime juice and a pinch of black salt. Most of these can be made with traditional home recipes, yet most of them are also sold in packaged bottles or in powder forms by food and drink companies. Sugarcane juice is a hot seller in some restaurants, but nowhere does it taste as good as it does at an Indian street vendor’s. And no, you can’t make it at home.

What you can rustle up at home is a vast variety of buttermilks or curd-based Indian smoothies that have localized versions from Chennai to Gujarat and Maharashtra, and their packaged versions can’t recreate the original flavours. Or the thick sweet Punjabi lassi—sold in plus-sized, red-clay glasses in Old Delhi. As filling as a large dessert. Packaged drinks may have saved us from entirely losing our cuisine and culture peculiarities but perhaps they have also made us complacent.

Sindhis also make a fragrant homemade drink with jasmine flowers dipped in sugar syrup. Mixed with ice and water, for us it would herald the onset of summers, underline the season of potato chips left to dry outside in courtyards, ripe mangoes and water-based pickles. I wonder where I lost all those delightful little aspects of daily life. Did they just fall off? That loss hurt me in my guts when I heard the girl in the mall gush about Modinagar shikanji.

I shared these scraps of loss with my driver, who belongs to Odisha. What summer drink do you like? I asked. “Bel sherbet,” he said instantly. Bel is a local fruit. “It’s available at roadside carts in Delhi but I stopped having it after you warned me about typhoid. Now my wife gives it to me as a welcome drink when I go home,” he said smiling.