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23.07.2018

It’s just fresh lime soda, isn’t it? Without the bottle, I mean. With it, the banta is a modern masterpiece. Such an iconic design: the wonky build, the thick glass, the green chrome finish, and the marble; that damn marble tilting its head side to side, agreeing with everything I think or say. And it makes the sound: the sound of the bottle opening, crucial to the enjoyment of a drink.

Screw-top bottles make a sound like a limp fart; all you’ve really done is scratch your thumb with your index finger absently. With a bottle opener, a sudden rush heightens the joy (it’s even become the Android-phone-user’s message tone of choice). Door latches, sides of tables, a cloth napkin and a kitchen counter: and if your enamel game is strong, you can even use your chompers in desperate times. It makes the drink taste better.

None of this comes close to the banta. You stick your thumb down its mouth and push down hard. It’s a slow release, as all the gas bubbles rush out gracelessly, like us, getting off an airplane. It makes that first sip spectacular. You can’t toss the banta back like an imbecile, either. You have to find the perfect angle to make sure the flow of the drink isn’t restricted by the Agreeable Marble, which can find its way to the top of the bottle if you tilt it too much.

They’re called Codd-neck bottles. In addition to a divided country and an oversupply of self-loathing, our colonisers left us with these physics-defiers. (They’re named after a man named Codd who used to eat marbles all the time, and then one of them got stuck in his throat.) The bottle is filled upside-down, which makes the marble rise to the top -- or bottom - and block all the carbonation inside. It’s a work of art.

***

In the golden days of my youth, I went through a phase where I drank one or two a day, from a shop in a popular market in my native village, east Delhi, which sold paan, samosa, chips, ice-cubes - and bantas. A bottle of banta regularly cost ten rupees. It could get embarrassing sometimes if I thumbed down the kancha unsuccessfully, and then I’d have to seek the shop-owner’s help because his thumb-muscles were stronger. (I considered signing up for a thumb-gym.)

For Rs 15, there was banta ‘masala,’ which every retailer made themselves, un-marbling the bottle, pouring it into a glass, and sprinkling it with kala namak and, like, other things. The choice was a difficult one: the masala banta tasted better, but the authenticity of the regular banta, and the Codd-neck, made it almost impossible. (There was also the orange coloured banta, but everyone knew it was probably just banta regular with a dash of turmeric.)

With stronger aerated drinks, the sort that destroy entire rivers to make, you can feel your teeth decaying and your insides revolting. Maybe it’s psychological, but the banta somehow felt healthier. it had a reinvigorating effect in the Delhi summer. There was some virtue involved: we weren’t allowed to take the bottles home unless we paid extra. I don’t think there was any clause about breaking a bottle accidentally, because those things turned out to be indestructible.

This idyll was coming to an end even in my childhood. Rumours started to spread that they were filthy. They used sewage water. I don’t know how or why this happens, but somehow you have stories like these about every popular street food variant in Delhi. So the banta would periodically disappear from shops, whenever these rumours reached fever pitch. Within months, they’d show up again like nothing’s happened — “hey guys, I was travelling!” — associated horror stories happily forgotten. But its supply began to decline; so, with the onset of splashy new soft drinks, did its placement in corner shops. The banta became a figment of our collective imaginations.

Predictably, it has now been gentrified. Once the trend of serving listed items in inappropriate containers became a thing in Indian restaurants, it was only a matter of time before the banta became bourgeois-cool. Delhi’s Bunta Bar even serves fusionish cocktails and drinks in banta bottles, though you don’t get to pop the marble. Wouldn’t it be great if modern kitsch elevated, by sheer chance, one of the most sophisticated things we’ve ever drunk from a roadside stall? Or is that just a nostalgist’s bantasy?

Akhil Sood is an arts and culture writer in New Delhi.

Photo Credit: Instagram.com/incredible_kanyakumari

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