Four decades after its launch, 31 million Hajmola pills are still sold across the country every day. Follow the chatpata swad of our beloved goli from its early Kshudhavardhak churna days.
When I enquired with friends and lovers around me, I found that none of us had eaten Hajmola in a while.
“It’s like a Xerox machine” said my 60-year-old father, peering down his bespectacled nose, pausing his morning newspaper routine to look at me – “You know it’s there, it’s dusty and old, but no one’s using it.”
But why? Hajmola had been a goli that was universally loved. Think about it: each one of us can rustle up the memory in a second.
First, that familiar slap of salt – sharp and tart, as you roll the grainy little pill on your tongue. Then the noncommittal back and forth of a lick of chaat masala, prancing playfully from peppery to salty to lemony to just a little dab of sweet…
And then, just as you thought you could let your guard down for something gentler, all the same flavours come rushing back, as you bite into it. A soaring, robust encore, here to stay on the back of your tongue, for a while.
Still, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that Hajmola had become a ‘ghost food’ of sorts: always somewhere, lurking in the background, but no longer that thing you pined for before you made your way to a shop counter.
Dabur, the brand that makes Hajmola, says it sells over 31 million of these bad boys across the country in one single day. By all accounts that feels like a big number. Something didn’t feel like it was adding up, and so I went on a quest to trace Hajmola’s journey, even as it had disappeared from my life.
First step: to understand more about this goli – I picked up a bottle.
Right there, underneath ‘Ingredients’, was it’s first secret: one long, very unpronounceable word, “Kshudhavardhak churna”. At first I was confused, but then I remembered: when we were kids, Hajmola was one of the very few ‘good for you’ treats that were out there. Its benefits were very real, a hard-to-find balance of healthy and tasty.
To find some guidance about this healthy, herbal side of Hajmola, I called upon Dr. Madhulika Banerjee, who is a professor of political science in Delhi University, who has spent decades of her career tracing the evolution of Ayurveda right from its roots to its more capitalist form today. According to her, to understand this little goli we need to travel all the way back to pre-independence India, when several Ayurvedic medicine manufacturing companies were setting up shop.
It’s Calcutta, 1884. One physician- entrepreneur named Dr Burman is trying to market allopathic formulations to cure plague, malaria and cholera. Pronounced in Bengali, his name would have been Da (Daktar) and Bur (Burman) – put those together and you get… Dabur.
The next few decades were identity-defining ones for our nation. There was, according to Dr. Banerjee, a top down, national reckoning that took place with the role that science would play in nation building. The expansion of agriculture and industry in particular became a priority, which meant that it became important to establish what Dr. Banerjee calls the hegemony of modern science and technology. Suddenly, there could be no schools of science, only science – a single belief system, governed by a singular set of evidence based methodology.
In this environment, Ayurveda practices, which had earlier varied by region, with doses specific to both the person in need, and the doctor creating them was suddenly forced to regimantalize. From Ayurvedas, for the first time, you had the creation of a new, post colonial, singular entity: Ayurveda.
The only way for young Ayurveda companies to survive this new climate was by transforming millions of Ayurvedic texts and practices to resemble one single body of knowledge. Dabur was right at the front of this shift, bottling up little concoctions and selling them across the nation. Kshudhavardhak churna was just one of many churans on its shelf at the time – a younger sibling to a more famous concoction: chyawanprash. In the 1990s, Dr. Banerjee travelled to Dabur’s facilities to understand more about the brand’s journey. It was here that she observed a consensus emerging, that the name Kshudhavardhak was a tongue twister – and that there was a need for rebranding. So, our little goli was rebranded as Hajmola, which drew upon the popular hindustani expression hajm for digestion. The name change was accompanied by a change in marketing: Hajmola found itself repositioned to an altogether new demographic: children.
In Hajmola’s new avatar, one ad, in particular struck gold: young children in a dormitory at night, playing with a hajmola bottle till a teacher comes along, to scold them for not sleeping. One young boy looks up at his teacher, and offers him a goli, eyes all wide with naughty innocence – Hajmola, sir?
The resounding success of such marketing meant that in just five years, Hajmolas sales went up from one crore in 1984 to nine crore in 1990. Dabur had been keenly tracking Hajmola’s growth and after watching the success of the rebranding, even briefly flirted with a new idea: what about a chyawanprash eclair?
How the tables had turned for our little goli… Here it was, suddenly impacting the future of its Goliath older brother. A few years later, the company asked the international consultancy firm McKinsey to devise new guidelines for it – that made it slicker and sleeker – so that Dabur became an odd little contradiction: a 112 year old, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company. With this came new marketing strategies, the company even tied up with tiffinwalas in Mumbai to provide free Hajmola sachets with every tiffin to their clients. It also collaborated with dhabas and the brand Nirula’s, giving away one goli with every bill. Its arms now stretched deep into peri-urban and rural India, so that over the 1990s and 2000s, the little golis distribution allowed it to become on par with Maggi, Parle-G or Cadbury’s in its accessibility.
Over the last decade, the brand has taken this aggressive expansion a step further. Today theres a whole retinue of Hajmola products: you get Hajmola golis in six flavours – regular, imli, chatcola, chatpati hing, pudina and anardana. Then theres also Hajmola candy, and, as of a few years ago, six flavours of a new digestive drink, called Hajmola Yoodley.
In this ubiquity though, it feels almost as if there is a lack of coherent identity. It was Rakeshji, from Krishna stores in Vasant Kunj, who first alerted me to this, pointing out that the sheer abundance of choices made it trickier for customers to choose just one. When he mentioned to me that Hajmola sales had stalled, he also observed that you’ve got so many varieties, as well. Earlier there were just one or two.
He was right – in today’s wildly diverse market, Hajmola feels too far from its herbal roots to remain my first pick for medicinal raahat, but also too far from the indulgence of today’s saccharine, spunky candy options to be my first pick for masti either.
Perhaps it was, as my friend Dilsher called it, a relic that has disappeared in the quagmire of our adult lives. Or maybe, as Dabur’s numbers seemed to show – maybe it was just that we had just grown up. As recently as 2018 afterall, Dabur said that 30 percent of all Hajmola golis are gobbled up by kids.
Maybe that’s the answer, then. I like that image… And it’s one I’m going to stay with – somewhere, far off from here, a 14-year-old kid; one hand doom scrolling through Instagram reels, the other reaching into our familiar, sweaty, glass bottle – that tart, chatpata smack of flavour, just within reach.