Many years ago while climbing down the stairs of the Eastern Gate of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid opposite the towering Lal Qila, I notice an array of glasses, filled with red and green drinks, lined up neatly on the sidelines of the Chor Bazaar street market. The counters were similar to the shabeel served during the Muharram festival, but these were meant to quench the thirst of tourists and shoppers reeling under the scorching heat. While the green sherbet was of Khas Khas flavor, the bright red was Roof Afza, the queen of sherbats in the Indian subcontinent.
The sherbet was made using large chunks of ice and its freezing essence would reach the soul of the drinker. My curiosity to try it came from the childhood fondness for the drink, the 114-year-old tale of which spreads to three countries, survives catastrophic partition and rises from the ashes with the undefeated craze for taste.
Right choice for iftar
With its cooling properties and rose flavour, Rooh Afza has always been an integral part of iftar as a must-have drink after long hours of fasting. As a child I was very fond of Rooh Afza and a glass or two would never satisfy me. So one lazy afternoon during Ramazan, while all the other family members of the house were napping, an elderly uncle of mine from Delhi narrated the beautiful story of Rooh Afza, which I remember till date.
Back in the early 20th century, for the common Delhiites heat stroke, dehydration and diarrhea were the major issues in summer. Hakim (herbal doctors) shops or Dawa khana were always filled with people suffering from all these. So in the early 20th century Hakim Abdul Majeed in a bid to combat this issue started working on a drug that would help the common people of the city during the hot summer days.
Thus in 1906, Dawakhana (Medicine House) brought out the magical syrup named Rooh Afza, which is a Persian name meaning “one that enhances the spirit and uplifts the soul”. It was an instant hit in Delhi. Not because of its medicinal properties but initially because of its taste. The sales started increasing rapidly.
Sherbet in wine bottles
When Rooh Afza was introduced in 1906 they had no idea that the drug would be such a hit and thus they were not prepared for such huge demands. There was no arrangement for any special bottles or any kinds of marketing. So the used bottles of wines of any size, colour and shape which could be available were used to fill the syrup for sale.
For this magical sherbet, transparent bottles of uniform size (750ml) and almost of the same shape were collected. These were then referred to as ‘pole’ bottles. The price started increasing as the demand was such that it had to be concocted in the off-season as well.
It was the drink for the common people of Delhi, a treat for the eyes and soul. Hakim Abdul Majeed spared no effort and no consideration was given to the huge expenses involved by the founder of Hamdard in the preparation of a syrup, possessing such a host of qualities. He focused his attention on giving to the public something, that was of a very high standard.
The journey from Pakistan to Bangladesh is said that the first consumers were so mesmerized by the taste of this ambrosial drink that over a hundred bottles were sold in just a few hours. To meet the rising demands, Hakeem Abdul Majeed started to mass produce Rooh Afza at a factory in Ghaziabad, just outside Delhi. Soon this drink became one of the most iconic delicacies of Delhi along with Nihari.
By 1940’s, Rooh Afza was found in every kitchen in Delhi and also abundantly in the United Provinces. Then came the year of 1947 that destroyed cultures, cities, language and most importantly families. In September 1947, deadly riots broke out in the city. Delhi’s Muslim population started to flee their homes, taking shelter in the refugee camps. Many families were torn apart, as one part opted for Pakistan and the other chose to stay behind.
Hamdard, the manufacturer of the iconic Rooh Afza, was no exception. During Partition, the founder’s elder son stayed in India, but his younger son migrated to Pakistan. He took Rooh Afza along with him and set up new Hamdard in Karachi.
Hamdard Pakistan was started from scratch in a two-room rented space. The magic of Rooh Afza worked once again, and in no time Hamdard Pakistan became very successful. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 resulted in a final partition when Hamdard Pakistan gave birth to Hamdard Bangladesh.
This is the story of a product which started from a small shop in the lanes of Old Delhi and is now famous worldwide. It is more than a drink now. It is now part of our culture. For some, it is the nostalgia for their childhood, for some their absolute essential to break the fast in the holy month of Ramazan.
But what is common is that we all love Rooh Afza. It’s been 114 years and charm of Rooh Afza, which is still the same. That is the power of honest businesses. Even after they go global, essentially they are a part of our close-knit diverse family.