The spirit that uplifts the soul

Rooh Afza has withstood challenges posed by global brands like Coca Cola and Pepsi and the founders have ploughed back much of the profits earned to support public institutions

The spirit that uplifts the soul

Nilosree Biswas

It enhances the spirit and uplifts the soul. That is the literal meaning of the Persian words “Rooh Afza”. It is of course the century old brand name, 115 years-old to be precise, of the summer sherbet or the concentrate used to make cool drinks. Claimed to have been made from 22 ingredients that included watermelon, mint, carrot, spinach, water lilies, herbs and sandalwood coriander seed, it has survived the onslaught of aerated drinks like Coca Cola, Pepsi and even fruity juices over a century. Over the years it has come to be associated with the holy month of Ramazan in the subcontinent.

Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed is credited to have concocted the syrup sometime in 1907. A year earlier he had set up Hamdard Dawakhana in the Lal Kuan area of old Delhi and the syrup was meant to beat the scorching heat of Delhi and as a medicinal remedy to stomach ailments.

The Hakim sahib clearly was partial to poetry as both the names, Rooh Afza and Hamdard (literally a companion in pain) would suggest. The name of the syrup is also attributed to Pandit Daya Shankar Naseem’s Masnavi Gulzar -E- Naseem, in which Rooh Afza was the name of the daughter of King Firdaus.

The other ingredients are said to be khurfaseeds, wine grape raisins, chicory, European white lily, lotus and coriander besides citron, orange, apple, pineapple, berries, blackcurrant while the essential floral essence is added by Damask rose, kewra or screw pine and flowers of orange, lemon all bound strong with roots of vetiver.

The spirit that uplifts the soul

The trademark 750ml glass bottle wrapped in printed butter paper, continues to be labelled the same way as in its earliest years. Initially packaged in used bottles of wine, RoohAfza’s label was created by artist Mirza Noor Ahmed and the artwork of flowers, herbs, and fruits was printed by Bolton Press in Bombay.

The Partition saw Hakim Majeed’s family fall apart. While his youngest son left for Pakistan. the eldest and the founder’s wife Rabia Begum, stayed back in India. But though the family was divided, the brand and the formula have survived. It tastes the same in Pakistan and Bangladesh where the drink remains equally popular and almost synonymous with breaking fasts (Iftar) in the month of Ramazan.

Rooh Afza has been used since then to make cakes, ice cream and in gourmet recipes. The Hamdard Foundation commissioned writer and recipe developer Nita Mehta to come up with a set of specialty recipes with Rooh Afza.

In 1962 Hamdard came up with the Institute of Medicine and Medical Research followed by a host of other public institutions like Hamdard College of Pharmacy, Hamdard Institute of Historical Research, Rufaida Nursing School and more. By 1982, all institutions founded by the organisations functioned under the umbrella of Hamdard National Foundation. Much of its profits are ploughed back into charity, public service and in fulfilling corporate social responsibilities, living up to the name as a people’s companion in pain.

The shortage of the drink around 2019 was widely attributed to rifts in the family, a speculation disputed by the Foundation. Disruptions in the supply of ingredients, especially herbs, and the supply chain during the pandemic was cited as the cause.

But Rooh Afza is back on the shelves this Ramzan. It is also available online now and is just a click away. Indian stores and Indian quarters abroad display the drink prominently and proudly, the indigenous drink the popularity of which multinational giants have been unable to shake.

(The writer is a filmmaker and author, most recently of 'Banaras Of Gods, Humans And Stories')

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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