Rooh Afza: Summer in a glass

The cherished drink that survived Partitions and has been passed down generations, is associated with memories and festivities, and is a great conversation starter
A Rooh Azfa shop in Delhi
A Rooh Azfa shop in Delhi

As summer peaks, many of us are filled with nostalgia for summer vacations, visits to grandparents, and lazy afternoon naps. While these experiences may have changed with adulthood, one thing remains constant: the summer drink passed down from one generation to the next – Rooh Afza.

“My earliest memory is from when as a child, I used to throw tantrums to avoid drinking milk, so my mother would mix Rooh Afza in it. The pink milk looked amazing, so I drank it. From then on, milk and Rooh Afza became a staple in my diet, and they still are today,” says 35-year-old Deepanshu Aggarwal, a teacher.

Currently in Uttarakhand, Aggarwal recalls his days in Delhi from 2009 to 2016, when he was there for his MBA and various jobs in the sales and marketing departments of different companies. “Rooh Afza was introduced to my mother by my nani. In Delhi, I made it a point to drink it during the summers because of its refreshing taste,” he says.

He also mentions the comfort the drink gave him, as it reminded him of home. The common practice of Rooh Afza being distributed during bhandaras in Delhi, similar to his hometown, added another familiar memory to it. “It was passed down to me, and I have passed it down to my children,” he says.

Transcends borders

“It is the only generational drink that survived Partition twice,” says Saumya Gupta, a professor at Jesus and Mary College with an interest in culinary studies.

In the summer of 1907, a Unani practitioner, Hakeem Hafeez Abdul Majeed created a concoction at his dispensary Hamdard Dawakhana in Hauz Qazi with at least 21 ingredients with cooling properties, besides traditional herbs, flowers, grains, fruits, and two of its most prominent ingredients—kewda water and rose syrup.

Gupta, who has studied medieval cookbooks and manuscripts, notes that cooling aids and methods of extracting syrups have always existed, especially during the Mughal era. “However, the idea of a ready-made sherbet was new. The ingredients may have their roots in tradition, but the concept of a packaged sherbet that can be prepared within a few minutes by mixing with water or milk was novel.”

The popularity of the sherbet quickly grew, and it was named Rooh Afza, meaning ‘refreshing the soul’ in Urdu. In 1910, Mirza Noor Ahmad, a local artist, painted the first label for the sherbet.

“In 1922, after Majeed passed away, his will placed the company under Waqf, and the production was overseen by his wife Rabea Begum and her elder son Hakim Abdul Hameed. The Partition changed Rooh Afza’s destiny. While Hameed stayed in India to continue his father’s legacy, the younger son, Hakim Mohammad Said, migrated to Pakistan to restart his father’s legacy from scratch,” Gupta says. Said began his journey in a two-room set in Karachi and soon captured the market. He expanded the company to the then East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), opening sales centres in Dhaka and Chittagong.

Another major shake-up occurred in 1971 with Bangladesh’s independence, further dividing the company into three parts. “The drink won over people and reached as many as 47 countries. It was seen as a traditional drink, counter to western beverages, and was thus known as ‘Mashroob-e-Mashriq’ (the summer drink of the East),” says Gupta.

Rooh Afza amd Ramzan

The traditional heritage of Rooh Afza also became closely associated with the holy month of Ramzan. “There is no Ramzan without Rooh Afza,” says 35-year-old chef Sadaf Hussain. “It is an unsaid rule that after a day-long fast without water during the summer, we have to break the fast with a glass of Rooh Afza. This tradition is so widely practised, that as a kid, I thought it was a prescribed rule,” he says.

Hussain’s fondest memory of the drink is one of the tricks his mother taught him to know if the sherbet is sweet enough without tasting it during the fast. “She told me to use my other senses, sight and smell. If the colour is too pink, it means it is too sweet and you need to add water or milk. This is one trick that I still use when I am in the kitchen, preparing something during my fast,” he shares.

Agreeing with Hussain, Nabeel Ahmed, a 28-year-old research scholar, says that at every Iftar party, “Rooh Afza is a must”. Ahmed, like many others, was also introduced to this drink by his mother. He drinks Rooh Afza like an “energy drink” before he goes out and after a long day of work. Continuing the tradition, he now keeps two bottles of Rooh Afza—one at home and one in his office refrigerator.

Conversation starter

Rooh Afza is not only a bridge between different generations but also an icebreaker for some. Anupama Goyal, a 66-year-old homemaker from Noida, says she and her daughter-in-law bond over it. “Drinking Rooh Afza is a common practice at my home; my nana ji introduced me to the drink,” she says.

Last June, Goyal welcomed her daughter-in-law to her house, and the awkwardness of settling into the new marital home vanished when they bonded over the summer drink. “My daughter-in-law is also used to drinking Rooh Afza in the morning, so when she first came to this house and told me about it, I made it a point to spend time together where we both would drink Rooh Afza in the morning and share our memories with the drink,” she says.

Goyal also mentions that her daughter, who currently lives in the US, has a habit of drinking Rooh Afza and keeps a bottle at her home, making her kids drink it, too. “In the US, they get the Pakistani Rooh Afza in a glass bottle. She has that in her home. When I visit her, we drink it together,” she says.

Over the 117 years, many things have changed, including the packaging of Rooh Afza. The drink, once sold exclusively in glass bottles, is now also available in plastic bottles, 200-ml tetra packs, and sachets in India. A sugar-free version of Rooh Afza has also hit the market; in Pakistan, a carbonated version has been introduced. “But what remains the same are the memories people have with this drink. It is a family drink that people enjoy with milk or water,” says Aggarwal.

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