India is facing a Rooh Afza crisis.
The rose-coloured coolant, sold by Hamdard India, has been in short supply in India for at least five months, according to The Print.
The timing of the shortage, reportedly because of a family dispute among the stakeholders of Hamdard India, has exacerbated the problem. For decades, Rooh Afza has been the beverage of choice in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at the iftar evening meal with which Muslims end the Ramzan fast at sunset. As Ramzan began Tuesday, the scarcity of the syrup prompted an energetic discussion on social media.
To slake their thirst, some Indians have been buying the Pakistani version of Rooh Afza from e-commerce sites at three to four times the price on this side of the border. Usama Qureshi, the chairman of Hamdard Pakistan, declared that if the Indian government gives it permission, his company can send its products to India via the Wagah crossing at short notice.
While all this may seem baffling to outsiders, subcontinentals have long recognised that the the rose-coloured drink is iconic – so iconic that next year will see the release of a Hindi horror comedy titled Rooh Afza, starring Rajkummar Rao and Janhvi Kapoor.
The syrup’s journey to the big screen began more than a century ago in Old Delhi, when medical practitioner Hafiz Abdul Majeed, founder of the clinic and herbal medicine shop Hamdard Dawakhana, created Rooh Afza in 1907.
According to the website of Hamdard’s Bangladesh wing, before Rooh Afza, “there were syrups of individual fruits or purely herbal syrups or syrups made with the juices of sweet-smelling flowers such as rose and keora”. Majeed combined all these elements into a single drink.
Rooh Afza is a Persian word that means “one that enhances the spirit and uplifts the soul”, according to Mint.
Majeed’s syrup was intended to cure illnesses like heat stroke, dehydration and diarrhoea, making it a popular drink during the scorching subcontinental summers. Its ingredients include juices of the flowers rose and keora, and extracts from carrot, spinach, mint, dried grapes, sandalwood, waterlilies, in addition to orange and pineapple juice.
According to the company website, even though the production process has been updated over time, the recipe for Rooh Afza has remained unchanged.
At Partition, Majeed’s elder son stayed behind in India, but his younger son migrated to Pakistan and started Hamdard Laboratories (Waqf) Pakistan. The Pakistani version, which was known as the “summer drink of the East”, tastes exactly like the Indian drink. After the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the company’s operations there were transferred to a local businessman.
It isn’t just the taste of Rooh Afza that is familar: it’s also the look. The drink is sold in trademark 700 ml glass bottles with distinctive labels bearing illustrations of fruit, herbs and flowers. The labels are the handiwork of artist Mirza Noor Ahmad, according to the companies website. “Such colourful prints could not be had in Delhi at that period,” says the website. “It was therefore printed by special arrangement by the Bolton Press of the Parsees of Bombay.”
Up to two crore bottles are sold in India each year, Hamdard India’s director Abdul Majeed told Mint in 2012. Even the onslaught of carbonated drinks in the 1990s could not topple Rooh Afza from its place of pride
One reason for its enduring appeal is that Hamdard has constantly updated its productions. In Pakistan, for instance, the syrup is available as Rooh Afza Go, a carbonated drink sold in cans.
In India and Pakistan, Hamdard has mounted memorable television campaigns. In 2008, Hamdard India roped in actress Juhi Chawla as Rooh Afza’s first brand ambassador.
A more recent television advertising campaign revolved around Rooh Afza’s new tagline: “Lalach ek kala hai” (Greed is an art). A four-minute advertising film shows a series of go-getters striving to make a mark in their fields and winding up the day with a glass of Rooh Afza.
In Pakistan, Rooh Afza’s marketing has sometimes tried to appeal to the country’s nationalistic spirit. A print advertisement from 1987 declared that the drink was Rooh-e-Pakistan (the soul of Pakistan). “Pakistan se mohabbat karo – Pakistan ko tameer karo,” said the ad. Love Pakistan – Build Pakistan. This slogan was in sync with Hamdard Pakistan’s tagline: We serve nations.
In both India and Pakistan, Rooh Afza has spawned competitors. In India, there was Haldiram’s Rose Syrup, Dabur’s Sharbat-E-Azam and Mapro’s Rose Sharbat. In Pakistan, there was Shezan Samarkand and or Qarshi’s Jam-e-Shirin.
When Rooh Afza became a talking point on social media on Tuesday, some young Twitter users expressed a distaste for the drink, echoing Ranbir Kapoor in the 2013 Bollywood film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.
But older users fondly remembered it as an integral element of their summer memories.
But just like Rooh Afza has proved adaptable enought to become an ingredient in milkshakes and icecream, the drink has also found its way into contemporary pop culture, a sign of its enduring appeal – even for millennials.