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12 May, 2019 11:25:11 AM

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The magic potion

The syrup was intended to cure illnesses like heat stroke, dehydration and diarrhoea, making it a popular drink during the scorching subcontinental summers
Kumkum Chadha
The magic potion

Rooh Afza, the popular drink, known as sherbet in this part of the world, has come to the rescue of many mothers. Whenever errant kids created a fuss about drinking milk, irritated mothers added a dash of the rose coloured sherbet or the magic potion called Rooh Afza.
There is this story about a kid whose parents had migrated to the US.

He hated plain milk and often poured it down his mother’s couch. It took his mother almost a week to figure out where the foul smell is coming from, Once she discovered that her kid was not drinking milk, she asked a relative in India to send a few bottles of Rooh Afza. That put an end to her problems and her kid’s milk woes. She routinely mixed the syrup in milk and gave her kid the sublime pink liquid which he gulped down imagining it to be strawberry milk. But that was till he went to school: "Mama, the American strawberry milk in school tastes different. Do you know why that is?" he asked her. For his mom it was too much to explain the difference between the real strawberry milk and the one she had faked.  But it was Rooh Afzathat saw her through the difficult years of her son’s Nochanging to yes for milk.
Nearly two decades ago when India was in the grip of the Lord Ganesha is magically  drinking milkrumour and every devotee made a beeline for the temples, a ten year old also decided to queue up to please the Hindu God. Like many others he too carried a glass full of milk but did his bit by mixing it with Rooh Afza.  The Gods, he perhaps said to himself, cannot have plain milk.

To define Rooh Afza, as a rose-pink syrup made with fruit and vegetable extracts is oversimplifying the nearly 100-year old recipe. Technically it is a sherbet: a sweet concentrate of the the essences of coriander, orange, pineapple, carrot, rose petals, kewra,spinach and mint. Its original formulation included herbs, wine grape raisins, sandalwood and water lillies  among other things.

Rooh Afza is often mixed with cold water or milk and sometimes even poured over ice cream. In the older parts of Delhi, and in other towns across northern India, sherbet sellers still stand with containers of ice and water, armed with bottles of Rooh Afza.

Taste apart, it reportedly has therapeutic and nutritional qualities that work very well in summer. The syrup was intended to cure illnesses like heat stroke, dehydration and diarrhoea, making it a popular drink during the scorching subcontinental summers.

This perhaps is one of the reasons why Rooh Afzais the go-to drink to break the fast for Muslims during the holy month of Ramzan: a glass of the refreshing red drink is still the first choice for majority of Muslims  at ‘Iftar’spreads. Be it the iced version or the milk one, it remains a favourite at Ramzan ‘Dastarkhaans’.  A dash of Rooh Afza on 'falooda' or 'feerni' is what people usually go-for.

And that is why this time around Rooh Afza is in the news: it is trending on social media because it has disappeared from the Indian markets. To put it simply, India is facing a Rooh Afza crisis.

Sold by Hamdard India, it has been in short supply in India for several months now. One version is that a   family dispute among the stakeholders of Hamdard India, did it in. There is speculation that a rift has broken out between Abdul Majeed, great-grandson of Hamdard founder Hakeem Hafiz Abdul Majeed, and Abdul Majeed’s cousin Hammad Ahmed, over control of the company. Unconfirmed reports have it that production stopped in November last year. However the company’s official version is that shortage of key ingredients have led to its non-availability. The original Hamdard Laboratories was founded by Hakeem Hafiz Abdul Majeed in old Delhi in 1906.

Its history has, in a way, followed the history of the subcontinent. When India and Pakistan separated in 1947, the company split as well, and an independent Hamdard was founded in Karachi, Pakistan. Hamdard Pakistan today exports Rooh Afza to, among other countries, the UAE. Similarly, when East Pakistan broke away in 1971, the branch of Hamdard that had been set up in Dhaka in 1953 turned into Hamdard Laboratories, Bangladesh.

With the onset of Ramzan and demand sky-rocketing, the shortage stared many in the face. It took little time for the company’s Pakistan arm to jump in and offer to supply Rooh Afza to India  via Wagah border in Amritsar in view of the shortage for the ongoing Ramzan period.

This set alarm bells and the makers in India,Hamdard Laboratories, issued a  statement, saying that they would “fix” the demand supply gap “soon”.

By Thursday, there were official reports about the popular drink being  “available in the market after a temporary shortage”.  

According to the company, supply shortage along with unprecedented demand due to Ramzan month and peak summer season exerted pressure on Rooh Afza's availability.

"Rooh Afza is now available in the market and can be bought from major retail stores and grocery outlets across the country," Hamdard Laboratories said: "The organisation urges discerning consumers and the trade not to be misled by incorrect information being circulated online and in print about non-availability of Rooh Afza" it further stated adding that it was being produced at “peak capacity” at factories: ““Due to Ramzan and peak summer season coinciding, there has been an unprecedented demand in the market,” the company officials stated.

Whatever the reason might be, this shortage has put Rooh Afza aficionados in a state of dismay this summer. Many of them from across the country took to social media to express their disappointment over not getting their favourite summer drink

"Major crisis for Indian Muslims as there's a shortage of rooh afza…..even tried making homemade rooh afza because my brother won't break his fast without it," wrote one on a microblogging site.

 Rooh Afza is also about childhood memories: the thrill, to quote one of its die-hard fans, of "sneaking up to the fridge, when the [rest of the house] was enjoying a siesta, and taking a lick right out of the bottle." There are other stories of kids throwing  tantrums and rolling on the floor if any other drink was purchased at the store; or eagerly waiting for guests so that they could sneak out a glass for themselves out of the preparation.

Then there are adult memories:  of pouring a generous helping over the Kulfi and vermicelli noodles to make the Indian version of the popular Iranian dessert Falooda. Add to that a little bit of history about no arrangements  for special bottles for syrups, Rooh Afza being the first sherbet to be available in what were called ‘pole ’ bottles.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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