Are We Seeing RoohAfza Through Rose-Tinted Glasses?


Are We Seeing RoohAfza Through Rose-Tinted Glasses?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There are two types of desis – those who are dying to have RoohAfza and those who’d rather die than have RoohAfza. On a good day, it tastes like a vampire’s tonic that drowned itself in a vat of sugar. On a bad day, it tastes and smells like pulverised incense stick. Obviously you pick up the bottle to check if the ingredients were afflicted with blood sugar and end up rolling your eyes faster than windshield wipers on a rainy day.

It requires a special kind of wizardry with generous lashings of deviousness to reduce  spinach, carrot, mint, orange, watermelon, berries to gooey, sticky nothingness. It is as if the poor creatures were invited to the Red Wedding and returned home as red pulp that their relatives couldn’t even cremate! So the grieving souls had no choice but to drink it. To make it edible, MasterChef khala sprinkled it with kevra and rose before adding a sackful of sugar. Since grief is meant to be shared universally, this ambrosial drink was marketed as “Ham-Dard” ka tonic.

Like grief, the “magic” of RoohAfza unfolds in different stages. At first you are in complete denial and insist it’s packed with goodness that works overtime to cure you of diarrhoea, gonorrhoea, heatstroke, and masterstroke with just one glug. Then you are filled with anger when your heartless friends insist on being party poopers and claim it’s nothing but flavoured syrup. Then begins the bargaining. You add lemon, pepper, mix it with milk or soda, and try to hide its true identity… You get caught. Now you are depressed because your one and only true love has no takers. But trust time to heal your wounds like Band-Aid. Soon you find other fools who think RoohAfza is the best thing to have happened to the Indian gullet and together you slay those who think of RoohAfza as “ewwsome”.

As a young girl I’d rate uncles and aunties on the basis of the beverages they served. Those who served cold coffee or nimbu paani were promptly placed on a pedestal so that I could kiss their feet. The “super cool” tag belonged to the aunty who served an entire bottle of Coke or Fanta. But the crown for the Kanjoos of the Year belonged to the ones who served RoohAfza.

Since grief is meant to be shared universally, this ambrosial drink was marketed as “Ham-Dard” ka tonic.

During the pre-liberalisation era, the desi homemaker took special pride in being a maha cheapskate. To make the bottle of RoohAfza last the entire summer, she’d add just a hint of it to water with a heap of sugar that she’d conveniently forget to stir. So you’d sip the Barbara Cartland of drinks which was also tasteless, smelled of attar, with a resigned look until you reached the bottom of the glass and realise the worst was still waiting for you in a smug heap.

This is exactly what you’d serve to unwanted guests to make sure they never set foot inside your house again. Can we please take a moment to silently applaud the mother of subtle hints?

Is it why RoohAfza, India’s reply to Marmite – an over-salted cowpat that claims to be a veggie-spread rich in vitamins – is a desi favourite? An effective repeller to keep unwanted people out of your lives. People pretend to love it to the moon and back so that they can serve it to their favourite prick with a smile. It is the perfect substitute to the block button that doesn’t exist in real life. When your daughter asks you, why not cough syrup, you look at her and ask, “But does it smell like cheap soap?”

RoohAfza then is a magic potion that keeps people away. Our royals of yore wouldn’t have gone to war if their palace staff had managed to procure RoohAfza in time. Just one sip of Hamdard ka tonic would have been enough to douse the flames in the invaders’ loins. Maybe it was the threat of RoohAfza and not Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement that made the Brits exit India? And I suggest Modi ji should line up rows and rows of RoohAfza outside his residence on Lok Kalyan Marg to ensure it’s RaGa-free.

Taste is a personal matter and who the fuck am I to make RoohAfza the new beef?

In its initial stages, back to 1906, RoohAfza, they say, was a medicinal concentrate that was formulated by Hakeem Majeed to help Delhiites combat the hot “loo” winds. According to old-timers, the original version tasted slightly bitter. If you have experienced Delhi’s loo in peak summers you’ll know it is an out-of-body experience. Your soul leaves your body and looks at you dispassionately, drying and dying bit by bit from a safe distance. Well, it seems RoohAfza’s soul departed too to never return again. Just like our famous Dilli chaat; now it is so horrendously sweet, it can pass off as a dessert.

Yet India refuses to desert its dear RoohAfza. And it makes me wonder why, especially when we have such fabulous desi concoctions like bel sharbat, jal jeera, nimbu paani, nariyal paani, kokum sharbat, and buttermilk to choose from. Taste is a personal matter and who the fuck am I to make RoohAfza the new beef? But hey, I’m sure there are more pleasurable ways to get diabetes.

As for the shortage of RoohAfza causing a crisis during Ramadan because it’s an iftar staple, hell, it is also threatening to cause a diplomatic thaw! Hamdard’s Pakistani counterpart has offered to send trucksful of the medicinal drink only if the government says yes. But won’t drinking a sharbat from across the border make us anti-national?

But I have a solution. How about switching over to Orange squash? It’s horrendously orange, sickly sweet, makes no false claims and will do a fab job of energising you after a long day of fasting. Its saffron hue will also bring out the patriot in you.