“Rooh Afza” meaning “refreshment of the soul” in Urdu, is a syrupy concoction of herbs, fruits, vegetables, flowers and roots, which not only survived the 1947 partition, but knew how to thrive on either side of the border.
In old Delhi, overwhelmed by scorching heat, Firoza, a street vendor for Rooh Afza, stacks a block of ice that a motorcyclist has just delivered to her in a large metal container.
With her knife, the 50-year-old, whose nose is adorned with a gold jewel, opens a bottle of Rooh Afza and pours the dark pink syrup over the ice cream before adding milk and pieces of watermelon.
It is her specialty called “Sharbat e Mohabbat” or “Love drink” that she sells for 20 rupees (25 cents) a cup. Each seller offers their version.
“We use more than 12 bottles of Rooh Afza a day and 20 cartons of milk, sometimes 30 or even 40 when business is good,” she told AFP in a hoarse voice.
“I took over this business about ten years ago when my husband died,” she says, “he had started selling Rooh Afza here, 40 or 50 years ago. my only source of income.
In Pakistan, the drink is particularly popular during the month of Ramadan, when it is used as an alcohol-free aperitif with the Iftar feast at sunset, when Muslim worshipers break the fast.
The syrup is used in desserts and creams but especially served in milk or water, throughout the hot season when temperatures usually reach peaks. Last month, thermometers read up to 50°C in Pakistan.
In the megacity of Karachi, the popular stall of Muhammad Akram, the Rooh Afza and the money are flowing.
“A homeless man once suggested that I mix Rooh Afza with watermelon cubes,” he told AFP, “the taste is wonderful.”
– “It soothes the mind” –
His employee Abdul Qahar works twelve hours a day and leads a team of twelve waiters who distribute mugs of Rooh Afza, garnished with a straw and overflowing with pieces of ruby-colored watermelon, enhanced with a date.
“It soothes the mind,” said Neelam Fareed, a 25-year-old housewife who traveled five kilometers on a moped with her husband to sample the drink.
The Rooh Afza appeared for the first time in 1907, in Old Delhi, the old overpopulated heart of the Indian capital. Created by Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed, a doctor in Yunâni, traditional Indian medicine, the drink with medicinal properties is supposed to prevent heatstroke and dehydration.
In 1947, during the partition of British India, one of his sons remained in India while another took the road to the newly born Pakistan.
They established Hamdard India and Hamdard Pakistan with factories in each country including East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971 after a bloody war of independence.
Hamid Ahmed, great-grandson of the founder, owner of the Indian company, affirms that the original and confidential recipe has never changed in 115 years of existence.
“It’s a big secret, ignored by the staff of the factory itself (…) I think only three people know it,” the 45-year-old told AFP, laughing.
Served iced, the syrup is all the more appreciated during the “loo” period, qualifying in Hindi a hot wind with sandy dust which blows in the north of the subcontinent.
South Asia is increasingly prone to severe heat waves, which scientists attribute to climate change, so the syrup from Hamdard companies still has a bright future ahead of it.
“The Rooh Afza is not ready to disappear”, rejoices Mr. Ahmed, “sales are on the rise”.