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A glass of history

Rooh Afzas journey from a medicine to a staple part of


subcontinental iftars

Dubai: It is a pretty popular drink at iftars. Some sip it with a dash of lime and water, while
many add cold milk to get a rose-flavoured drink.

But, most are unaware that the well-known Rooh Afza has borne witness to more than 100
years of subcontinent history including Partition, the event that resulted in the formation of
Pakistan from previously undivided India.

Originally created by a Unani hakim or doctor as a herbal concoction to beat the heat, it
has gone on to become a staple across India and Pakistan.

In 1908, in the bylanes of Old Delhi, Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed decided to create a herbal
mix that would help Delhis masses stay cool in summer. Selecting herbs and syrups from
traditional Unanimedicine, he created a drink that would help counter heat strokes, bring
down palpitations and prevent water loss. He named it Rooh Afza, which in Urdu literally
meant something that refreshes the soul.

Mirza Noor Ahmad, an artist, prepared the labels of Rooh Afza in several colours in 1910.
Such colourful prints could not be processed in Delhi then. It was, therefore, printed under
special arrangement by the Bolton Press of the Parsees of Bombay (Mumbai).

A few decades later, Abdul Majeed decided to turn this medicament into a drink. The
reception to the first batch ever made of Rooh Afza was an indicator of its future.

When they actually made Rooh Afza for the first time, the flavour and the smell were so
enticing that a crowd began to gather around asking, Ho kya raha hai? [What is
happening?]. The whole batch got sold off within an hour, Abdul Majeed, the great
grandson of Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed, told Gulf News.

Today, he is the CEO of Hamdard India, continuing the familys work in offering affordable
medical care to the masses.

Growing up in the family of traditional doctors, Abdul Majeed has heard several such
stories, including one of some ingenious promotional strategies for the drink.
They figured out that Rooh Afza could be mass marketed and could be promoted as a
thirst quencher and refresher ... at one point in time, they used pamphlets that were literally
thrown in the air so that they could reach the maximum number of people, he said.

The partition of India was the turning point, which went on to divide not just the family but
Rooh Afza as well.

In 1947, most of the family travelled to Pakistan. Only my grandfather, Hakeem Abdul
Hameed, and his two sons stayed. Even as his younger brother, Hakim Mohammad Said,
went to Pakistan, my grandfather said, I will not be able to leave India because it is my
motherland, Abdul Majeed said.

With one brother in India and the other in Pakistan, they both continued to carry on the
legacy left behind by their father on their own.

While the business was already established in India, Mohammad Said faced a lot of
hardships launching Rooh Afza in Pakistan.

Sadia Rashid, chairperson of Hamdard Laboratories (Waqf) Pakistan and president of


Hamdard Foundation Pakistan, told Gulf News: My father [Mohammad Said] migrated to
Pakistan, on January 9, 1948. The challenges of a fledgling country and a lack of means
posed difficulties ... he laid the foundation of Hamdard Pakistan in two rented rooms in
Karachis old area of Arambagh, with Rs12 (Dh0.42) worth of rented furniture.

In 1953, Hamdard Laboratories Pakistan finally became lucrative, and it was converted into
a waqf or a Muslim endowment entity.

According to her, the brand name was taken from the poetic book Masnavi Gulzar e
Nasim by Pandit Dia Shankar Nasim. Rooh Afza was a character in the book.

Partition posed no threat to the brand. However, everything had to be started from scratch
in Pakistan, so it took great effort to establish the brand. Initially, the sold quantity of Rooh
Afza was in a few hundreds, which increased ... to millions at present, she added.

Mansoor Ali, chief sales and marketing officer at Hamdard Laboratories (India), reiterated
the drinks popularity. He said: If you look at its [Rooh Afza] growth, it is 20 per cent year-
on-year, which is pretty phenomenal when you consider that the fast moving consumer
goods (FMCG) industry itself is growing in single digits.

Huda Tabrez is a freelance journalist with Gulf News

The staying power of Rooh Afza

The average consumer in the subcontinent is spoilt for choice from commercial soft drinks
to traditional thirst quenchers, not including the many companies that try to produce Rooh
Afza-like syrups. What then explains its staying power?
The secret could probably be the companys decision to stay with the original flavour and
recipe over the century.

People remember it from their childhood, prepared by their mothers with love. Despite
many options available to youth nowadays, Rooh Afza is popular among them. It is mixed
in milk, fresh lime or yoghurt, plus it has other uses, such as being the vital ingredient in
home-made ice cream, sorbet, slush, smoothies and sundaes that definitely excite youth,
Sadia Rashid said.

Speaking of the youth, Abdul Majeed, who joined the family enterprise in 1995, spoke
about his initial experience working with the product.

When I started working and looked at Rooh Afza, I would come up with suggestions on
what we could add to make it better. For six months, I went on harping about all these
changes. My grandfather then called me and explained that a lot of time had been invested
in the product and after many years, it had now stabilised. We now had a product that best
suited peoples needs ... if it is working, why do you need to fix it?

Apart from the India and Pakistan, Hamdard also has a presence in Bangladesh.

Rashid said: My father [Mohammad Said] had opened a branch of Hamdard in former
East Pakistan. After the creation of Bangladesh, instead of winding up that office and plant,
he gifted that to the people of Bangladesh to be run and managed by its workers.

Huda Tabrez, Digital Media Journalist and Rabab Khan, Community Interactivity Editor

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