Rooh Afza, a drink of rosy nostalgia

by Saman Jawaid

I never really liked using memories as the only source for my essays. The thing with memories is that they are in constant flux. To me, memories are not stationary; they keep getting created, modified, and destroyed with time. 

For instance, I always thought that the red blanket I used to wrap myself in as a child was mine. I treated it as one of my prized possessions. It stayed like that in my mind for several years. But, after some time I got to know that it belonged to my cousin, then it was passed on to my sister. Turns out, I was the third and the last person to use the red blanket. It wasn’t specifically made for me, after all.

Now, when I see the red blanket again, I think of six-year-old Saman wishing someone made a blanket for her. The memory is morphed in my head now. I can no longer  imagine myself as the sole owner of the blanket. I often find  myself wishing that it wouldn’t have been a hand me down. As the second child, my shelf is full of hand-me-downs – elder sister’s textbooks, cousin’s clothes, brother’s toys; for once, I wanted to have something that only belonged to me. 

For me, writing on the basis of memories is like collecting old sepia-tinted photographs and trying to weave a story out of them. The story is bound to be different from what actually happened.

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As I sit to write this essay, I have various thoughts running in my mind. Should I stick to the narrative and write about my rose-tinted memories of a rosy drink? Should I play with time and make a contrast? Should I just go with the flow and write whatever comes to my mind?

When you write a piece based solely on your memories, you lose the element of reliability. I do not want to be an unreliable narrator; I’ve always wanted people to trust me and I like not breaking their trust.

You must be wondering the reason for my digression. It’s an attempt to somehow facilitate myself going against my opinions. I’m going to write an essay, constructed out of memories. And I want my readers to trust me. For that to happen, first I have to have trust in myself.

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Rooh Afza literally means soul refresher. I’ve always liked its name for not only its poetic quality but its vitality too. Red being the colour of vigour, vitality, and josh has always suited this summery fresh drink. 

In popular discourse, Rooh Afza has been associated with Islamic culture and the tradition of Ramadan in particular. I feel like my earliest memories of Rooh Afza are intricately linked to Ramadan. The king of our dastarkhwān, and the refresher of our parched throats — Rooh Afza used to be a staple of Ramadan.

Conversations used to start around Rooh Afza. I remember going to my khala’s place and befriending only that cousin who drank Rooh Afza. It was a silly thing you do in childhood — making groups out of one odd similarity but when you look into it, it does make a lot of sense. Don’t all of our present relationships revolve around shared interests? Most of the friends that I have now are there because I found a similarity with them — they loved Jane Austen as I do or they listen to Taylor Swift on loop or they like watching video essays on YouTube.

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Relationships used to be built around Rooh Afza.

Countless marriages in India are arranged over a cup of chai. ‘Going out for coffee’ still means going on a date. Beverages do play an important role in the formation of a relationship.

My earliest memories of Rishta and Shaadi are associated with the red glass of Rooh Afza. The colour red, again playing a prominent role signifying the red of henna, the red of the bride’s outfit, and the red of the wedding flowers.

As a child, I totally bought into the idea that if you look at someone through the rose-coloured glass of Rooh Afza, you fall in love with them. Now, when I revisit the memory, I think how this notion is eerily similar to looking at someone through rose-tinted glasses and eventually ignoring all of their red flags; back then I just used to think of it as a romantic thought.

My Khala introduced me to a new pastel pink drink, which was, as I came to know later, just a mix of Rooh Afza and milk. I, a passionate hater of milk, finished the drink in one go because it reminded me of some of my favourite things like cotton candies and pastel pink skies.

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Rooh Afza is not just a drink, it’s a concoction of childhood nostalgia.

Its smell is registered in my limbic system where it is stored with all of the other long-term memories – some happy, most embarrassing. 

It reminds me of summers when I drank Rooh Afza with a dash of lemon in it. It reminds me of festivals, family dinners, and cousin camaraderie. It reminds me of the formation of new relationships. It reminds me of something beautiful and innocent that is forever lost. 

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Nobody really drinks Rooh Afza nowadays. It has become an exquisite Old Delhi drink or a Ramadan sharbat. My cousins have probably forgotten its taste and none of my friends knows that such a drink exists.

Now, in 2021, as I take a sip of Rooh Afza, I try to think what does the red signify now? Red is the colour of revolution. Red, now denotes my burgeoning interest in communism and Marxist philosophy. Red reminds me of the hardcover copy of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels that I saw on Instagram but couldn’t buy as it was too expensive. Red now denotes the vigour, vitality, and josh of a different kind. It’s no more about happy summers and energising drinks; it’s about standing up to a cause you’re passionate about. It’s about demanding a space for yourself and your peers in a system that is made to oppress people like you. 

I’ve never really stopped drinking Rooh Afza. There was a phase when I tried to move on to supposedly “trendy” drinks but that didn’t last long. 

Rooh Afza remains in conversations but only as a distant memory. It has occupied a place in that ‘in our time’ discourse. It has a place in people’s minds but not a place in their kitchens. Perhaps people have grown out of it; they don’t like its taste now. Or perhaps they don’t drink Rooh Afza because they don’t want to get the taste of the past on their tongues. Their present is so remarkably distinct from their past that if they’ll try to remember the past, they will forget the present.  

Somehow my relationship with Rooh Afza is still intact. It’s funny to think that all of my childhood friends have become strangers to me but my childhood drink still occupies the topmost place in my kitchen cabinet.  

I always come back to Rooh Afza for safety, nostalgia, and for refreshing my soul.

Saman Jawaid is currently studying English at Delhi University. Like all English majors, Saman loves reading, writing, and trying their best to find homoerotic undertones in all of the academic texts. They refuse to be defined by anything else than Lorde’s lyrics. Their goal in life is to become someone’s muse. Their poems have been published in Live Wire and The Monograph magazine. Most of their works deal with the themes of grief, longing, the process of growing up, and the power of memories.

Instagram: samfrom_anotherland 

Pronouns: they/she 

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