Knight of the Rue Afzah
Can the classic ruby red quencher be saved from assault?
I spent a chunk of my childhood wondering what flavour it was. Was it rose? Or was it watermelon? Or was that a top note of pudina (mint) that I tasted so distinctly?
Not that my awe ever came in the way of my thirst for it. I used to drink it to my heart's content on hot summer afternoons after I got back from school; through carefree evenings devoted to cartoons and comics; and during winter vacations, when my brother kept vigil over his stock of Chocobars. And, of course, I drank it with gusto during Ramzan.
You see, my holy trinity is - my childhood, Ramzan and Rooh Afza.
Rooh Afza is versatile, flirtatious even. Combines with milk to make a stirring milkshake, turns topping for a glassful of lassi, completes the falooda in more ways than one...
But earlier this month, while attending an iftar party at a friend's place, I was surprised when the tray of soft drinks was placed before me. One half of the tray was filled with tall thick glasses of the customary Rooh Afza, ruby red, and the other half had yielded place to a rival saffron drink called Tang.
I watched in dismay as my company reached for the saffron helping. I would have anyway stuck to dear ruby red, but now I felt my old sense of loyalty raise a vehement head.
After a while, I asked the hostess why she had felt the need to introduce an option. " Ab woh baat nahi rahi, beta... The quality is not as it used be in the olden days, child," Aunty said to me of Rooh Afza.
I felt miffed, a bit let down, but I agreed too, within - indeed, the taste was different. Nevertheless, in silent solidarity I drank two more glasses - or was it three?
A fortnight later, at the university hostel one evening, I found a bottleful in a friend's room. "May I?" I asked. He nodded not so generously but I pretended to misinterpret. I eagerly poured myself a small steel glass full of water and some Rooh Afza into it. But a gulp left me aghast - what was this? This was not the Rooh Afza I knew. This was some vapid liquid, that was neither rose not watermelon, nor mint nor pomegranate.
This was cheating.
After some probing, I learnt there was not enough supply of the real thing in that area. And to pacify the faithful such as myself, there was an entire "other" supply of impostors.
It bothered me, but in university, there is no dearth of issues to fret over. Besides there were those semester-end tests. Hovering over all else, like this beacon bright, was the prospect of the two month-long vacation.
Term-end moves at its own pace and before I knew it I was home. And there I was the next day, opening the fridge door, by reflex reaching for the bottom right rack for my staple drink, when I froze.
What was this? My Rooh Afza was there, but next to it was this cheeky alien drink fitted out in a smart blue sipper.
The introductions and explanations followed in good time. That would be the iced tea. An import from the elder sibling's six-month internship in the United States. The internship had ended but, apparently, not the chai ki charcha.
It was beginning to dawn on me now, the global siege upon Rooh Afza. How would I defend its place, me the lone knight and protector of the ruby red?
Before I knew, my own summer internship was upon me.
The lane to the office building in north Calcutta has a fruit-seller sitting at its mouth, a fat man on a low stool, half hidden by mausambis and mangoes, apples and guavas, grapes and babugoshas; further down there is a boy selling jamuns, next a shop selling sanitary ware, and then a paan and smoke shop.
The first two days I bought myself some candy and walked away. The third day my eyes were drawn to the refrigerator choc-a-bloc with soft drinks.
Perhaps it was the heat, perhaps I was just thirsty, perhaps it was destiny. For there, wedged between the mango drinks and litchi ones, the sweet lassi and the packed cold coffees, staring at me from a smart scarlet and yellow tetra pack was Rooh Afza in an all-new andaaz. It had lemon and mango variants. I helped myself to all of them.
Did it taste the same? Of course not. Nowhere close or classic. But at least it was around.