Summers in Delhi can be brutal on even the mildest of days. How we hated the sweltering heat where you felt your skin burn in the harshness of the season during our annual visit to Delhi. We could never get enough of the unmentionable quantity of Mango Milkshakes at masi’s (Mother’s sister) house or the chilled fizzy drinks like Thumbs up, Limca or Goldspot which were such a rage in those days at my mama’s (Mother’s brother) house. Air Conditioning was still a distant dream for many so every home in Delhi had a cooler and we would sit in front of the cold air it blasted because that was the only way to keep our bodies cool.
However, things were different at my Nani’s (Maternal Grandmother) house. She lived in a small house all by herself in Chandani Chowk and did not have a cooler or a fridge. But she had a Matka (Earthen pot) that she used to keep water fresh and a bottle of Roohafza (a rose based syrup), that she would make for us to relieve us of the heatwave. Roohafza literally means Soul Soothing and is a unique concoction of Rose petals, Herbs, and Vegetables with many healing properties.
She was blind but independent and did everything on her own. She knew the drink from its very distinctive smell and ensured we had a lot of it as long as we stayed with her. We would watch her fumble around in her kitchen to find the bottle and with her wrinkled hands open the lid slowly, spilling some of the syrup on her dress leading to some colorful cursing in Punjabi laced with Urdu. She would add a generous portion of the Syrup in a jug of cold water from the matka or Milk to be taken along with Fruits and Parathas (Flatbreads) to Parda Bagh (the garden of veils), for a picnic. Lying under the shade of an old tree, sipping the cooling drink, eating fruits we were oblivious to everything except her stories of the Mughals, the Ghosts and the Djinns that resided in Red Fort. Her sharp voice, her milky eyes hidden behind the huge glasses perched on her tiny nose with her old worn out clothes smelling of Roohafza, stained with the color of the drink was what made summers in Delhi bearable. I think it was there, lying in the garden in the oldest part of Delhi, drinking a syrup which was probably once patronized by the Mughals, I fell in love with their history.
Nani is now gone, and we have no links left with Chandani Chowk. Apparently, Parda Baug is also no longer the sanctuary for women like it used to be. Like many things in Delhi it has been taken over by the greed of human nature. But Roohafza is still here and when I found a bottle of it, at the local store in Sydney I knew I had to make it just so my tiny house could smell of Roses or Nani maybe.