As soon as people find out who my mother is, I am invariably faced with the statement “Surely, being Siddiqua Kabir's daughter you must be an excellent cook!” My standard response is: “Well, I take after my father rather than my mother.” The truth is my father would not have his daughter raised in the traditional role of a Bangalee girl expected to meet the culinary demands of her family. (Little did he realise how important a life-skill cookery is!) For that matter, he would get very impatient if Amma made herself too available in the kitchen, till he finally gave in to the fact that it was, in fact, enjoyable to her.
What makes Amma unique in my eyes is, however, neither her cooking nor her fame as the author of a recipe book that many refer to as their Bible. If I was asked to use one word to describe her, I would say 'balanced'. It is her ability to blend the modern with the traditional, the balance she has maintained between her professional and family life, her quiet down to earth attitude that makes her a wonder to me. A woman in her mid-seventies, she can actually claim to have had it all – an extended family that adores and respects her, a profession that she loves and continues to thrive in. There is nothing extreme about Amma. Whatever she does, she does it because it needs to be done. She does not do things to make a statement yet she has steadily been breaking grounds …… performing on the radio in the '50s when very few women ventured out in the public let alone perform in the media; hosting the first cooking show on television already in the '60s; travelling abroad (USA) in the early '60s for a second Master's degree; as a young woman taking responsibility for her siblings in the early '50s despite the presence of an elder brother. Her father died when she was only 17 years old, preparing for the higher secondary exams. She and her mother took up the reins to raise and educate her three younger sisters and a brother. She did not marry till the last of her siblings had graduated from university and, in fact, all but her younger brother had married.
It is Amma's express wish that I write about my father, Syed Ali Kabir, in this piece. Her request itself indicates the love that she feels for Abba. This love was mutual. Abba always said that one of the best things that had happened to him was to have Amma in his life. I have very seldom come across Banglaee couples (even today) where a husband so openly expresses his admiration and love for his wife as Abba used to do. A well-known and respected figure in his own right, he proudly and unabashedly declared himself as the husband of Siddiqua Kabir. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the TV show that turned the star of his life into a public star. My parents had a lot in common. A usual scenario at our home at 2 in the morning would be the two sitting at their respective tables writing away their columns, poems, novels, essays or recipes. Abba and Amma together created an environment at home where search for knowledge was simply natural and infinite. Apart from certain common characteristics such as discipline and organisation, what was amazing about the two was that they always saw and highlighted the positive side of people. I have never heard my parents bad-mouthing others even when they have been scorched by them.
Finally, for most people my mother is a legend for the mark she has left in promoting a mundane domestic chore into an art and creating awareness on the nutritional aspects of food and diet. To me she is a legend for the wonderful and graceful blend that she is as a mathematician turned nutritionist turned academic turned author turned TV personality (turned model!), and a highly respected and loved matriarch in her very large extended family.
(Note: This piece was published in “Rondhon Shilpi Siddiqua Kabir”, 2009. Prof Siddiqua Kabir passed away on Jan 31, 2012.)
The writer is Associate Professor of Public Health at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.