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Dhaka Tribune

A daughter’s tribute

Update : 16 Jan 2016, 06:45 PM

Writing about one’s parent is no easy task. Balanced writing requires a certain level of distance from the character in focus. For the only child of a parent who served as father, mother, and best friend all rolled into one, such distance is impossible to attain. I do not claim to make such a futile attempt in the current piece.

The biography of my father, Syed Ali Kabir (1926 - 2000), by no means stands out as an exceptional one. Like the majority, he was mediocre even when at his best, whether in his academic or professional career, participation in political movements, as a writer, or even in amateur acting.

In essence, he was like any other common person. And just like any other common person, he possessed qualities that made him unique as an individual, as a responsible citizen, a human being whose values counted in influencing individual lives, and maybe even in shaping the socio-political conscience of our society during his days as a columnist.

I write about him today to remember his life, because even a common man is to be celebrated for the principles, values, and ethical standards that he upheld.

An intensely principled man, one of the strongest impressions Abba made on me was that bending of rules was not to be indulged in. In the 1980s, at the age of 16, I attended a driving school and obtained my driver’s license. Yet, I had no access to a car to practice my driving. We did not have a car of our own.

Abba’s official car was off limits for me, not because he did not trust my driving skills, but the car was not to be driven by anyone other than the officially assigned driver. Such a stance about the use of office property is laughed at nowadays. It was not only his sense of morality that led to his principles, but the recognition that collective responsibility for public goods is key to an equitable and sustainable society.

As long back as I can remember, materialistic fascination was never allowed to govern our lives. I am pretty sure the reason was financial as is often the case with most people. No negotiation on my part moved him to grant me one taka to buy a bottle of coke in school. He was not necessarily a miser, but lived within his means without any fuss.

As his father, he never depended on his offspring to provide for him in his old age. When he died, he had left behind just about enough to pay for his hospital expenses and last rites. Like my grandfather, Abba did not believe in excesses. He used to proudly declare that his father always maintained what a person needed, just one roof over her head. Even if one has the means of expanding property holdings, such excesses are unnecessary and superfluous.

I know these principles seem absurd in our increasingly unequal society filled with greed. Egalitarianism was the rule by which Syed Ali Kabir tried to lead his life.

My grandfather, Syed Golam Kabir, a gold medallist from Presidency College in Kolkata, came from a very modest background. As a civil servant, he provided the right conditions for his two sons to have privileged starts in their lives. The rest was up to them (his daughters’ choices were not so flexible).

With a Master’s degree in political science from Dhaka University, Abba went into banking. I believe it was his experience in the banking sector that made him so passionate about economics, which led him to London School of Economics after his first wife and my biological mother, Nurunnahar, died during childbirth.

I clearly remember the day Abba died on December 18, 2000. I had to pay the hospital bills before I could take him home for his funeral. Abba and I had a joint account (with instructions that either of the signatories could operate the account) at the bank next to the hospital. It was not even an hour that his soul set free, his body still warm, when my mother, Siddiqua Kabir, and I went to the bank to make a withdrawal for the hospital bills.

A young fellow at the counter had already heard that the “mighty” deputy governor of Bangladesh Bank, Syed Ali Kabir, who had retired 16 long years ago, had passed away about an hour earlier, and he refused to process my legitimate request for a withdrawal. This is the very situation Abba wanted to avoid by opening such a joint account with me. His reputation overrode his foresight.

I realise I don’t even know much of his landmark contributions in the banking sector, as he never really talked of his own accomplishments. I do remember him passionately talking of people he came across during his banking career full of potential, speaking highly of their innovative ideas.

One such person is the only Nobel laureate of our country. He used to declare as early as the 1980s that the man should be awarded a Nobel Prize. If only he were alive to share the pride.

Abba believed in the young generation, had genuine interest in their aspirations, and took great, almost childlike pride in their achievements. He had no patience for ignorance, backbiting, and idle minds. If he ever spent his time and energy talking of other people, it was for praise.

He raised me to be a responsible, independent person, to stand up for my own identity. In his perception, it could be attained only through intellectual pursuit and socio-political engagement.

As for his own identity, he never had any qualms in presenting himself as the husband of his well-known wife Siddiqua Kabir, the author of the famed recipe book Ranna Khaddo Pushti. He would proudly say to strangers: “You won’t know me, but you probably know of my wife. I am Siddiqua Kabir’s husband.”

Syed Ali Kabir was a common man. He cared for society. He did not need revelations to understand the struggles and hardships of those without privilege. He would constantly try to find solutions to complex national issues, to improve conditions for the disadvantaged.

He was a brilliant, constructive thinker. As most common people, he was not at the right place at the right time, nor did he have the right kind of publicity to have made a difference, to have left behind a legacy.

However, as most common men and women, he passed on some of his values to the younger generation. His ideals had imprinted upon his close ones the vision of a just, equitable society. His achievements were no more, no less. 

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