Remembering Zubaida Apa
For the uninitiated, Zubaida Tariq, or Zubaida Apa (Urdu for older sister) was a self-taught cook, home expert and TV personality. Her cooking show was one of the most popular ones on Pakistani TV with viewership from around the world. On her Twitter account, she encouraged people to reach out to her. “Ask me quick solutions to your domestic, social, political etc problems. Happy to help men and women alike.” The world lost this kind resource on January 4th, 2018. We will no longer be able to tune in to see her cooking complicated but adaptive (always adaptive!) recipes in bright sarees; her wrists adorned with matching bangles and her hair neatly tucked into a bun.
My earliest memories of food shows are of Zubaida Apa and another famous home-cook, Kokab Khawaja, teaching women how to make keema-bharay karelay (mince filled bitter gourd) and sponge cake respectively. As I grew older, the colonization of my mind slowly began at my British Grammar school. English replaced Urdu as my first language and this change was soon mirrored in almost all other aspects of my life. My cultural compass shifted. Master Chef and Paths Unknown became my culinary influences of choice. I turned to white men to show me how to cook Masam Curry and risotto. I spent hours trying to replicate these dishes in my home kitchen with the desi spice cabinet that my mother always kept organized and stocked; haldi (turmeric), lal mirch (chilli powder), namak (salt) all stored in empty Lipton jars. I would inevitably fail in my efforts. Methi (fenugreek) is not thyme after all. My brother has made it difficult to forget these ill-fated attempts.
In the process, I did not just find myself dislocated from native cuisines and flavours. I also found myself without a mentor-figure to turn to for everyday struggles. Zubaida Apa’s cult following did not just stem from the food she cooked. It originated from her ability to provide solutions to struggles of the average Pakistani woman. How did one remove lipstick stains from a husband’s shirt? A very straightforward and sensible question. But in a country like Pakistan where even married couples deny any form of physical intimacy, the distressed voice of the woman on the phone and the nature of the question, presented a rather unsettling possibility. Zubaida Apa would never engage with it. She would not address the question of infidelity that hung in the air and would simply offer a DIY home remedy that seemed rather implausible but was bound to work. She never suggested anything she had not tried herself. Lived experience informed all her instruction. And with her tips and tricks, she also provided a way to minimize the disruption any unsavory life event could cause. She truly embodied the self-less, forgiving female that has become an emblem of South-Asian society.
And as much as nostalgia has awarded her some space in my heart, these very things that endeared her to so many make me – the colonized, bourgeoise woman-child forced to navigate the double-standards of propriety – resent her. How could a woman who helped a now-famous oil company rebrand itself, who built an entrepreneurial empire, who commanded an entire country’s attention and made the personal experience of women in the kitchen into a global phenomenon, keep reinforcing a woman’s place in society as relational to a man’s?
As I reread many of her interviews, particularly surrounding a skin-lightening product she endorsed, I see how she did not think of her own work as revolutionary. She did not think society needed a revolution. Maybe that is why I cannot hail her as my savior. Because it seems to me that for Zubaida Apa, adjusting the amount of salt in a gravy, removing stains from silverware and upholding institutions as they have always been structured – without analyzing the division of power within them – was the secret to a full, rich life for us women lot.
There was one thing, though, that Zubaida Apa had an issue with: scantily clad women in the media. Modesty was important to her when it came to women’s bodies. Even this incredible woman, who wore bright lipstick at an age we usually expect Pakistani women to be covered in a chaddar (sheet) with a rosary in their hands, thought that women’s exposed bodies presented a threat to society and morality.
I realise that I come to Zubaida Apa and her legacy full of thoughts and ideas I picked up in the very languages and cultures I now want to distance myself from; especially in this very fashionable and monetizable bid to explore my heritage and indigenous identity. But I also come to Zubaida Apa because she is a woman I have imagined all women to be like. My earliest formative memories are of women just like her. My Nano, my mother, all my favourite aunties and khalas and phuphos. And what I find myself grappling with in remembering her are all the things I wrestle with in trying to relate to the women who came before me. Who raised me up and made me who I am. The same women that I feel at odds with as I grow older. Women that I now feel have become the enforcers of the limiting views of womanhood when I have finally escaped the confines of culture and tradition.
Ah, how I wish there was a Zubaida Apa totka to fix these complicated feelings, to ease these growing pains, to create a world where we could all fit in as we are and wish to be! But since we no longer have her to turn to, I know that I will miss catching a glimpse of her on my TV screen as I switch between channels full of ‘important men’ with ‘important opinions’ deciding my fate in this world, and passing judgements about her status in the Hereafter.