The Family Stories We Tell Ourselves

By Rafia Amina Khader

My name is Zubeida Qamar Azharuddin. Don’t bother trying to get it right. I’ve given up correcting people. It’s frustrating standing there, pretending to be amused for the ten-millionth time when some stranger struggles to repeat back a name that doesn’t even remotely resemble an inkling of what I had said just five seconds earlier. “Zoo-beeeee-daa Quaa-mer Ash-ar-ooo-deen, is it?” They ask. I just smile and nod. My parents had to give me the most Hyderabadi Indian name they could think of.

I spent most of my childhood resenting my parents for this. My older brother Muqtedar was not any better off, but at least he was able to Americanize his name down to “Mo” and that, to me, made all the difference. I was jealous of his ability to seamlessly fit in at school and at home. The Straight-A student and star-basketball player who was going to be a doctor one day. Bhai, as I called him, was the apple of my mother’s eye. I, on the other hand, never really fit in anywhere. Zubeida couldn’t be shortened down to anything, anything other than “Zoo,” the nickname my elementary school classmates gave me because of my chubbiness. Yeah, real clever. My father sometimes called me Zubee, which, when I was younger, I hated even more than Zubeida or Zoo.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been called Zubee though. My dad died when I was just 10 years old, an age old enough to still have fond memories of him, but still too young to feel I had my fair share of them.

My father was a professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago. He was one of the lucky post-docs to get a job in the U.S. when he first came to this country in the ‘60s. He was well-respected by his colleagues and students, had numerous publications in prestigious scientific journals, and even if he was a little “out there” in terms of traditional Hyderabadi standards, he had the admiration of all of Hyderabad, including the city’s expatriates. But I didn’t know any of that when I was little. To me, he was simply “Baba.”

When I was a little girl, I used to love going into his study to “surprise” him. One time, a few years before his death, I had gone in on a less-than-auspicious occasion. There was a wedding in the family that day, a daughter of a cousin of my mother’s sister-in-law, I think. That’s Hyderabadi families, for you. A couple of hours before we were supposed to leave for the banquet hall, my mother had begun her ritual of “getting ready” – doing her hair in an elaborate bun, putting Vico Turmeric all over her skin to make it glow, fake eyelashes, nail polish, the works. I used to pretend her make-up brushes were paint brushes and try unsuccessfully to draw pictures with them. My mother must have found my company during these make-up routines a nuisance more than anything. But I would observe her in amazement, as if I’d been granted special access to a famous opera singer getting ready backstage. I never understood why my mother went to such lengths to hide who she really is, when, on the other hand, my father literally had to be dragged out of his office to attend family parties.

“Mom, why do you put all this paint on your face? You don’t wear it at home and dad never wears it,” I asked her.

Amused at my naivety, with a slight chuckle, she responded: “Zubee, you are too young to understand. Women have to wear make-up. Here, let me put some blush on your cheeks.”

She walked over to the ledge of the bed where I was sitting, my feet barely touching the floor. As she bent down towards me, I noticed a beige shirt around her stomach that was clearly not mean to be seen.

“What is that, mom? Where did your tummy go?” I pointed.

“What do you mean?” she reflexively responded. I can never forget the defensiveness I sensed in her voice. “It’s a girdle,” she added, with a sigh. But within seconds, her exasperation turned into a smile. “Too bad they don’t make one for little girls,” she said, as she lightly pinched my cheeks. She tried to play my question off as benign; but from her off-hand retort, I learned that day that it was anything but.

My mother often alluded to my less than ideal appearance as a child, but it was always in a casual way. She’d say such things as: “Why don’t you try this Fair & Lovely cream? It will make you look so fresh and pretty!” She would pretend to use it herself to make me feel like it was something we could do together. But I knew better. This was just my mom’s way of letting me know that I wasn’t the pretty, thin little girl she once was and wished I could be.

“What’s this on your shirt?” my mother asked. She had been too busy with her makeup until then to notice that I had tiny black crumbs all over my party shalwar khameez.

I affectedly furrowed my eyebrows in an attempt to convey to her that I had no idea what she was referring to. I had just finished an entire sleeve of Oreos and forgot to clean up after. Though I was still too young to understand the ways of the world of grown-ups, I had attended enough Indian weddings by that time to know that dinner would not be served until way past my bedtime. I thought it wise to eat a snack beforehand.

My mother however did not think I had made a smart choice. She would need another coat of foundation to cover the red that was slowly taking over her face.

“Zubeida! This is why all the kids in school call you ‘Zoo.’ If you eat all the Oreos, do you think any boy is ever going to marry you? Why do I bring this junk in the house?” It was apparent that she was no longer speaking to me.

“But mom, I’m only 7,” I whimpered, frightened that she might slap me.

“Just go and let me get ready in peace,” she said with a sigh. “And wipe those crumbs off.” She went back to her dresser. I sat there, frozen for a few moments, determined to not cry. I was too young to care about getting married at that age, but I knew marriage was very important to my mother. I had attended many weddings already in my short seven years. It was a fact of life: school, college, med school, and then marriage. What would happen to me if I never got married? Would my mom never speak to me again? I didn’t want my mom to see me cry, so I ran downstairs to my father’s study, afraid that staying in that room any longer would subject me to another reproach. As I made my way out of the bedroom, my mother turned around and called back, “Zubee! Come back. I’m sorry. I’m just really stressed, beta.” But it was too late. If she didn’t mean what she said, she would not have said it.

My father’s study was my one place of solace in the entire world. It was tucked down in the basement, a place my mother barely ever ventured into. I had assumed that was precisely why my father decided to have his study there, that he, too, needed refuge from the barrage of my mother’s reproaches. As always, my father was busy grading exams. As much as my mother cared about appearances, my father couldn’t seem to care less. I remember that he had a scruffy beard that he only ever shaved upon my mother’s insistence. It reminded me of Santa’s beard, except his was black. I used to say that my dad was from the South Pole. My mother had reminded him earlier that day, of course, to shave it for the wedding, but he had yet to. Fully absorbed in his work when I entered his study, he had not noticed I was there for quite some time. I knew he was busy, but I wanted to get his attention. I peered over his shoulder. He looked up at me, somewhat startled, but with a smile as always. I relayed to him what had occurred upstairs just moments earlier. What my dad told me that day was something I would never forget: “Marriage is not the only thing waiting for you when you get older, my dear Zubee.”

Almost twenty years later, it’s the one piece of parental advice I seemed to have followed. At 28, I am still unmarried, which, like my chubbiness, my mother constantly reminds me of. But unlike before, I’ve stopped taking these reproaches seriously. She’s just a middle-aged Desi woman set in her fobby ways, I tell myself.

Oh, and I was right to eat those Oreos that night, by the way. Dinner wasn’t served until close to midnight! “If this is what getting married means, I want none of it,” I told myself that evening, as I dug into my plate full of biryani and tandoori chicken.

I’ve never had the best relationship with my mother. Don’t get me wrong – I love her and I know she loves me. But I could never connect with her like I could with my dad. Perhaps it was because my father was a teacher and had learned how to speak to kids, but my mom never did. It was like she never learned to bite her tongue, at least with me anyway. My dad never seemed to notice how big I was. In fact, he would often sneak me a little piece of an Indian dessert called barfi whenever I came into his office. I liked the ones made of pistachio the best. My mom did not know about this secret stash. He knew mom would reproach him for encouraging my already less than ideal eating habits, so it remained our little secret. I used to think that having a secret stash of sweets was a part of the job. I wanted to be a professor just like him one day.

October 3, 1996 was the day my father had his heart attack. I had gone into his study that day as I often did. But this time, instead of finding him pouring over his student’s exams, he was on the ground, holding on to his right arm. He didn’t make a sound, but I could see the pain in his eyes and contorted body. His eyes met mine. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I ran out of his study to fetch my mother from the kitchen. By the time I was able to finally get her attention – she was in the middle of frying and unable to “leave the kitchen right now” – a couple of minutes had gone by. It must have taken a whole 5 minutes before my mother saw my dad lying on the floor and called 9-1-1.

But it was too late. He was dead before we reached the hospital.

“Why didn’t you call 9-1-1?” my mom asked me after the official pronouncement was made. I knew it was the grief talking, but I couldn’t help but feel that she partially blamed me for my father’s death. Though she never brought up the topic again, her silence in the matter, I felt, was indicative of my guilt. I blamed myself.

Our relationship only became worse after my father’s death.

My father was the buffer between my mother and I. Before his death, it was mostly scuffs like the Oreo incident. After his death though, what were once little remarks that could be easily soothed away with a sweet had turned into all-out arguments and confrontations. My mother complained about everything I did or did not do. When I got my period for the first time, she told me I was ‘unclean’ and insisted on washing my bed sheets after each cycle. In high school, whenever my one and only friend Shelly called to talk, my mother raced to pick the phone up to make sure it wasn’t a boy. I wasn’t allowed to date. But there was a more practical reason why my mother’s paranoia was ludicrous. I was a pimply-faced, 185-pound teenaged girl – what boy would be interested in calling me?

One summer day before I was about to start college, I decided to tell my mom that I had no intention of becoming a doctor.

“Mom, I think I want to study English.”

“What nonsense are you talking, Zubeida?”

“Mom, I don’t want to be a doctor. I never did.”

“Why not? You get good grades in maths and sciences. Don’t you want to make us,” she stumbled for a bit, “your mother happy? Also, what are you going to do with English? You know I am a widow right? Without Baba or Bhai, how do you expect to make a living? At least if you get into med school, you’ll be able to marry a doctor. Then, if you don’t want to be a doctor, it’s fine. At least I won’t have to worry anymore.”

“Mom, but this is not what I want. You made Bhai do this. But I don’t want to follow in his failed footsteps.”

My mother quivered at the mention of “failed.” I had gone too far.

“I’m sorry, mom. I didn’t mean it.”

That was the end of that conversation. I didn’t try to console her by telling her I would make her happy and become a doctor after all. I didn’t have to. I was no longer there in that room with her. The mere mention of my brother brought up memories I was too young to remember. Sobbing, she shooed me away, with one motion of her arm.

My brother had left the house sometime after my father died. He was a lot older than I was – 9 years older in fact, so I don’t remember what happened or why he left. I knew it hurt my mother to bring it up, so I never did… except for that one time.

I was defiant and ultimately graduated with a degree in English. But becoming a professor like my father never did pan out. I currently work as a receptionist for a Psychiatrist close to home. Not quite what either I or my mother was envisioning. But at least if I am lucky enough to get a bio-data of a “smart” boy from a good family, my mother can tell the matchmakers that her daughter works in Psychiatry! “Psychiatrists are M.D.s, you know?” I told my mother in jest one time after yet another “marriage talk.” She was not amused. I hated my job and my life, but my mother hated it even more. I think we both subconsciously accepted that I would be fat for the rest of my life and never get married. My mother and I were stuck with one another.

One day, my boss, having a conference to attend downtown later in the afternoon, decided to close the office early and told me I could have the rest of the day off. Instead of going to the mall or calling up a friend like any normal person would do, I went home. Shelly went out of state for college and never came back. She’s currently living in New York, trying to land her big break. Shelly’s not married either. But she’s not Indian, so it doesn’t matter.

“There’s some Breyer’s in the freezer, I think,” I said to myself as I reluctantly drove home. Mom wouldn’t be back yet from her job at TJ Maxx. I could eat it before she got back. Home didn’t seem so bad after all.

As I pulled into the driveway, I noticed that the garage door was already open. As I parked my car inside, I could hear my mother wailing and talking to someone. I immediately ran into the house curious to know who this unknown person was. I too inadvertently forgot to close the garage door behind me. My mother didn’t hear me come in.

“Why is this happening, ya Quda?” she yelled in distress, with her arms in the air, as she motioned to God. I listened quietly. “How am I going to do this? Death would be a better fate!” she wailed.

My mother was not known to be a calm person, but this was hysterical even for her. I could no longer stand there in silence

“Mom? What happened?” I asked. “Why are you acting so morbid?”

She was startled to see me. Neither one was expecting the other back home so early. “Where did you come from? I thought you were at work?” she asked.

“I got off early. Mom, what’s going on? Why did you say you are going to die?”

“Oh, it’s nothing.”

“Mom, don’t lie to me. I know it’s not nothing.”

My mother gulped. I could sense that she felt uneasy to tell me what she was about to say next. This was a side of my mother I had not seen before. I did not know her to be one who ever held back her thoughts.

“I have… breast cancer.” As she fumbled out the words, it was as if she was coming to terms with the diagnosis herself.

“What? Breast cancer?” I shrieked. “When did you find out?”

“Beta, the results of the biopsy came back just now. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to worry you. But now the oncologist says it’s spread and I have to have a mastectomy and probably chemo and radiation.” There was a gripping fear in her eyes.

           “Mom, it’s okay. You’ll be fine. Insha’Allah, you will fight this.”

I thought of my dad and what he would have done in this moment. He always seemed to be able to calm the family down. It was after his death that Bhai had left. And it was after his death that my relationship with my mother turned for the worse. As our male relatives covered my father’s grave with the remaining soil at his janazah that sunny autumn afternoon, I had silently wished God had taken away my mother instead. His burial symbolized the death of any joy the Azharuddin household would ever experience again.

It had been years since I had given my mother a hug, but I knew she needed one now. She was shaking. The head-strong woman I had once known was showing me for the first time that she was vulnerable and needed me. I moved toward her, outreaching my arms, tentatively at first – did she even want a hug from me? I wondered. But she latched on immediately.

“I’m afraid, Zubee.”

Zubee, a name so strange and at once, so familiar. I hadn’t been called that in years. After a few minutes of hugging in silence, I awkwardly whispered: “Mom, I know you’re going to make it.”

“Oh, I know that,” she responded, her voice regaining the strength I knew. “I have full faith in God Almighty.”

“Then, what is it? What are you afraid of?”

She hesitated. “I’m going to lose all my hair and…” her words trailed, as she looked down at her chest.

I didn’t understand this fear of hers at first. It wasn’t so much the cancer that scared her. That she would lose the last physical remnants of her femininity is what scared her the most. My mother was known for her beauty when she was younger. She proudly held onto this status for as long as she could. But as she got older and her feminine youth began to disappear, she struggled to hold on to it. She dyed her hair as soon as she saw white hairs coming in. She never left the house without foundation on because she decried how “aged” her skin made her look. And even though her breasts were always modestly covered, the prospect of losing this part of her identity was not something she felt indifferent about. To me, the fact that my mother was more concerned about her hair and losing her breasts was almost unfathomable. “Those are cosmetic,” I wanted to scream. “Who the hell cares? Your life is more important!”

Then I remembered the incident with the Oreos – and it finally hit me. This was a woman obsessed with image. Perhaps all her quips at my chubbiness were really just a projection of her dissatisfaction with her own body. She hated what her once-perfect figure had turned into, angry at the pounds she could not shed after two pregnancies, pounds that only accumulated over time. She must have thought that by telling me to stop eating so much, she was saving me from a fate she knew too well.

“It’s okay, mom, your hair will grow back and I’m sure you can get… reconstructive surgery,” I reassured her.

The female anatomy was not something we talked about very openly at home. I struggled to even allude to the fact that she would lose her breasts. My mother, still in my arms, looked away towards the window to deflect her embarrassment. I was half-expecting a reproach for my boldness, but no such reproach came. She only continued to cry.

Though my relationship with my mother was strained, it was understood that I would take her to her treatments and nurse her back to health. As an unmarried woman still living at home, there was no way that I could not. My mother and I didn’t go on girly outings like other mothers and daughters did. But she was still my mom. After coming home from her first chemo session, she said something in a way that caught me by complete surprise: “Thank you.”

With each session of chemo and radiation that we drove to and back from together, I noticed a change in both our demeanors. In the course of just a few months, my mother’s illness had breached the walls we had both slowly but unknowingly built over the years. The quips came to an abrupt halt. My mother had no energy left to criticize me for my weight or being unmarried. She was just grateful to not be alone. I in turn became less angry and defensive and ready to forgive.

“You know, I was very hard on you to get married, Zubee. But had you gone to be with your in-laws, I don’t know how I would have done this without you.” My old-fashioned Hyderabadi mother assuming that after marriage I would live with my in-laws. But I suppose that was her way of saying sorry. I struggled to keep my eyes on the road as tears crawled down my face.

A few weeks after that first session, I summoned the courage to ask her something I had always wanted to know but never had the guts to approach until then.

“Why did Bhai leave?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything at first. Maybe it was too much. She was no longer that head-strong woman I knew. But before I could tell her it was okay, that she didn’t have to tell me if she wasn’t up for it, she spoke with a conviction I had not heard since her diagnosis.

“He got a girl pregnant and told us he was going to marry her.” She looked out the window for a moment. “She wasn’t Muslim. Your father was very angry and told him to get out of the house. I begged your father to not do this. But he wouldn’t listen.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Dad is the reason why Bhai left? I grew up thinking that he left home after dad’s death, not before. This image of my father did not measure up to my memories. Growing up, I knew my father to be the calm, rational parent. My mother was the flighty, emotional one.

“But why, mom? I mean, I know what Bhai did was wrong, but Baba couldn’t forgive him?”

“Reputation, Zubee. It meant so much to him. That his son would do something to destroy what he had worked so hard for was unforgivable… at the time. Settling in America wasn’t easy for us.”

This didn’t make sense to me at all. I had grown up assuming that it was my mom who cared about image and that Bhai’s leaving was her doing in some way. My mom was upset of course, but she was willing to forgive. Not dad. He remained angry until the end – angry at what my brother had done, but even more angry with himself for what he had not done. Mom thinks that my father’s later regret is the reason why he died. But by then, it was too late. Perhaps that’s why he spent so much time in his study during his final years. Not to escape my mother, but to escape his own sense of guilt. Of course, as a little girl, I never saw any of that.

I didn’t want to believe my mother. A part of me tried to rationalize that my father would never do anything like this. But the truth is, I didn’t know him well enough or long enough to know that he would not. He was always busy with school, and I only ever saw him at fragmented moments when I barged my way into his study.

There was a lot that had gone on at home that I did not know. I had assumed that all my mom was concerned about what was what people thought of her and her family. But it wasn’t a superficial concern entirely. As I later learned, the reason dad had agreed to marry her was because of her beauty partially and because she was from a good family. My mother was afraid of losing both. I had grown up thinking that my father was above all those concerns, but he wasn’t. He was kind to me, but he was always in his study when he was at home. I never saw at him at his worst. But I saw my mother all the time – in her good moments, which I easily forgot, and in her bad moments, which I kept with me all these years. Why was that? Was it because she was still living? Does the passage of time erase all the imperfections of the deceased? I never gave my mother a fair chance to redeem herself. I spent the time I did have with her in anger. But it was mom who dropped off and picked me up from school, packed my lunch, made dinner every night, and taught me about my religion, while dad buried himself in his work.

The image I had of my parents had been shattered. My mother was not merely the critical, negative parent I had once thought. She was a woman living in a country far from home, raising two children essentially on her own. And my father wasn’t the perfect, progressive parent I had thought he was, either. He had an anger I had never seen, one which he suppressed in his study, though my mother knew it all too well. Though I felt deeply wounded at first to finally learn this truth, I began to see that my mother withholding this information is what allowed me to hold onto the pleasant memories I have of my father.

Today, I see things differently than I once did. My father was a flawed human being, just as my mother is a flawed human being. But neither one’s flaws diminishes their love for me. I now know that the way a person shows love is as unique as the individual who gives that love. My parents were both trying to figure out life in the best way that they could.


Rafia Khader is a writer, blogger, and interfaith advocate. Born in Toronto, Canada to
Hyderabadi-Indian immigrants, she now calls Indianapolis, USA her home. She has a Master’s of Arts Degree in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago and blogs at Cake & Cows: