Missed Translations is journalist and stand-up comedian Sopan Deb’s memoirs of his unhappy childhood, and his interactions with his parents as an angry adult.
A child of Indian immigrants brought up in suburban New Jersey, Deb longs to belong to the sort of close-knit families his white friends have: There’s warmth and a refreshing openness, a far cry from the disconnectedness he experiences at home. He’s not close to either of his parents — his older brother feels more like a father-figure to him. Besides, his parents bicker constantly: “I blamed arranged marriages, Hinduism, and India for the ills of the household, even though I didn’t know enough about any of those things, I just knew I wanted distance from whatever culture had forced my parents together and produced this misery.”
One day while emerging from his basement, he sees the flashing lights of police cars outside his home. His parents separate and divorce soon after. No explanations are given, and no questions are asked either. Just like before when his mother had inexplicably locked herself up in her bedroom for a year.
Still smouldering with bitterness and resentment as he approaches thirty, Deb decides to get to the bottom of his unhappy childhood. Which means finally getting in touch with his mother whom he has largely ignored since college. And his father who he is intermittently in touch with via email ever since he moved to India — without informing his children (that’s just a little taste of the Deb family for you)!
When he lands in Kolkata with his partner, Deb barely recognises his father at the airport — eleven years is a long time, after all. The days are packed with sightseeing, meeting uncles and aunts he had never even heard of, getting family history and Indian culture in small doses, and, best of all, learning to see his father as an interesting individual, not a parent. Tentative at first, son and father bond rather quickly. While his father has always been appreciative of him, Deb finally begins to reciprocate the feeling. However, even after they reach a comfort level with each other, his father is not forthcoming about the past, and Deb has to push hard for answers. So very hard that the simmering bitterness boils over.
Back home, Deb’s mother is a tougher nut to crack — she conceals more than she reveals. And when Deb eventually does discover a devastating part of her past through another source, he finally understands her demons, and wishes he had reached out to her when she went through her bouts of depression. He comes to terms with his own shortcomings too.
Learning his mother and father’s histories makes Deb realise that they led tougher lives than him, and had far more distant parents who had no time for namby-pamby “feelings”. The bitterness that he harboured gradually melts.
While the journalist in Deb is evident through the writing, the stand-up comedian shows up only occasionally. The book is raw, dark, and, surprisingly tender.
Missed Translations (Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me)
By Sopan Deb
Simon & Schuster India
pp. 260, Rs.499...