In his new book, Sopan Deb shares his experience as the son of Indian immigrants by connecting with his long-estranged father, to answer questions about their past
A comedian, an actor and a CNN correspondent stroll into the world of Sopan Deb’s Missed Translations: Meeting the Indian Parents Who Raised Me. They all praise it. Their praise for Deb’s memoir is well-deserved. Choosing to channel it as a journalist and a stand-up comedian, Deb shares his experience as a son of Indian immigrants whose unhappy marriage ends in a divorce, leaving him with scars that have apparently not healed.
Over the past year, several memoirs by children of South Asian immigrants have made headlines in the US. The authors and their stories are of equal interest. These are woven into the fabric of a nation benefiting from such immigrants.
In The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala Harris presents herself to the US electorate as a presidential candidate. In What We Carry, Maya Shanbagh Lang reveals the heartfelt transition from the daughter of immigrants to a mother, and later, the caregiver of her ailing mother in the early stages of Alzheimer. In Homeland Elegies, somewhere between memoir and fiction, Ayad Akhtar presents the conflicts of his immigrant family from Pakistan with diverging politics and personal expectations.
In this milieu of immigrant family memoir, Deb unfolds the tragic lives of his Indian immigrant parents with wry humour - anticipating redemption. The healing begins with him reaching out to his mother, Bishakha, and his father, Shyamal. With a journalist’s objectivity combined with tongue-in-cheek humour, Deb narrates his parents’ stories in precise and humorous prose.
From the opening, Missed Translations promises humorous strokes in the portrayal of Deb’s tragic childhood. A directory of Debs (the family tree) is followed by a foreword by Hasan Minhaj of Patriot Act. In the prologue, an uncle refers to the theme song of a sitcom as epitomising peace at home: “You want to go where everybody knows your name”.
The chapter titles are titillating: “I’d like to say a few words about race relations,” announces the first chapter in which we are introduced to a misplaced attempt at humour as a stand-up comedian. On stage, he begins by using South Asian tropes but soon realises that “model minority” jokes will not make the audience laugh and he needs to go beyond those. He writes his story with the same resolve: to give more than what is expected.
“White people have the best lunches,” is self-explanatory. It reveals a deep challenge that immigrant parents face in relation to their culture: what to hold on to and what to let go.
A young Deb recognises early the stark contrast between his home life and those of his white friends and neighbours that seem happier. He imagines that his pain is typical of all immigrant families. Later, he speculates that his parents’ arranged marriage is the reason for the malaise. For many years, he disconnects from them, carrying on with his own life without trying to understand why his past was so unhappy.
This is when you want to join him in understanding his past. You want to know what happened. You want to know why his parents continued to live together despite their extreme unhappiness. You want to know why his mother stopped caring for the family. This is the story of a sad family trying to make things better. With tenderness and humour, Deb begins to untangle the past, the time before he was born.
You want to know what happened. You want to know why his parents continued to live together despite their extreme unhappiness. You want to know why his mother stopped caring for the family.
To do this, he travels to India. Eleven years after his mild-mannered engineer father’s departure, Deb finds an opportunity to connect with him, to answer questions about their past. With his girlfriend, Wesley, Deb travels to India to attend a friend’s wedding. They use this opportunity to connect with his long-estranged father.
The chapter, “I almost didn’t recognise you” is the poignant first meeting of a grown up son with his father. In Kolkata after all those years, the meeting is upbeat yet awkward. The father’s hometown is the son’s tourist destination. Exiting the airport, Deb searches for his father, Shyamal. As he checks his phone, he thinks about his relationship, “I knew that he existed, but he was just a phone contact, in the same way that DAN FROM THE NETWORKING EVENT YOU HATED lingered in your contact list: something between a stranger and a forgotten childhood acquaintance.”
Shyamal’s personality is revealed through his home decor. A photograph of movie star, Omar Sharif, is explained away with an unbelievable story of a meeting in Egypt. Later, as they go sightseeing, he captures every moment of his son and his girlfriend’s visit to India as if making up for lost years.
Deb’s mother is unique. She lives a lonely life but tries to connect with her son through technology. In some humorous and familiar interactions, he describes his mother as a “human equivalent of analog in a digital world,” and “she loved typing in capital letters, the same way my dad likes speaking in them”.
To write this book, Deb records conversations with his parents. On the surface, this seems to impede the flow of the story. But requiring a recording is testimony to how little they know each other. When Deb tries to connect directly his parents respond on parallel plains. A lot of learning needs to happen.
Deb organises his family members in places and situations that dramatise the missed connections and translations. The divisions are wide and deep, crossing continents and decades. It will take just as long to cross over, but models exist; models of families like his own, from his own culture show him how to connect. As he builds his own family, he learns from them. And as he learns how to build a family, he brings his parents along with him. According to Kirkus Reviews, this is “A sympathetic portrait of South Asians who are neither crazy and rich nor humourless nerds.”
At the centre of the story with so many shaky relationships, Deb and Wesley create stability. Wesley figures prominently in the story, first prompting Deb to reach out to his parents and then fading into the background for him to build a new relationship with them. The story is well-paced.
For the Pakistani reader, the generational conflict is familiar: one generation looking to the past and struggling to retain what is lost, the other moving forward to come to terms with the present. Deb’s tragic but humorous memoir is now available at Folio Books.
Meeting the Indian
Parents Who Raised Me
Author: Sopan Deb
Publisher: Folio Books
The writer, author of Wild Boar in the Cane Field, blogs at www.Tillism.com