Sopan Deb’s memoir “Missed Translations: Meeting the Indian Parents Who Raised Me” is about him reconnecting with his estranged immigrant parents.
As the book beautifully and poignantly chronicles Deb’s odyssey, it raises questions essential to us all: Is it ever too late to pick up the pieces and offer forgiveness? How do we build bridges where there was nothing before—and what happens to us, to our past and our future, if we don’t?
Sopan Deb is an award-winning writer for The New York Times and also a stand-up comedian.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
After receiving the wedding invitation from Manvi in 2018, I made the decision to go to India and see Shyamal. But I didn’t feel it would be right to fly around the world to reconnect with him and not put in some of the same effort with Bishakha. At the very least, I knew I needed to see where she was. I was more nervous about this connection than the one with my father and bracing myself for how she might react to the outreach. I felt guiltier about having let this relationship deteriorate in the way that it had, knowing that my mother was just across the Hudson River. There were several days when I wanted to pick up the phone and call her, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
As we approached Mother’s Day that year, months after that Big Brown set, I decided I was ready.
For most people, Mother’s Day is a time to pay tribute to the women who suffered through pregnancy to birth and then raise them. The woman who cleaned up after them, supported them financially, cooked for them, talked them through the bullies in middle school, excitedly sent them to prom, and, tearfully, sent them to college. But for me during any other year, this would be just another Sunday.
On the few days Bishakha’s face appeared in my mind, I swam in an ocean of self-reproach. I felt bad for not being there for her, even as I tried to convince myself that she and my father were mere footprints on a path I had long ago left behind. She was a woman in her seventies—it was a guess, I wasn’t certain of her age—who was brought up in another country, had little understanding of technology, and who lived by herself in a New Jersey suburb with no family to look after her. She had no one to lift boxes for her. She had no one to install a light bulb or fix her wireless Internet. If she fell, neither of her two sons would be by her side to help her, since she had fallen out with each of them. She was also no longer in contact with Atish, her brother in Toronto, and was very much alone.
It’s painful to face the fact that your own mother is alive, less than a two-hour drive away, and you have no idea what she does on a daily basis. This was assuming she even still lived in New Jersey. It’s easier not to think about the guilt when you don’t think at all.
Call, I demanded myself. Call her now.
Of course, there was one problem: I didn’t have her number. I had a cell phone number for her, but she didn’t use it. I knew that because I had purchased the phone for her in college and I had paid the bill on it for several years as part of a family plan. I noticed the usage on her phone was mostly zero. I called it anyway. It kept ringing. Was this cell phone even in her possession anymore?
Sitting in my living room, I briefly wondered if there was no way to get in touch with her. I called another number: my childhood home phone number, with a somewhat ridiculous expectation that it still belonged to my mother. It didn’t.
Luckily, buried in an email from 2014, I found another number. I dialed. After three rings, I heard my mother’s voice. I leaned forward on my couch and gripped the phone tightly. I could feel my blood pulsing.
“Hello?” my mother said.
“Ma, it’s Shambo,” I said, trying to project a sense of calm that didn’t exist.
“Oh. How are you?” my mother said. I could hear that she too was displaying that same faux sense of calm. She sounded old and tired, as if a lifetime of loss and loneliness had taken its toll. I, perhaps recognizing this, summoned my childhood Bengali in an attempt to alleviate the awkward space in which we found ourselves.
“I am doing well. How are you doing?” I nudged.
“I am doing well. What’s new? How’s work?” My mother. It was terrible, uncomfortable small talk.
“Work is very busy. I write a lot about theater, film, and television. What else do I write about? A lot of comedy,” I answered. This was during my time writing for the culture section, before switching to the NBA beat.
“Really? I saw you on MSNBC,” my mother said. Her voice became lighter. She was recalling a recent segment during which I was discussing whether Oprah would run for president in 2020. Meanwhile, my organs felt like they were splitting. The only time my mother had seen my face in the last few years was in a cable television news hit.
“I see a lot of Broadway shows now. It’s a good break for me from politics. When you cover politics, you don’t sleep at all. You’re always working and checking your email. Now I don’t work very much on weekends,” I said.
My mother asked me if I was still living in my apartment in Harlem. I had lived in Harlem for about five years, and my mother had never seen either of the two apartments I lived in while there. I told her yes, but this wasn’t true. I had moved in with my girlfriend, Wesley, something I didn’t, at this point, feel was necessary to tell my mother. She suggested I buy a house.
I quietly sighed. She didn’t quite understand the New York City real estate market.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” I gently chided her. “If you want to buy anything in New York, you have to put down a minimum fifty thousand dollar down payment.”
She suggested I go outside of New York. I told her I’d see. She asked me if I’d be going on MSNBC again. I said maybe, but that I didn’t discuss politics on the air anymore since I wasn’t covering it.
“The next time you’re on, why don’t you let me know?” my mother said.
My stomach had unclenched slightly. We had advanced from Peak Awkwardness to Genuine Catch-Up. Impulsively, I stammered a sentence that seemed inconceivable a few minutes before.
“If in the next month—if you’re not—if . . .” I paused to gather myself. “Do you want to come to New York to watch a Broadway show sometime?”
“Uh, the last time I saw a Broadway show? When was that?” My mother had misunderstood the question, possibly because of my stammering.
I clarified: “No, I’m saying if there is a Broadway show you want to see, you can come to New York if you want. I can get tickets.”
Another pause, this one less prolonged.
“If we can go, let me know,” she said. “Weekday or weekend?”
“Whenever is convenient for you.”
Pause. I could hear her breathe.
“Yes, let me know.”
“There are lots of good shows out there. There’s a new show you might like—”
“I’ve heard you’re doing comedy now.” My mother changed the subject, not wanting to test our good fortune.
“Yes, I’ve done a lot of comedy. I try to do one or two shows every month,” I responded, without a clue as to how she had found out.
My mother asked me if I was getting married. That, of course, would be news about which she could get excited. I laughed and told her about Wesley. That she had graduated from Harvard Law School and was a practicing lawyer. I took immense pride in telling her that.
I said that we could come over soon and that she could meet Wesley if she wanted.
“I have nothing. If you want to come, that would be great news.”
When my mother said she had nothing, she didn’t just mean her calendar was empty. I knew what she meant.
“This would be glorious news to meet your girlfriend,” she added. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. She would never have said that in college. In fact, she didn’t.
“Okay, we can rent a car and come see you.”
We said our goodbyes and hung up the phone. I sighed deeply. Have you ever walked into an ocean that’s just a little too cold? It’s a deeply uncomfortable shock to the senses at first, but you hope your body gets used to it as you submerge yourself farther into the water. And then you take another step. And then another.
I was one step in and ankle deep.
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