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Filling in the gaps

Percy Bharucha | Updated on January 11, 2021

Missing links: Deb’s alienation from his parents began in early childhood   -  ISTOCK.COM

Sopan Deb’s journey towards personal catharsis is perhaps the most honest and straightforward look a man can take at his people

* The son of immigrant parents living in America, Deb’s story about struggling to fit in will seem extremely relatable to Indians

* The product of an unhappy marriage, he knew little about those he shared a roof with

* What sets Missed Translations apart from the usual discovering-your-roots fare is Deb’s exploration of culture

***

In a sense, you could argue that Sopan Deb’s entire life has been leading up to this book. Armed with the dogged persistence of a reporter (he works with The New York Times, and was previously with CBS, Al Jazeera and NBC) and the self-flagellating humour of a stand-up comic he looks for answers that have long troubled the Deb family. In the words of stand-up comic Hasan Minhaj, Deb is a rarity, “an extremely reputable day job that his family understands and can be proud of, and then sneaking comedy into the bottom of his resume. Brilliant.” Much in the same way, Missed Translations is a rarity, Deb’s journey towards personal catharsis is perhaps the most honest, straightforward look a man can take at his people.

Missed Translations: Meeting the India Parents Who Raised Me / Sopan Deb / Simon & Schuster /Non-fiction / ₹499

 

One of my favourite bits in the memoir is when Deb says he wanted to take a time machine back to 1977 to beg his parents to see other people. This would perhaps make him the only protagonist in the history of time-travel literature or movies to undo the act of his own creation, and would therefore never be allowed to time travel in the first place. The motivation behind this statement is his stunning journey to retrace the gaps in his childhood. A fresh-into-his-30s Deb has been estranged from his parents for years now. His alienation from them began early in his childhood. The product of an unhappy marriage, he knew little about those he shared a roof with. The second most popular reason to visit India (after cheap healthcare, that is) is a wedding. A friend’s wedding offers him a chance at reconnecting and getting a few much-needed answers.

The son of immigrant parents living in the US, Deb’s story about struggling to fit in will seem extremely relatable to Indians because we are a land of immigrants. We’re all still equally befuddled by each other and how our neighbours live. The confusion during mandatory participation in cultural holiday traditions is the same in both countries whether it’s Halloween or Holi. We’ve all struggled to fit in, suppressed bits of ourselves to be more like ‘them’. The American journalist’s mature deconstruction of our fascination for ‘white’ is extremely accurate. We stop separating the people from the culture. “I just knew I wanted distance from whatever culture had forced my parents together and produced this misery... I grew to idealize whiteness which I conflated with safety and easy communication.”

In measured doses Deb oscillates between the gravitas of naked, soul-stirring truths about relationships and family flaws and the professionally delivered levity of Indian weddings as tamer versions of Burning Man. One such moment is when he recounts his father proudly yelling “Harvard! Harvard Graduate!” to an old, hard-of-hearing uncle. He sneaks in off-the-cuff remarks that are astute, to say the least, about how Indian family weekends are just “sit-on-the-couch-togethers” at a relative’s house.

What sets Missed Translations apart from the usual discovering-your-roots fare is Deb’s exploration of culture — the nuance that he manages to unravel in linking cultural notions to family dynamics, styles of parenting, the context behind his parents’ shortcomings, their flaws, and his own. Deb’s father talks with chilling pragmatism about an India 50 years ago where couples would birth a child within a year of marriage, before the partners had time to discover each other’s flaws. The child would then take the focus off each other. The sad truth of how families functioned as army units with duties and obligations used to bind members together, like primeval organisms that would huddle together for protection and treat the word of their elder as gospel, is ably illustrated.

Deb’s heart-rending conversations with his family bring to light our collective cognitive dissonance where most Indian parents would tell you that the relationship they now share with their children is nothing like the one they shared with their own parents. But in most cases, it’s eerily close. The honest-to-a-fault analysis Deb brings to his actions gives us hope that self-awareness might yet be within reach. He refuses to talk to his mother about his lay-off for fear of appearing a failure. He gladly accepts a busy on-the-road job so that he would have a legitimate excuse to not be in frequent touch with his mother. How many of us can claim to not have been similarly motivated?

What Deb manages to do in Missed Translations is narrate occasions filled with pathos and somehow elevate them to almost a clinical lesson in how a culture influences the way we work and think. For instance, the call reconnecting with his mother after years is devoid of linguistic frills, or excessive commentary. It is stark, and yet moving. Maybe it works because it’s just the truth and, in this context, we simply haven’t heard that in a while. Deb says it in the naked way things were and are without too many edits.

Percy Bharucha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and illustrator

Published on January 11, 2021

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