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Getting To Know Estranged Parents — Finally — In 'Missed Translations'

Lots of writers have said, in lots of ways, that an unhappy childhood made them writers.

Sopan Deb had a childhood in suburban New Jersey that doesn't sound unhappy — more like he was often unhappy with his parents: Bishakha, his mother, and his father, Shyamal. And his parents were almost always unhappy with each other. They had an arranged marriage, but Deb calls them mismatched souls.

"They were a bad match from the start," he says. "Personality wise, just everything you could think of. They were not the right people for each other. And the reason my parents actually even got married is, I found out in the course of writing this book, was that my dad had immigrated to the United States and he put an ad in a newspaper."

His maternal grandmother answered the ad — and when Shyamal showed up on Bishakha's doorstep, she had no idea he was there for marriage. "And so they were unhappy right from the start. And, you know, they let that unhappiness fester for several decades."

Deb's new book, Missed Translations, tells the story of his trip to India to try to figure who his parents were before they got married.

Interview Highlights

On his father leaving

So, you know, my father and I, we had a you know, we barely had a relationship growing up. We barely spoke. He didn't know anything about me. I don't know anything about him. And then after my parents' divorce ... my freshman year of college. My father comes to see me and he says goodbye. And it's the last time I saw him for 11 years. You know, a couple weeks later, it might've been a month after that last visit, I got an e-mail from him or I got a call from him, he says, I left the country. I'm in India now.

On whether he's mad at his parents.

... at the end of the day, yeah, I've forgiven them for the upbringing I had. But at the same time, I realize that I also wronged them.

Not anymore. I was. Are there parts of me that are like, man, I wish I had this growing up ... I wish this was easier, of course. But at the end of the day, yeah, I've forgiven them for the upbringing I had. But at the same time, I realize that I also wronged them. And I hope that in the course of, you know, however long we live on this planet, they'll forgive me for some of my shortcomings as well.

On how he wronged his parents

Well, for one thing, I think that getting to know each other is a two-way street. Communication is a two way-street. And especially as I got older, yes, my parents didn't understand me and the United States and the world I belong to, and yes, I couldn't talk to them about significant others or therapy or depression and that kind of stuff. Yes, that's true. But I also didn't try to talk to them about what they were going through. And I wasn't empathetic to them and where they came from. I think that's my fault. I should have done more. I mean, look, my dad left the country without telling anybody. And for the next 11 years, I never asked him why, or where he went. That's not something for me to be proud of. And that's something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

On discoveries he made

There's so much to discover here. And it allowed me to empathize with my mom more than I ever did in my entire life.

There were several secrets I came across in the course of this journey that I never even knew to look for. And it put everything into place for my family, in many ways, as to why we were the way we were, and why my mom didn't want to marry my father. There's so much to discover here. And it allowed me to empathize with my mom more than I ever did in my entire life.

On getting to know his parents

They're very lovely people. You know, one of my favorite parts about the book is my dad and I, we played tennis together. And my entire life growing up, I was so envious of all the kids around me who got to be coached by their dads in Little League and basketball, and they watched Knicks games together, et cetera. You know, my father and I never had that growing up. And the great thing about the tennis match is, you know, my dad's been taking lessons with a coach, you know, for the last decade. And I've never played tennis. And then we take the court. It turns out that my dad is terrible and I'm terrible. And it's the worst tennis match in the history of the world. And it could not be a more appropriate bonding moment for for the Deb family. I will tell you that, because now I know why I don't have any athletic skill.

This is where I think I came up short. If I could just open my eyes past my own needs as kind of an American child, and if I stopped comparing them so much to what my friends had, this kind of healing process would have began years and years earlier. And I regret that it took so long.

This story was produced for radio by Ed McNulty and Danny Hensel, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.