New York Times writer and memoirist Sopan Deb shares the trip he longs the take after the pandemic and why it's so important to him and his family.
“This time it will be harder to say goodbye. Parting will be difficult,” Shyamal, my father, said, as we munched on dosas in a crowded cafeteria at a rest stop on the side of a highway near Delhi.
He had just finished listing “the dreams of my life” to my then-girlfriend Wesley and me. That was his phrase: “Dreams of my life.” He had lots of dreams. Most of them hadn’t come true. One of them, he said, was that one day, Wesley and I would come back to India and he could throw us a wedding ceremony. Wesley and I exchanged glances. We weren’t yet committed to each other, so how could we commit to this?
This trip, taken in the summer of 2018, to see my father was the first time I had seen him in 11 years. It was a three week jaunt of reconnection and forgiveness that was coming to an end at the rest stop. We were on our way to the airport. Wesley and I were heading back to New York, Shyamal to his home in Kolkata.
My mother and father were arranged to get married in the United States in the 1970s, and were a toxic mix from the start. But because of the stigma surrounding divorce among South Asians, they stayed together for thirty years. Shyamal had difficulty assimilating to the United States - one of his dreams that went awry. In that period, they raised two children: my older brother, Sattik, and me. Our childhood was filled with unhappiness and silence, family conversation a rarity. We rarely ate dinners together or went on family trips. Smiles were not common in our household. In high school, my parents finally, mercifully, divorced.
During my freshman year of college, Shyamal moved back to India without warning and without telling anyone. We had never been close, and I failed to actually ask him why he left. Instead I nursed resentment of his decision for the next decade until finally deciding to go to him in Kolkata and ask all the questions I never had.
And I did. I learned as much about his backstory as I could in those weeks, and we had several difficult conversations about our upbringing and family disintegration. (It was clear we all should have been more empathetic and communicative - two traits often lacking in American immigrant households.) By the end of the trip, Shyamal and I shared our first beer, our first travels together, a tennis match and frankly, the first conversations of my lifetime.
At that rest stop, my father was a human to me for the first time, rather than a distant footnote from my past. And he wanted to throw us a wedding. Ask any Indian parent about the significance of throwing a wedding. That conversation could go on for days, just like the wedding itself. It is something that some South Asian parents save up entire lifetimes for. They can be a signifier of class and status are the culmination of a lifetime of parental duties. South Asian nuptials, of course, are themselves a spectacle: a slightly tamer version of Burning Man. Shyamal wanted a small taste of that pride. We said we would consider it. Those three weeks with him felt like a lifetime. And he was right: It was harder to say goodbye this time. At least here, I had the chance.
In December 2019, Wesley and I got engaged. It wasn’t anything lavish: simply in our apartment on Christmas night, just the two of us. Shyamal’s reaction to the news was something along the lines of, “you guys weren’t engaged already? Oh.” He was happy nonetheless. I told him we would come out to India in the next year to celebrate our wedding in some way. He was delighted to hear this and immediately began planning in his head. My father said he needed six months notice, which gave us an indication that he was planning something on a far grander scale than we wanted.
And then the coronavirus hit, upending all of our lives for the immediate future, particularly my father’s. The Indian government issued a nationwide lockdown, keeping Shyamal isolated by himself at home. It’s too early to know for sure, but given the unprecedented nature of this pandemic, I don’t know if we will be able to give my father the wedding celebration he so wants in India. We don’t even know if we’ll be able to do the ceremony we are planning in the United States.
The damage wrought by coronavirus is so vast that it feels selfish to hope for anything besides a treatment and a vaccine. But I miss my father. I never thought I would write that. And I hope that in a post-quarantine life, Wesley, myself and our friends and family can go to Kolkata to celebrate our future together. I know that is Shyamal’s wish as well.
Sopan Deb is a writer for the New York Times and the author of "Missed Translations: Meeting The Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me," available now for purchase from everywhere books are sold.
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