When Philip Larkin wrote his poem “This Be the Verse” in 1971 – which begins with the oft quoted line, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” he was staying with his mother in Loughborough, UK at the time. It begs the question: how much of what we inherit (both literally and figuratively) is to blame for the disarray in our own lives?

At the beginning of Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me, it would be fair to say that keeping in touch with his family was not top of New York Times writer Sopan Deb’s agenda. Since adolescence, he has found himself drifting from his Bengali family, resulting in an adult Deb that is comfortable but, crucially, estranged from his parents.

When Deb’s fiancé asks the date of his mother’s birthday, he’s stumped. “I must’ve known it at some point,” he tells himself. It turns out he can’t remember his father’s either. In fact, he’s not quite sure of his dad’s exact whereabouts in India.

It’s an Indian wedding of a close friend that ignites a yearning to reconnect with parents. Or rather, a cascade of guilt ignites the yearning. He knows that feeling like a bad son has, in part, inspired this decision to reunite. While his father now lives in Salt Lake (“basically the Brooklyn of Kolkata”), his mother stayed in New Jersey following his parents’ divorce.

“I felt guiltier about having let this relationship deteriorate in the way it had,” he writes. “There were several days I wanted to pick up the phone and call her, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

So how did this observant and self-aware journalist manage to create such a deep fissure between himself and his parents? As a teenager he blamed “arranged marriage, Hinduism and India” for growing up in an emotionally stunted household.

“I just knew I wanted distance from whatever culture had forced my parents together and produced this misery,” he writes.

But what sets Missed Translations apart is Deb’s scrupulous examination of a childhood where each family member was as clueless as the other. Deb’s parents become emblematic of the rites and rituals he is so desperate to eschew while growing up in his pocket of the Jersey Shore. While Deb yearned to be an all-American teenager, his parents weren’t quite sure how to be all-American parents.

He slips between affectionate pet names for his parents, and referring to them by their given names. His father is both “baba” and Shyamal in the same breath. While Deb may be a son, he is also a reporter: interrogating his childhood and investigating his parents’ new lives.

“Bishaka never asked me about my day when I was young, nor did I ask her. Shyamal never asked me, and I never asked him. Bishakha and Shyamal never asked each other,” Deb writes.

Whether he’s crossing the Hudson River or the Atlantic Ocean, in Missed Translations Deb spares no detail as he unpacks what was said – and left unsaid – to his parents while growing up.

Missed Translations is, at once, a memoir, travel diary, and an anatomy of stand-up comedy. Deb maintains a day job as a basketball and culture writer at The New York Times. But he also moonlights as a comedian. Deb is, perhaps, most comfortable when he has an audience. He remembers his inaugural performance as a child, in the backseat of his parents’ car, and the thrill that came from hearing his mother’s “deep belly cackle” after he cracked his first joke.

Reading Deb, you realize how rare it is to gain an insight into the mechanics of comedy from a comedian of color. He offers an autopsy of his show, dissecting his routine with a pathologist’s precision and a comedian’s self-loathing.

“If jokes are a comedian’s children, that one would be Cindy Brady,” he says. “It gets the job done, but who really cares?”

At the beginning of the book, we meet a somewhat jaded Deb, peddling the same comedy routines that make his race and heritage the punchline. But his journey throughout Missed Translations is one that also informs his comedy.

“My take on brownness had shifted from sarcastic to ironic to earnest embrace,” he writes.

That same sense of reflection is applied to his formative years, living with his parents, in Howell, New Jersey. “We were oil, vinegar and gasoline,” he notes of their triangular relationship. Whether he’s crossing the Hudson River or the Atlantic Ocean, in Missed Translations Deb spares no detail as he unpacks what was said – and left unsaid – to his parents while growing up.

In “meeting” his immigrant parents, Deb starts asking questions. Why did his father become an engineer? Did his mother date before marrying Shyamal? He starts paying the same level of detail to his relationship with his parents, as he does to his journalism or comedy.

He is both a tourist and a distant relative of a land that has provided him so much comedy material.

Like many South Asians who have a pull to their ancestral countries, despite not calling them home, Deb is giddy and excitable as he travels around India. This includes a, frankly adorable, moment where he is awestruck at seeing the Taj Mahal with Shyamal and his fiancé, Wesley.

“Holy shit. It’s right there. Holy shit. It’s right there. IT’S RIGHT THERE,” he recalls.

He is both a tourist and a distant relative of a land that has provided him so much comedy material.

There are moments in the book where we linger on tired anecdotes of lunchbox envy. A frustrated Deb laments the lack of gummy bears and animal crackers that his peers enjoyed. But these are merely ornamental details. Deb’s real discoveries come in the form of rough, unvarnished rubies. In the case of his mother, Bishakha, it means investigating the root of her sullenness throughout his teenage years.

“My mother just had to survive. I can’t comprehend what a burden that must have been,” he writes.

While the tone of “This Be The Verse” might suggest otherwise, Larkin was, by all accounts, a present and devoted son. His biographer, James Booth, even noted that Larkin would write to his mother twice weekly about the minutiae of his life. In the poem, Larkin concludes that parents “were fucked up in their turn/by fools in old-style hats and coats.” For Deb, this epiphany isn’t as swift as a 12-line poem. Rather Missed Translations spans continents and conversations. It’s a gradual understanding of Bishakha and Shyamal, who are now simply, “Mom and Dad.”