I was introduced to Thanksgiving as a 22-year-old doctoral student in Boston, specializing in educational media and technology with the intent to work in public broadcasting, when my dean invited me to his place. I was meeting his wife, Helen, for the first time. As a gift, I took with me a colorful batik painting I had made a few years earlier of a shapely rural Indian woman carrying a mud pot on her head. I did not want to part with it, but I wanted to give Helen something Indian and special. At that point, I had been in the country for about five years.
In their well-appointed home, much care and diligence had gone into setting the table as well. Aware that I am a vegetarian, Helen, a descendant of the earliest English settlers in the colony of Massachusetts, attractive, gentle and graceful in her movements and speech, had set a separate plate of boiled vegetables — string beans, carrots, broccoli — aside for me. There was also bread and butter, cheese and crackers, wonderful desserts and mashed potatoes, and such musts as cranberry sauce, corn, all certainly consumable by a vegetarian. A carefully balanced mound that arrived last, on a large oval crystal plate, was definitely not vegetarian. I learned that it was the bird turkey, without which I knew this holiday would be a joke. A huge carving knife lay beside it.
My dean, a tall, broad-shouldered man of German extraction, sat at the head of the table wearing a vest over his turtleneck, and began carving the glistening dead bird, its giblet stuffing spilling out.
A sociologist, the dean was one of the architects of desegregation in public schools. I admired him. He was also ardent about women reaching society's top echelons. (In 2008, when asked by his family to say a few words at his memorial, I expressed my eternal gratitude for his generosity toward me.)
During dinner, for the first time, I heard in-depth about the origin, history and significance of Thanksgiving. In his own way, he shared a Native American's point of view, too.
The hospitality my hosts extended to me was exceptional. Helen was flattered that I brought a gift with me. As proof of my attachment to it, I would have taken it back, but this would have been bad form.
Once I had a family, I started celebrating Thanksgiving, too, with all the trappings minus the bird. Indian vegetarian dishes like pulav and chole, idli and sambar take its place. One year I found a healthy and humongous cauliflower. Still in Halloween mood, I roasted it to make it look like a grotesque human brain. Olive-oiled and sprinkled with garlic bits and some salt, it tasted delicious, and my guests, a young relative and her Japanese friend, both graduate students, loved it, too. That year, the cauliflower was the centerpiece. Photos of it from various angles were taken; a couple of the best ones ended up in an album.
The most memorable Thanksgiving was when my father, who had been admitted to the intensive care unit returned home, cured, just in time for the holiday. My gratitude that time was Himalayan-sized.
To me, every day feels like Thanksgiving because I do not take anything I have for granted and, in fact, feel grateful for all of it.
Years later, when I visited Helen and the dean, I took with me a store-bought batik work. I gave it to Helen even as I asked, shamelessly but with an apology, for the return of the original. Making a fool of myself, I explained that at the time, the girl-with-the-pot was the only gift I had to bring. Helen graciously accepted the replacement.
My painting hangs in my home, yet each time I pass it, I recall my cringeworthy act.
Rohini B. Ramanathan,
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