by Pravin Trivedi
It was Nov 13th evening in Shrewsbury, the time was about 7 p.m. My wife was flipping thru the channels on our TIVO, Roku, and several other devices that we used to view Indian Diwali programs as well as the much-used Zoom for connecting to family and friends. She was finally ready to give up. She pressed the button hard since the screen was dark and it was difficult to make out what was going on. There was very soft music in the background; a voice, a little flute music and a very vilambit time stamping on the tabla. She stopped and the scene became clear, a picture of a huge stone gate in nightly darkness.
I looked at my watch and figured out that it was daybreak, around 6 am in India. The scene got brighter and then it all made sense. Concerts were not being held because of Covid and the camera never panned to any audience. The early morning raga’s alap was well supported by the hypnotic flutist jugalbandi. The tabla beat a subtle reminder of the cyclic nature of our lives,
The sun came up, it got brighter, and the music and the gateway were a solid reminder of the time and place. It was the most memorable Diwali I had woken up to.
The First Thanksgiving
“And what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” she said.
I was seated next to her on my right. I think she was talking to me, since her head was inclined in my direction.
I had come alone to the dinner at the Holiday Inn with the revolving restaurant in Springfield Massachusetts. My wife waited back in our apartment in Queens, New York, with our 5-month-old child, and my retired father. She had decided not to move until I was safely at work for a month and had a couple of paychecks.
We were at a company dinner, which had all the promise of being as boring as can be. There were six of us, newly hired engineers in this 100-year-old family run company that appeared to have been bought out by a much lager behemoth out of the mid-west. This was my first real job as an engineer in this new country for us, the USA. I was so new to the country that I had to pause for a minute to think about when and what was Thanksgiving. We didn’t have one in jolly old U.K. where I had lived for over 13 years before immigrating to the land of plenty.
To my left was another large single man, slow in talking and too precise and boring an engineer to be of further conversational value. I was hoping the formal welcoming dinner would be over soon. We were at the tail end of an elaborate meal, awaiting dessert, coffee and what I hoped for after… freedom.
We had arrived at JFK from London one icy rainy evening in January. The 747 taxied to a stop after a very bumpy ride and a shaky touchdown. It came to a stop on the tarmac as no open gate was available for a while. The doors opened, the hostesses were saying “take care, welcome to New York”. And we faced a walk down the long 50 step staircase with a little baby in his mother’s tight bosom, holding hands and wondering what the future held for us. The ice made it treacherous down the steps, and somehow, the last one was missing or smaller, causing my wife to stumble. I went to grab her and all three of us were a lot closer to the icy terra firma than we wanted, so soon after arrival.
We were surrounded by the attentive staff and helped onto a screeching and jolting bus ride to the international terminal. Finally, we were in the immigration hall. That’s when the baby decided to wake up, cry for food, and a change of a nappy… all at once.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
The lonely green lady stared at the edge of the sea. The sea where we flew in from. We were just like millions of others to her. I wondered if she would ever get tired… lower her torch and sigh.
“Why is this envelope open? It is supposed to be kept closed and only opened by an immigration officer” were the first words, in a New York accent, that welcomed us when we got to the window of Foreign Nationals, Customs and Immigration. I had not noticed that the child had started chewing on the brown envelope corner as his mother was too shy to feed him in the cavernous billowing hangar that was serving as a temporary immigration clearing center.
“I beg your pardon…” I started explaining.
“I cannot accept this; you will have to wait here,” he said and disappeared.
I sighed and decided to get out of the line, took our seven suitcases and piled them in a corner to create a barricade so my wife had some privacy to feed the child covered up in the airline blanket that I had inadvertently taken with us.
And that is how, on January 31st, 1971, we set our feet on the land where an Italian, years ago, believed India to be.
“I am sorry I did not hear your question,” I replied.
“Oh, don’t mind me, you have probably a million things lined up,” she said.
“Actually, we do not,” I said. “My wife. baby son and my father will arrive in Springfield in two weeks after I can find an apartment. And I am not sure about Thanksgiving, when it is, or what one does.”
She looked at me, now a little suspiciously, and tried to see if I might be joking. Who hadn’t heard of Thanksgiving!
The man seated next to her said, “He probably does not know about it. He lived in England all these years.”
“I am afraid I am not familiar with Thanksgiving,” I said.
“That is fine. We want you to come over for dinner and stay with us for the holiday. And Frank,” she said turning and making him the target. “Why don’t you help him this weekend with looking for an apartment?”
” Yes dear,” mumbled Frank.
“Thank you, but I am afraid we, er.. my father is living with us.”
“Well, bring him with you,” she said, unfazed.
“But I am afraid he is a vegetarian!”
“Well we’ll also cook vegetarian if you tell me what it is. But it is settled. You are new, and you are all invited to our place”
Her air of authority and finality was absolute, and it was enough for me to mumble my thanks.
Dinner over, I went to my room in the hotel. Some of the others had plans to go to a place called the “Mardi Gras”, which I was not certain about. I met my favorite couple again in the hotel lobby.
“So, you did not join them?” Frank said.
“No, I am not sure where they were going, but it sounded rowdy and drinking away the latter part of the evening. I am not sure if that would be appropriate at this time,” I said.
“Me neither. We will turn on the TV and fall asleep. See you for breakfast.”
Strange, a white family, and an Indian family getting together at Thanksgiving in Massachusetts, a few hundred years after Miles Standish and the Massasoit.
Thank you, Columbus.
Thank you, Margot.