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Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
Did you know that 2021 is, literally, the 400th anniversary of the supposed first Thanksgiving? I say “supposed” because there are many origin stories about who was the guest and who was the host. And whether any thanks were expressed at all.
The details are lost in the misty past, and what matters is the here and now. So, I want to share with you what Thanksgiving means to me. I was once a Pilgrim immigrant and now feel more like an Indian – my own kind of “Native” American.
Why were Native Americans originally called “Indians”?
Through the 1400s, a robust trade existed between Europe and South Asia. The West desired the riches of the east and of India: Jewels, Silks, and, of course, Spices.
The land journey was expensive and the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 made trade more hazardous. Soon, adventurers and explorers, funded by traders and kings, started looking for an alternative—a sea route. Sailing from Western Europe, (construction of the Suez Canal was centuries away) required rounding the southern tip of Africa. It was called the Cape of Good Hope because of the great optimism engendered by the opening of a sea route to India and the East. The voyage took the better part of a year – one way.
Christopher Columbus decided to sail West (rather than the intuitive East), expecting to eventually reach India from the other side of the globe. He landed in the Americas in 1492. Assuming that he had landed in the East Indies, he naturally called the natives “Indians.”
Other explorers continued to look for an eastern sea route to India. Vasco Da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, finally succeeded just six years later—after a two-year voyage.
The irony is delicious… a friend, Audrey, who has Native American ancestry joked…” the explorers set out in search of your people,” she said. “And found my people instead!” And yet, five hundred years later, as a result of many miracles, she and I met and became friends!
I learned from Audrey that even though “Native Americans” is the accepted term now, she and her family still proudly think of themselves as “Indians.” “My cousins are in every skin color… some have your color, some are darker, and some are whiter,” she told me.
The short lesson she provided regarding more recent “Indian” history was heartbreaking and illuminating. Just like segregated schools for black students, her North Carolina county had separate schools for Indian kids. Her grandfather was the founder of an “Indian” school and her mother drove the school bus that brought kids from several surrounding towns to their “Indian” school. These segregated schools were integrated in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
A New Kind of Spirituality: A Counterweight to the Pursuit of Happiness
Hinduism teaches that a life of virtue is found in living simply. In Buddhism, living a life with few attachments is the goal. Kind of depressing, I think. Against this background and accustomed to barely understood Sanskrit words in Hindu scriptures, I found the “pursuit of happiness” codified in the Declaration of Independence refreshing in its simplicity and in its acknowledgment of happiness as a worthy pursuit. What I also appreciated was that it exalted not happiness per se, but the pursuit of it.
President Washington sought to popularize Thanksgiving as a religious imperative and urged Americans to thank God. President Lincoln established Thanksgiving during the Civil War as a way to promote national unity. But the holiday, as it is observed today, draws successfully on the remarkable American ability to reinvent and re-imagine. It is not about religion but spirituality; not much about nationalism or patriotism at all, but it is most definitely about happiness—family and food.
To my outsider eyes, Thanksgiving infuses the pursuit of happiness with spirituality. The former, without the ballast provided by the latter, become nothing more than mindless consumption or hedonism. Thankfully, Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity each year to acknowledge the milestones achieved in the “pursuit of happiness” that we take as a matter of right.
How to celebrate without family or food?
Even though I appreciated the concept, I lacked the necessary ingredients. I had no extended family nearby. A vegetarian turned reluctant non-vegetarian, I found turkey dry and rubbery. Used to dishes spiced with turmeric, cumin, and coriander—all the spices that the explorers had streamed east for!—Thanksgiving sides tasted bland.
Most of all, I felt bad for my children. They were of this country and unlike me, they knew no other way of life. And so, some years we invited new acquaintances. Others, we drove across multiple states to be with distant cousins. Some years we made tandoori chicken… a poor approximation of turkey. Some years, we brought food from Boston Market. One year we volunteered at a local shelter.
2009 was to be a special Thanksgiving. Both children would be coming home—one from her first job in DC and one from college in Boston. Our empty nest would be full again. But, things didn’t work out quite as planned. My daughter called from the train—she wanted to spend Thanksgiving in Boston with her boyfriend and his family. I relented.
Unfazed by his sister’s postponed arrival, my son slept in and emerged only near noon. A couple of hours later, he said he had been invited to the home of a school friend. “Go,” I said, grateful that he would have a “real” Thanksgiving and grateful for the friend and his family who were willing to make room at their table at a moment’s notice.
The following week, I received an email message from my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother. “Thank you for sharing her with us,” the message read. I felt grateful for the community that we had managed to create and that had accepted us as one of them.
Fast forward a decade to 2020. Thanks to the pandemic (do I really mean to thank the awfulness!), I moved 3,000 miles to be near my children. It was my first grandchild’s first Thanksgiving. And we were all together! Vegan turkey was complimented by a range of vegetarian sides.
We are no longer the Pilgrims. We have become the Indians… the Native American hosts of the founding myth. Our guests were friends who are new to the US.
I am thankful for the fluidity of simultaneously being an insider and an outsider and never feeling jaded or burdened by history. I am thankful for the annual ritual of Thanksgiving.
Hope your Thanksgiving is one of peace and abundance. Happy Thanksgiving!
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.