Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

Opinion | Thanksgiving Turkey and Raita in Texas

My father’s sense of America came from the John Wayne movies he watched as a young man in India. He loved the blank highways of the West Coast. An application sent on a whim from Chennai got him acceptance to a graduate program at U.C.L.A. and eventually a Ph.D in operations management, a new behavioral science in the 1970s that drew restless types from across the world. Physical openness suited his view of his second country.

We did all the American scenes big, but especially Thanksgiving. There can’t be many families of any race or creed as invested in the holiday as mine. Our house in Dallas became the center of the world come November. Cousins, aunts, uncles without the holiday off made space in the calendar to fly in from India. A turkey joined our normally vegetarian household, with no debate about Hindu notions of cleanliness.

The spread reflected aspirations. On the dining table, dishes married Hallmark and Karnataka: green bean palya, sweet potato raita. A friend of my parents dreamed up cranberry chutney, an instant hit. My mother’s best friend brought a touch of cosmopolitan sophistication: yams and marshmallows without any Indian spice.

The coffee table stayed frozen in time, homage to Mom’s take on America, and after her death, to Mom herself. Appetizers spoke to the quick-food era: cream cheese tortilla rollups served with salsa; a loaf of King’s Hawaiian carved to hold spinach dip thick in water chestnuts, recipes pulled from magazines she leafed through in her early years in the country.

The parties told a story of the nation’s contemporary history. As a young business school professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, my father had students from India. My parents thought to provide a home.

The moods of the brown folks who walked through our doors reflected shifts in American policy and the global order. In the 1980s, a mania for finance degrees and with relative ease of entry meant a flood of Indian M.B.A. students. In the 1990s, Indian migration to Dallas soared, and friendship became less an act of desperation than of choice. In time most attendees spoke Kannada, the language of my parents. In the early 2000s, as the Indian economy grew, there were excited conversations about annual return trips, from which some families never returned.

Cousins from India became part of the household, and the country: Mukund, who would get his M.B.A. at the University of Texas in Dallas; his wife, Asha, for whom the allure of America had faded after the outsourcing boom brought bars and jobs aplenty to their home city of Bangalore. Raghav locked himself upstairs on his first Thanksgiving to watch the American version of “The Office” as required reading of a sort for an undergraduate with a Mumbai accent in Chicago.

My mom’s last year alive, 2007, we sang around the table that she and my father bought their first year in Texas. A stroke wiped her of speech except in song. She managed broken refrains to tunes she remembered from India, devotional songs and Bollywood hits. After she died the parties turned rare and sparse, in rhythm with the outside. Our local scene aged, the young scattered, recession reordered the world.

I had moved to Brooklyn. Thanksgivings had become an ad hoc affair. In 2016, under a new administration, we staged a reunion tour as my father turned 70. I emailed family early and asked them to buy plane tickets to Dallas. The presidential election unsettled me.

We held a roast outside the house: Uncles and aunties from Dallas sat in the audience as the family put on a show. Jokes centered on decay. Dad’s house broke days before the holiday: The stove didn’t work, the power went out, his car wouldn’t start. We boiled water on a camping stove donated by an uncle whose wife sat at home with tumors to fight.

An Iranian student of Dad’s, who was supposed to join us, was already having trouble with his visa and was stuck in Canada. Dad fretted he might lose a job offer to teach in America, that he might never be let back in. A cousin roasted the audience, making fun of their belief in America. He took special aim at those who voted for a man under whom they might never have made it in, were their timing different.

My cousins now have children who didn’t know of a past to mourn. They turned the power failure in my father’s house into a game, calling the long weekend “the Pitch-Dark Party.”

We ate Thanksgiving dinner at Macaroni Grill, the only open restaurant, sold out of turkey and cranberry. “It’s all I want,” wailed my niece, Tanvi, daughter of Mukund and Asha, who now lived in New Jersey. “I just want a turkey and snow!”

Hadn’t my parents tried to meet a similar need of students, family, friends — to participate in an illusion? Turkey and family and football. An American scene, peopled by us, despite our differences from the stars of Norman Rockwell canvases and holiday commercials. I realized my wish for a Dallas Thanksgiving came out of a wish for illusion, too, a discomfort with reality.

Mom is gone, snowfall is unreliable, and West Coast highways aren’t empty. Rather than entrap my loved ones in indulgence of my resistance to change, I have decided to be graceful about it. This year, we’re going to Mukund’s in New Jersey for Thanksgiving.

Mallika Rao is a writer.

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