Over laughter, food, and music, strangers became friends

As a student visiting from India, my first Thanksgiving was perhaps closest in spirit to the original significance of the holiday.

When I first arrived in America from India as a university student, Thanksgiving was merely a date marked in red on my calendar that promised a welcome respite from classes.

When friends invited me to visit for the long weekend, I declined, planning to use the break to finish a long-overdue paper instead.

On Wednesday evening though, I realized I had blundered. The campus was a lonely ghost town. Here I was in a dark library 7,000 miles from home, while everyone else was with family. As I packed up my books and headed toward my dorm, the icy wind cut through the winter coat I had purchased in my hometown of Madras, where the temperature had never fallen below 68 degrees F.

The girls' dorm held one remaining occupant. Carla, who was from Venezuela, took the same Comp. Lit. class I did, and was part of a group I sometimes ate lunch with.

Upon learning of my plight, she insisted I join her for Thanksgiving dinner the next day. Her hosts, she assured me, would welcome an extra person.

I accepted with gratitude. The impersonal company of strangers seemed preferable to spending another evening missing my family.

Our hosts were a couple in their mid-30s - Ben, an architect, and his scientist wife, Anna, from Russia. They had met in Boston and moved to our university town four months before.

We made small talk - about the weather, about the newness of New England - as we nibbled on cheese. Ben would disappear periodically "to check on the oven."

Finally he announced that dinner was served. On the table were candles, silverware, and cloth napkins. Bowls filled with attractive orange and green foods were displayed around a jewel-toned pink dish. A hunk of bread swaddled in linen peeped out from a wicker basket.

I was impressed. It was an enormous upgrade from my usual pizza-and-milk dinners. An elderly lady walked in as I took my seat.

Anna explained that this was her mother, who had recently arrived from Russia and spoke no English.

Then the kitchen door swung open to reveal a flushed Ben bearing an enormous turkey, which he placed ceremonially at the head of the table.

I'd heard that turkey was traditional fare at Thanksgiving, but I had imagined a bowl of turkey nuggets in gravy - an American version of chicken curry - that would be one of several dishes on the table.

It had never occurred to me that the turkey would be the jewel in the Thanksgiving crown. I stared, aghast, as Ben began to carve the meat, and when he passed me my plate, I murmured, "No, thank you."

Carla looked at me with dawning understanding, and said, "Oh, she's vegetarian."

An awful silence fell around the table. Then everyone began to apologize: My hosts apologized for not having considered that someone from India would be vegetarian. Carla apologized for having forgotten to mention it earlier. And I apologized for being such a nuisance and for spoiling the dinner.

It was tough to pick out the most embarrassed person at the table, but I won.

As I spooned sweet potatoes onto my plate, Anna's mother evidently asked why I wasn't eating the turkey. Anna explained that Indians were often vegetarians.

Anna's mother nodded, turned toward me, and began to sing.

"Awaara hoon, awaara hoon. Ya gardish mein hoon ya asmaan ka tara hoon...."

Like the rest of the table, I was stunned - but for a different reason from everyone else.

"Awaara hoon" is a Hindi song from a 1950s Indian film, "Awaara" ("The Vagabond"). I knew the song well. My mother often hummed it as she chopped vegetables for dinner. I sang it while shampooing my hair, and my 5-year-old niece would perform her version of the moonwalk each time we played that cassette.

Anna translated as her mother explained. Indian films had apparently been very popular in Russia back in the 1950s. Anna's mother had seen "Awaara" four times with Anna's father. When Raj Kapoor, the dashing hero of the film visited Moscow, Anna's mother had waited at the airport for four hours to catch a glimpse of him. She did not know Hindi, but sang the song phonetically.

"What does the song mean?" asked Anna.

"A vagabond am I," I sang. "I'm in the horizon, I'm a star in the sky."

Anna's mother knew another song from "Awaara." It was a romantic duet. She took the male part, and I sang the female one in my best falsetto.

At the end of our meal, Ben fetched his guitar and began to sing "Hotel California." All of us but Anna's mother knew the words, and we joined in between bites of pumpkin pie.

When Carla and I walked back to the dorm four hours later, the cold was merely invigorating, and the falling snow beautiful.

We were both humming "Awaara hoon."

I have since acquired both family and close friends in North America, with whom I celebrate Thanksgiving each year. My first Thanksgiving, however, was perhaps closest in spirit to the original significance of the holiday. A stranger to the land, I was invited for a meal by someone I did not know, and over laughter and music and food, we became friends.

That it happened because of an Indian film song and a Russian mother only made it better.

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