The students had spoken; they wanted Thanksgiving.
It was not an unreasonable request. We were Americans, after all, and it made all the sense in the world to celebrate this most American holiday – except that we were halfway around the world in the city of Varanasi, India.
Our study-abroad group had arrived in Calcutta on Sept. 10, 2001, and now, a few months later, life was still unsettled. Somehow, Thanksgiving seemed important, even though there would be no turkey, no stuffing, no cranberry sauce, no gravy; no grandparents, cousins, aunts, or uncles; no traffic jams; no football; and no leftovers.
The students were undeterred. They were in India to learn about Indian culture, but that didn't mean they had to forgo their own for the duration. Halloween had found us carving green, pumpkin-shaped squash; heaping baskets full of Indian sweets; and teaching home-stay "brothers and sisters" how to bob for apples. They thought it was perfectly reasonable to create a Thanksgiving for ourselves, far away from home, and we adults didn't see how we could refuse them.
I was wrong, as it happened, about the traffic jams. The day before Thanksgiving, I found myself crunched in the back of a cycle rickshaw, the road all around me crowded with pilgrims heading to the Ganges River to worship. It turned out that it was also the day of an important Hindu festival.
The rickshaw wallah couldn't pedal for the press of bodies around us, and he kept looking back at me hopefully, waiting for me to offer to walk the rest of the way. But looming beside me was an enormous box containing an electric oven, a box he'd had to help me wrestle onto the seat. Every time he looked back, I gestured to the box and shrugged. We inched forward through the pilgrims, and I felt solidarity with Thanksgiving travelers everywhere.
The oven was a Thanksgiving gesture. The kitchen in our program house was well equipped – by Indian standards – with a refrigerator, an electric water filter, dishes, and cutlery galore. Our stove, however, had only two burners, and while our able cook used it to produce multicourse Indian meals for 20, we were less confident in our own abilities.
Besides, we couldn't imagine Thanksgiving without enticing aromas wafting from the oven.
Several students had declared themselves to be the "Menu Ministry," and they'd spent days contemplating a suitable menu, one that took into account things that were possible to find in India.
Then they delegated. Because I had my own two-burner stove, I was given assignments that required simmering time – tomato soup and applesauce.
My landlords were perplexed. They saw me coming home in the middle of the day (unusual), laden with produce. They saw me stagger downstairs a few hours later, beneath my two largest pots. They asked what was going on. It's an American holiday, I told them. Of course, they wanted details.
My Hindi failed me – I had no idea how to explain the finer points of Thanksgiving, not to mention the other kind of Pilgrims and Indians – so I said it was a holiday where everyone cooked a lot of food and ate it together.
The menu, it must be said, was a bit bizarre. Along with the soup and applesauce, there were rolls, garlic bread, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. The carbohydrate overload was balanced by stir-fried vegetables with tofu, tomato salad, and fruit salad. The pepperoni someone had received in a care package was dubbed "fake turkey."
The students had inaugurated the new oven by baking brownies. Perhaps even more impressive, they'd figured out how to bake a spice cake in the pressure cooker. There was apple pie from a local restaurant, and ice cream and hot fudge from the grocery store. We were overwhelmed with abundance and goodwill.
We trekked to the roof terrace and settled ourselves around the table, specially constructed for the occasion out of low wooden bed frames. Bedspreads served as tablecloths, and bolsters and pillows as chairs. We were 14 students, four leaders, several guests, and an adorable (and flea-ridden) puppy a student had rescued. We scrunched our legs beneath the table and passed around our motley assortment of dishes. We talked and laughed and ate.
In the lull before dessert, one student handed each of us a candle. She lit her own, spoke a few words of thanks, then touched her candle to the one of the person next to her until it flared. And so it went around the table. A murmur of thanks, another flame in the dusk.
When all the candles were lit and everyone had spoken, we sat in silence for a few moments, warmed by the glow of the circle of light around us.
In a few minutes, chaos reigned again. The students got up and stretched, then began to clear the dishes and fetch dessert. The plates piled up in the sink, and the puppy cavorted underfoot. The spell of tranquility was broken.
But outside, the moon rose and the stars came out. And lining the wall of the terrace, illuminating the spire of the temple next door and spreading light into our now quiet neighborhood, were the flames of 20 candles – the visible thanks of 20 grateful people far away from home, and yet not so far away at all.