By Deepak Singh
I grew up in Lucknow, a northern Indian city of nearly 3 million people, about 7,000 miles from here. That’s where I met my wife, Holly, an anthropologist from America, and her work eventually brought us to the U.S. For 14 years, we bounced around the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic, from college town to college town. Until last year, when Holly accepted a postdoc fellowship at Bowdoin College, I’d never heard of Brunswick. And Maine? All I knew was that there’d be lobsters and snow.
Thankfully, we arrived in summer, when town was in full bloom. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen — the magnolia-lined sidewalks, the leafy village green, the red-brick campus. And then there was the bustling main street: restaurants dishing cuisines from all over the world, coffeehouses, donut shops, ice cream stands, bookstores, art galleries, antiques stores. For the first couple of weeks, I excitedly explored all of it.
But soon, as had happened time and again, the novelty started to wear off. I always wind up missing where I used to live — not the last place I’d moved from, but rather Lucknow, my true home. I missed my parents and my friends in India. I longed for Lucknow’s crowds, heat, traffic, and dusty streets. No matter where I’ve lived in the U.S., homesickness has followed me.
Five years ago, when I was living in Ohio, a friend of mine from England, Richard, sent me a postcard from his travels in India. It showed a black-and-white photograph of Akbar’s majestic 17th-century tomb, from the city of Agra. I’d met Richard in Lucknow 20 years ago, and India has changed a lot since then, but his card reminded me of the time we spent there together — of the India I remember. It brought back memories of eating kebabs and biryani, visiting historic Mughal sites, and walking the side streets of my hometown.
I read constantly, and I decided to make Richard’s postcard my bookmark. Whenever I mark a page with it, or if it just slips out while I’m reading, it puts a smile on my face. The card has taken on a special, nostalgic significance. I carried it from Ohio to Indiana to Michigan to Maine, and all along, it has transported me, for brief moments, back to the place I so missed.
In my first few months in Brunswick, I met many people who were sincerely kind and welcoming, but I still felt as disconnected as I had elsewhere. It probably would have helped to see more people who look like me, speak like me, come from my part of the world. I felt too foreign in small-town Maine.
But slowly — and unexpectedly — that feeling started to change. One morning, during my wife’s first semester at Bowdoin, I was out for a stroll when I saw a middle-aged woman coming the other way. “Hello,” she said, smiling in a way that I thought, for whatever reason, seemed to invite conversation. I stopped. As we started to chat, I explained that I’d just recently moved to town, from Michigan, and that I was from India originally. At that, her eyes lit up. It just so happened that she’d be traveling to India in a few weeks, for the first time in her life. She seemed thrilled to have improbably bumped into an Indian in Brunswick, and I was excited to know that someone from my new town was visiting my home country. Before we parted, we decided to meet for coffee soon. When we did, she brought a friend, and the three of us sat for hours, discussing all things India.
Talking with someone about my native home, my family, my culture — I realized I’d found an antidote to my malaise. As time passed, I encountered more and more people who seemed genuinely interested in my life story, and my foreignness actually started to seem like an asset. Whether I was grabbing lunch, checking out a book at the library, or just strolling down the street, I made an effort to make eye contact, smile at people, and strike up conversations. Soon enough, I found myself with an expanding circle of local friends, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so much like an outsider anymore. In fact, I almost felt like I’d always lived here.
One day this spring, I picked up the book I’d been reading and realized that my trusty bookmark — the postcard from India — was gone. At first, I thought maybe I’d absentmindedly shoved it into the pages of another book. Nothing. I searched all over the house. Still nothing. My heart sank. I felt the pang of homesickness again.
A few days later, I went to my favorite Brunswick coffee shop to read. I’m always a little groggy in the morning. After living so many places, I have to remind myself of where I am when I wake up. Even then, it takes a coffee to really shake off the disorientation. So when I got to the front of the line, I was still in a daze. The cashier — whom I knew from many visits before — smiled at me, but before she asked what I wanted, she reached under the counter. “This is for you, Deepak,” she said, pulling out my postcard.
I stared at her blankly for a few seconds before it hit me: I’d been here earlier in the week, on a sunny day, reading. The card must have fallen out of my book then. Whoever found it hadn’t thrown it away, somehow recognizing that it wasn’t simply trash. And the cashier had kept it under the counter, just waiting for me to stop in.
Sitting down, sipping my coffee, I held the card in my hands, tracing the outline of Akbar’s Tomb with my fingers. It made me homesick, but this time it was different. I didn’t feel homesick for India, I was surprised to realize, but rather, preemptively, for Brunswick. My wife’s year at Bowdoin was ending, and we’d be moving again in a few weeks.
Not since leaving Lucknow had I felt as at home as I did in Brunswick. While I sat there marveling at how my postcard had found its way back to me — how considerate and kind its rescuers had been — a thought occurred to me: sometimes, it helps to be the only Deepak in town.