Caught Between Worlds, Shadows and Light: The Professor of Light
by Marina Budhos
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
DON’T LOOK BACK, if you’re racing, pursued by the flames of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or you’ll be turned into a pillar of salt. Don’t look back, if you’re Orpheus on the threshold of escape, holding your Eurydice by the hand, leading her out from captivity in the Underworld. Steal a peek of your beloved, and the game will be up. She’ll fall back into the abyss. Whether it’s horror or longing that compels the glance, fight it, or the costs will be tragic.
The Western canon offers many examples of the dangers of looking back, and it is this anxiety about memory that animates “The Professor of Light,” Marina Budhos’ lyrical but schematic second novel. Her characters, immigrants to successful addresses in the First World, wrestle against the impulse to cultivate “home” and its habits, once permanently abroad.
For Warren Singh, a philosophy professor in New York City and the novel’s namesake, the claims of the past are psychological blocks to achieving his ambition: to write the definitive book about the dual nature of light, as both matter and energy.
The past asserts itself through ever more insistent letters from his mother and sisters in Guyana – the second poorest country, after Haiti, in the Western Hemisphere and a place that some might argue is its own Underworld of political burlesque and economic need, its own Sodom and Gomorrah of racial sins.
Warren’s relatives report, in blue aerograms “sliding through the mail slot with a scary hiss,” that the house is falling apart. That, in a country “that once shimmered with green paddy fields,” there is no rice to buy. That they never receive the money he sends to the village gas station. And that his brother Joseph (once upon a time, his partner in dissecting Descartes) is close to death.
If it were not for Sonia, his Jewish-American wife, the letters would pile up unanswered in the room where he paces, mulling over the paradox of light and wishing he could disentangle himself from his roots long enough for sustained flights of scientific inquiry.
Soon, the letters arrive with coaxing gifts: guavas wrapped in pink tissue, pillows embroidered by Singh’s sisters, glass bangles for his teenage daughter, Meggie, the book’s narrator.
The plot, or what there is of plot in this highly meditative novel, unfolds over several summer holidays in England with Warren’s favorite sister, Inez. Married to a dry Englishman, Inez has become a caricature of English propriety, “hushing the sunny vowels of her accent,” hating the way that Guyanese men wear their shirts to show their curly black hair and dismissing them as “rum-headed fellows” who “don’t know how to get on with their lives.”
“I didn’t come to England to listen to their stories and moan about the old country,” she declares. “I married a good man.”
In one of the novel’s most vivid scenes, two of those “rum-headed fellows,” childhood friends whom Warren rediscovers quite by accident at a cricket game, come like a cyclone into Inez’ home. Liquor cabinets fly open. Talk alive with old times and dialect flows like rum. Much that is English – the porcelain miniatures of Big Ben and the London Bridge and the meticulously kept flower beds – is ruined. And, in the end, as Inez had predicted, they demand money, leaving Warren to conclude: “The people from my past, they want so much. They want more than I can give.”
The reasons for the Singhs’ denial of the past, ironically, lie exactly there. Even before Warren, bound for the United States, says goodbye to his weeping mother on their veranda, “leaving” is central to his identity. He is a descendant of Indian indentured laborers in the former British colonies of the Caribbean. “They say,” Inez tells her young niece, “that every season when the old folks plant their seed cane in the fields, they remember their lost homes in India and weep tears of longing, which mingle in the earth. The rum they brew muddles their children’s heads and makes them slow-footed and melancholy, so they can never leave home.”
The ancestors conspire to keep their offspring close. The Singhs’ mother, in Budhos’ poetic idiom, ties red ribbons around her daughters’ waists. She sends letters that weigh like stones in the pockets of her son Joseph, then a government worker in Aruba, to force him home.
She buries an egg under the steps every time her daughter Didi, a beauty in love with the wrong man, looks wistfully beyond their yard. Those eggs hatch into “half-born bird-ghosts” that push through the earth, rising to “let out their fury on those of us who dare run away and live out our dreams.”
This image of the bird-ghost recurs throughout “The Professor of Light,” a book that gains its momentum not from character or plot, but from the progress of a series of ideas and symbols, chief among them: light.
It is held up as an ideal, both particle and wave, in a fictional world charged by many opposites (flesh and intellect, roots and flight, man and woman, superstition and reason). It is even able to serve as a metaphor for transnational identity.
As Meggie Singh, a young woman with multicultural credentials much like the author’s, says, summing up the novel’s overarching conceit: “It’s like this. My dad always taught me that we were in between. He’s Indian from the West Indies and my mother is not. We live in the States, but we come here every summer to be with Uncle Tom and Aunt Inez and George and Timmy. Light is like that. Here and there. In between.”
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