THE PROFESSOR OF LIGHT, by Marina Budhos, Putnam, 254 pp., $23.95.
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
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
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:
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."