The Professor of Light

The Professor of Light

by Marina Budhos


$19.50 View All Available Formats & Editions


Psychological drama and Caribbean storytelling combine in a novel about a young woman, her father, and their journey through science, dreams, and the legends of family history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9788186939086
Publisher: RST Indiaink Publishing
Publication date: 01/01/2000
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Summers we went to England.

    Every May, my mother dragged the Samsonite luggage down from our attic and started packing. In flew the permanent-press dresses, the wool skirts and lamb's-wool sweaters she'd bought for herself the summer before. There were my clothes too: black rubber Wellingtons, since rain was always a threat; leather sandals with a punched design; polo shirts and navy shorts, for I insisted on dressing the same as my cousin George. Squeezed into the edges of the overstuffed suitcase were packages of sheets and pillowcases for my aunt, American denim jackets and dungarees for George and my younger cousin Timmy.

    My father's suitcase smelled of leather and tobacco. He smoked a pipe, and brought a zippered pouch with pipe cleaners, a summer's supply of cherry-wood tobacco, and six different pipes. His shirts, each one sheathed in a sky-blue ribbon from the Chinese laundry, were lined up stiffly on the bed like a row of headless soldiers, pockets tattooed with ink stains.

    During the packing, my parents' bedroom was turned topsy-turvy; drawers gaped, dry-cleaning wrap lay wadded on the floor. Textbooks and papers from my father's study were spread about the bed, night tables, and carpet. "When are you going to organize this?" my mother would shout at him.

    Running a hand through his rumpled gray hair, he would look at her in anguish, and say, "I'm trying, I'm really trying, Sonia."

    The simplest of decisions confused my father. For hours while my mother packed, he paced and chewed on his pipe stem,scribbled notes on napkins, until, with a weary sigh, he settled onto the bed, next to the careful piles of clothes, with his face in his hands. Around and around his mulling went, all about physics and philosophy and mathematics, how to finish his book this summer, so that the question of what books and papers he should bring remained a damp, annoying mystery in his mind.

    "Just tell me!" my mother would finally demand.

    "I can't decide, Sonia," he would answer. "Put in whatever you want."

    "That's an original idea," she would fume, and nevertheless fill one medium-sized suitcase with his belongings, sort his crumpled papers into manila folders, label them with a marker, and type a checklist of the books and articles he wanted to read that summer.

    My father was a dreamer, a storyteller, a thinker. Always restless, he moved from mathematics to physics to philosophy. He had a fickleness of character, a terror of the finish line. For years, he'd been struggling to complete his book, an extraordinary opus that blended the various disciplines he had tramped through, and dared to resolve the particle—wave paradox of light.

    At the college where he taught, he was the resident guru, sitting on his leather throne in his ferociously messy office. In half-sentences, he sketched for students the gloomy tunnels of belief and the well-lit corridors of rational thought. He showed a passion for both. His soft, rolling voice, echoing with Caribbean cadences and bits of Hindi, made a gentle, if troubled, truce between the two.

    Sometimes I accompanied my father to the college, where I scurried to keep up with his long legs, his folder of papers tucked under my arm. My father was tall, with shiny brown skin and unruly silver hair atop a soft, youthful face. He moved in loose-limbed thrusts, as if he could not be bothered with the physical weight of his clothes.

    One September day, when I was nine years old, he brought me to his History of Ideas class. I sat shyly on his desk, next to a stack of books, knocking my heels against the wooden side. "This here my daughter, Megan," he announced to the room of puzzled faces. "She's going to teach you a lot of things about philosophy."

    The students stared and giggled.

    "All right. I can see you think I'm joking. You know what my daughter asked me the other day? She asked, 'How did I think before I knew how to speak?'"

    A boy snickered. "So what?"

    "But it's an essential question." My father took off his jacket and wrote on the blackboard: 1 + 1 =?

    The boy yelled out, "You gotta be kidding."

    My father perched on the edge of the desk, eyes bright. "Now can anyone tell me, how much is one plus one?"

    "What is this, remedial math?"

    "Just answer the question."

    The boy groaned out a "Two."

    "You sure?"

    "Of course I'm sure!"

    "How do you know what two really is? Or do you know that a composite of one and one is two? There you go, my man, one of the most essential questions in philosophy, what my daughter asked about before: a priori knowledge."

    As the boy's face fell, a triumphant fire glowed in me. A girl raised her hand. "Professor Singh, I'm confused. You told us to read The Republic."

    "Forget about the assignment. Tell me this: What is a philosopher?"

    "Someone who asks dumb questions?" the boy who snickered before asked.

    "Very good!" my father said. "Almost. That's my daughter, then. Meggie asks questions all the time. 'Where do I come from?' 'Why can't time move backward?' she asks. Why, why, why? She drives me crazy with all her questions!"

    I smiled, delighted that my father had remembered what I said, and thought it important.

    "She's not a philosopher," a girl with straight blond hair objected. "That's just curiosity."

    "Even better!" my father exclaimed. "Plato tells us the very same thing. 'If curiosity makes a philosopher, you will find many a strange being will have a title to the name.'" He pulled a book out of the pile and tossed it lightly to the girl. "So why isn't my daughter here a philosopher?"

    "Because she, doesn't have answers?"

    "Because she's too short?"

    My father scooped up the rest of the books, carried them to the open window, and flung them outside. The class watched in amazement as the books took wing on the autumn breeze and settled on the grassy slope. Then my father drew the blinds shut.

    "Imagine you are in a room like this, chained to your desk. The most you can see are shapes thrown against a wall from a distant fire, the shadows of trees as they move in the wind. For all you know, though, those shadows are the real trees.

    "All of a sudden I open the blinds and now you can see the trees and the grass up on a little hill. You are very curious, like my daughter here, so you want to move closer to the fire, to the source of this new sensation. You climb out the window and start walking up the hill. Your eyes ache, you're not used to so much light. This is Plato's parable of the cave. The cave is the world of sight and the light of the fire is the sun. The journey upward is into the intellectual world."

    I had shut my eyes. I had lost myself, my body, and was traveling in a boat in the night. My father had slipped into his Caribbean storytelling voice that lapped all around, sweet and soothing, as he coaxed me toward the distant, glimmering questions he lit up ahead.

    "When I was a little boy in my short-short pants, I grew up in darkness. The only light I had was a kerosene lamp. I had nothing else but the wisdom of my father and mother. So I learned to read and ask questions that helped me journey to the truth.

    "Now, our man Plato also learned from the wisdom of his forefathers, the pre-Socratics. He believed that every one of us has a fire in our eye that leads outward and joins with the light of the world. Think of our journey as a bridge of fire, gently swaying over a chasm of ignorance. Slowly, slowly, step by step, we walk along this bridge of fire, suspended in the air, into the grand radiance of knowledge."

    My eyes opened and I realized my father was gripping me by the waist. I was hanging in the air. One of the students had pulled up the blinds to show a maintenance man picking up the books, one by one, from the slope outside. The other students' faces lifted with surprise. A warm pleasure trickled to my stomach. I knew they were jealous of me because I was his daughter and my life with him would be extraordinary.

    Yet there was always his strange preoccupation that dragged us back into darkness and uncertainty. On the question of light my father remained stumped.

    For years, he hung, like a frightened acrobat, in the balance between particle and wave. The rope could suddenly snap, and he might tumble down. Or perhaps it was he who contemplated snapping, and this frightened him. It also frightened me. For something was never quite right with my father.

    But I am getting ahead of myself. Almost every night, my father told me stories, drew me into his questions, until I grew drowsy with sleep. His voice became a sound, the struck notes of a song, the start of the world as I was coming to know it.

    This is a story about many things. It is about light. It is about a mixed-up family that came together every summer to pretend it was whole. It is about the tales of long before. And it is about a father who one day stopped talking.

    And as with all stories, we must start at the beginning.

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The Professor of Light 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The girl in the book learns abut family,life, and growing up, while her father a struggling author and a wonderful professer tells about the discovery of light. Then when the family goes to England to see relatives the past starts tugging at his heels.