Problem 1: Two weights are connected by a pulley system at the corner of a tabletop. The lighter one sits on the table while the heavier one is suspended from the edge. The classic question: what is the acceleration of the heavier weight?
Each year, once my Physics 1 students learn about Newton and his apple, about free body diagrams, about the rate of a rate, about weight versus mass, I give them this question. They are given the whole period to figure it out.
My bad students work diligently. They draw out pictures, label the gravitational forces, mark acceleration directions, and figure out the change in axes. Then they get stuck. My good students work diligently. They realize the acceleration of the weight moving across the table must equal the acceleration of the weight falling down. They replace the tension of the strings that connect the weights with their respective forces and solve.
At the end of the day, I gather up my things, shut off the lights, and close the classroom door behind me. I drive out to the senior home on the corner of Walsham and Court, deep in the outskirts of Queens. The facility sports a community garden by the entrance and weeping willow trees that line the property to create a natural boundary. Linda is the regular guard on Fridays.
“Nothing out of the ordinary today,” she says.
“I’m glad to hear it,” I reply.
I walk past the orderlies toward Room 302. I have no reason to be nervous. Yet my palms are wet, and the hallways look too bright.
“Good work, Baba,” I say when I walk in. His suitcase is packed. He is dressed in a black T-shirt and sweatpants. His bifocals hang from a string around his neck. “Are you ready?”
I look at his face. He’s not scared. He’s very calm. Determined. He nods. We walk back to the front desk, where I sign him out permanently. When we step outside, I start to cry.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m telling you, aren’t I? It’s okay.”
I help him into the passenger’s side, and we drive.
The only students who understand this concept are the ones who’ve loved their parents so much that they’ve fallen off the edge before cutting the rope.
Let me rephrase: you are connected by a rope to your mother or your father and you stand on a cliff while they dangle off the edge. Forget the grit of the dirt that you dig your heels into. Forget the force that the Earth exerts upon you just as you exert upon it. Forget air resistance and center of mass. The principle rests only on Newton’s second law: F = ma.
The two of you aren’t individual entities, but one system. Your mass is your bodies, collectively. Your acceleration is equal. The primary external force that makes you move is the gravitational pull of that person connected to you.
The only students who understand this concept are the ones who’ve loved their parents so much that they’ve fallen off the edge before cutting the rope. They are few, but they are the ones I feel sorry for.
When Baba chastises me, he always chooses an English word.
Tui ki stupid, na ki? Tui hochish akta idiot. Shob shomoy silly mistake, shob shomoy!
This exchange happens every night after dinner. We sit in the living room: me on the floor, my elbows taut against the coffee table and a pencil in my hand; him on the couch, in his undershirt, with my fourth-grade math workbook in his lap and a cigarette. The only light Baba will allow is the table lamp, and it shines obtrusively onto the scrap paper from his office, which I use to write out my answers. Baba works at a software company. I don’t know what that means except that the boss is a “fucker,” and that he speaks a number of languages, like Java and Python and C++.
Every movement has a consequential response. If I yawn, I’m told I only get sleepy when it’s time to study. If my gaze strays when Baba is teaching, I’m asked what can be more interesting than what I am learning. Periodically, I’m asked if I am paying attention. The worst is when I’m asked to hand him my paper so he can check my answers.
You are the child of two PhDs and you can’t even do long division properly? Shameful.
Because I’m American-born, I can’t handle insults. Because I’m Indian-raised, I can’t get angry. Naturally, most nights end in crying.
Why are you crying?
It’s almost as though he’s asking why I’m breathing. If it gets really bad, Ma steps in.
Every movement has a consequential response. If I yawn, I’m told I only get sleepy when it’s time to study.
Let it go, she tells him. Some nights he doesn’t, and we sit there for another hour. But when he does, I go upstairs and curl up with my latest chapter book in bed. My room is decorative; at night, Ma and I sleep in the master bedroom while Baba takes the guest room. Sometimes though, Baba comes into our room first, his anger gone, and asks me to step on his back to massage it. I hug the wall to keep my balance, and I walk up and down along his spine. I rub his forehead and scalp with my fingers and pull out as many grey hairs as I can find. Baba, fifty years young as he likes to say, asks me his customary questions.
“Aloki, will you take care of me when I’m old?”
“Am I old now?”
“That’s why I’m taking care of you now.”
Problem 2: Each year, I teach four sections of Introductory Physics. On the first day, I have my students push their desks to the edges of the classroom, clearing the middle. In the center, I hang a 12 lb. bowling ball from a closed hook in the ceiling—about waist-high, tethered by a thick wire. I ask for a volunteer. For some odd reason, it is usually a boy. Perhaps they think this is a lesson in strength. This is a lesson in potential, I tell the class. The boy stands at one end of the room, and I draw the ball back—keeping the wire taut, pulling it from the center of the room until it’s almost in front of the boy’s face. Keep it right here, I say, and he holds it.
His face twitches, and for a moment, I worry that this will be the time I’m sued for classroom injury.
Have you ever broken your nose? He shakes his head. Don’t move an inch. I step away, count down—three, two, one—and give him a quick nod. He grins as he releases it. The ball sails through the air, gathering speed. It slows down near the end of its arc, stays suspended for a moment, and then changes direction. The boy’s smile fades as it returns. His face twitches, and for a moment, I worry that this will be the time I’m sued for classroom injury. But the ball stops a few inches short of his nose before dropping back. We both sigh. Air resistance, I tell them afterwards. That’s what saved your classmate, ladies and gentlemen.
The next time I visit Baba, the orderlies say it’s not a good idea to see him.
“He’s acting out today,” one exclaims. “He tried again this morning, so we’ve had security stationed at the end of his hallway. Do you really want to try, Mrs. Davis?”
When I open the door to his room, things are strewn everywhere—old books covered in peeling newsprint, wrinkled T-shirts, single socks missing their mates, his weekly pill organizer, and an array of photographs—shots of him and Ma from when they were younger: in front of the Red Fort in Delhi, from beaches in Goa, and at Santiniketan. An overturned hard-shell suitcase sits by the doorway.
“Late again,” Baba states. He sits cross-legged on the floor.
“Chris is staying late. I told him I’d meet the lawn-care man before I came here.”
“Oh, he has a late night at work? What about you? Don’t you have late nights?”
“No, my classes end on time. Every day.” I motion toward the mess. “What is this?”
Baba’s glasses fall from where they’re balanced on his head. “This place is so shitty, babu.” He cleans the lenses with the corner of his linen shirt. “And the people are such pieces of shit. What else can I do?”
“You need to stop trying to escape.”
“Who said I’m trying to escape?” His laugh is hollow. “You’ve become just like them. Didn’t I teach you how to think properly? You can’t keep someone stuck inside a building and tell them what to do. These people need to understand that trapping us in here doesn’t mean that we’re living. We’re existing. But we’re not living!”
He slams his hands beside him. His shouting attracts a nurse, and we both stiffen when she opens the door. “Everything all right in here, Mr. Mitra?”
“Everything’s okay,” Baba says, switching to English. “No trouble, madam.”
After she closes the door behind her, I start to clean the room. “You can’t keep trying to leave. It’s not safe.”
He gives me an indignant look. “Not safe? Fuck safety. Your whole life has been safe.”
“Baba, we’re not doing this again—”
“Listen to me!” He thumps his hands on the floor once more. “This—” he motions up and down at me with his finger, “this is not you. Do you understand? What you had, what you still have, is more than teaching at a high school and being married to that— Anyway. If you want to cage me up like an animal, so be it. Say you want this, and I’ll stop and be polite and eat my oatmeal every morning until I die in here. It won’t take long, I promise.”
“Stop. Stop it,” I retort. “You make everything sound so easy, but it’s not. You can’t control my life, Baba. You think you know everything, but you don’t. You—”
He waves me away. “Leave. Go home. Think about what I’m telling you. Come back here when you figure out whether the opposite of safety is danger or freedom.”
I am eleven. I sit with my class in plastic chairs that fill the gymnasium for our sixth-grade awards ceremony. As the teacher shushes us quiet, I watch the doorway. The white children’s parents arrive. The room fills. I’m not surprised mine have not come. Ma can’t drive, and Baba doesn’t have a lot of leave from work. A few minutes later, though, the main doors creak open. Ma and Baba find seats in the back, saying, es-cus-me, es-cus-me as they tread over the other parents’ shoes. Once they sit, Baba starts his camcorder.
My math teacher calls out the names of the first two silver winners. The third name is mine.
The teachers hand out awards for sports and extracurriculars. Baba stops the camcorder almost immediately. The three of us know I’m not to win any of these. Soon, however, they begin the subject awards. There are ten in each: five bronze, three silver, and two gold. I win gold in science, English, and social studies. My math teacher calls out the names of the first two silver winners. The third name is mine. I make my way to the stage, the three gold medals clinking against each other around my neck, and grip the certificate she hands me tightly as someone from the crowd snaps a photo of me. After the flash, I see my parents in the background. They are both smiling, and Baba is shaking his head.
“Let me see those,” Ma exclaims on the drive home. I hand her the prizes. She admires the medals, my name engraved on each. She opens the certificate and traces her index finger over the letters. Aloki Mitra. “Dekho,” she says to Baba, moving it into his line of vision.
“All good,” Baba says, his eyes on the road. “But the maths, babu. Every time, the maths.”
I stay silent. As we get close to home, Baba pulls into our regular Dunkin’ Donuts in the strip mall across the street from our neighborhood, which we visit each month, usually on Sunday afternoons. But it’s the middle of the day in the middle of the week, and no other customers occupy the tables. Baba lets me pick out two celebratory ones: Boston kreme and French cruller. We sit and eat. Ma bites into a maple frosted, and Baba sips on a small black coffee.
“This summer, you’re going to practice SAT problems,” says Baba. “They’ll be harder than what you’ll see on that high school admissions test. But I want you to be more than ready when it’s time to take it.” Baba says SAT like the word for sitting down, like when he sat down and decided I would apply to the best magnet high school in the country. It is the best, he told me two years ago. I will make sure you get in.
School ends that Friday. On the bus ride home, we are stopped at the light in front of the middle school I’ll attend in the fall. The building is beautiful and new, with one side made completely of glass. I watch the students—older and more sophisticated—spill out of the doors, toward their own buses and rides. I try to picture myself in that crowd, but the signal turns green, and we quickly pull away.
Baba allows me that Saturday to relax. I help Ma buy groceries from the Korean market and go to the pool in the afternoon. On Sunday, Baba wakes me up at seven o’clock. In his hand, he holds a thick book with orange lettering. Gruber’s SAT Practice. We sit on the front porch, and he turns to the first practice test. Each test has ten sections. I have a notebook in which I number the lines, as both my parents hate the idea of writing in books. As I begin the first section, Baba starts to mow the lawn.
When I finish, I call him. A sheen of sweat covers his forehead.
“Get me a glass of ice water.”
I do, with some lime and salt, and he chugs it. Then he reads out the answers. It is a math section, and I’ve gotten seven questions wrong.
“Put on your shoes.”
“You’re going to run.”
“Here,” he says. “Run around the house. Seven times.”
“No, I won’t.”
I sip on the remaining water in Baba’s cup. It is pungent. It tastes like the sea.
Baba is silent. He goes back to the mower and starts the engine. I breathe heavily and sit on the steps. The neighbors’ houses, sporting rainbow flags in the windows and yard signs for Philly City Council candidates, still sit dark and quiet in the early morning. In the driveway, a crowd of sparrows pick at a few potato chips I remember dropping yesterday as I was getting into the car. A man passes the house, led briskly by a giant dog that looks like a bear. The only other sounds are of the mower and the wind. No one else is awake.
I go inside and put on my shoes. After my seventh lap, I’m panting. I sip on the remaining water in Baba’s cup. It is pungent. It tastes like the sea. Baba appears from the other side of the house and nods at me. I start the new section. I finish. Baba checks it. I run some more. We do this eight times more, until the test is finished.
I take my students on a field trip to the local ice-skating rink. On the way there, I remember the note left on the bed from earlier in the morning, hastily scribbled: I’ll see you at the appointment tonight. It makes me smile, despite the nausea I feel from morning sickness.
Problem 3: The students pair up. One is the spinner, and one is being spun.
“What is the equation for angular momentum?”
The few students who can’t skate cling to the edge of the rink. One of them, Carl, raises his hand.
“L equals I times w.” He then promptly loses his balance and falls down.
“Omega, Carl. Not w. But close enough. Those of you being spun: hold out your arms, and make your hands into fists. Spinners, begin rotating your partners.”
Slowly, the skaters are twirled in place. Everyone begins chattering excitedly. When they start to slip or stumble, they grab onto their partners, laughing.
“Okay, okay. What is I here?”
Lisa, one of the spinners, holds out her arms too.
“Yes! I is the moment of inertia. It’s analogous to mass, but in terms of rotation.”
I hold out my arms, but suddenly feel a sharp pain in my abdomen and gasp. I bring them back close to my body, trying to steady myself. The students ask if I’m okay. I nod, and we continue.
Someone explains omega, the angular velocity. They try again. The entire row is spun.
“Good, now slowly pull your arms in. In the shape of omega.”
All at once, the bodies blur. A number of them scream, in fear or delight, I can’t tell. Although I’m not spinning, I am suddenly lightheaded, perhaps from the thrill. My hands feel ice cold, but the rest of my body is entirely too hot. I look down, and there is a drop of blood on the ice. I try to scrape it away with my blade. Then I excuse myself, because I am, indeed, not okay.
I call for a taxi, and when it arrives, I ask the driver to take me to the emergency room.
I stay in the bathroom for a long time. When I return, some of them are still spinning in place. Some have started doing laps. Carl slowly traverses the edge of the rink. I gather them up and we board the bus, where I sit gingerly in the front-most seat, taking deep breaths. When we reach the school, I stand on the sidewalk as they rush back in, with the occasional student or two waving goodbye. I wave back until they disappear. Then I call for a taxi, and when it arrives, I ask the driver to take me to the emergency room.
I call in sick for the rest of the week. A few days after the field trip, Christopher and I go to the hospital. Even though it’s a small procedure, even though I’m supposed to be right back to normal the next day—back to being my whole self instead of two—he brings the list of questions he’s gathered from furiously reading WebMD and interrogates the doctor for a good half hour. As I sign the consent forms for the D&C, he cups my left hand in between both of his. When it gets too warm, I pull my fingers out and stroke the back of his head.
“Relax. They just use a little suction cup and—zwoop! All done,” I joke.
He gives a small smile, shaking his head. When I nudge him and he finally looks at me, his eyes are tender and he’s biting the inside of his cheek. That’s when I start to cry.
When we get home, there are five messages on the answering machine. The first is from the nursing home. It is the same one we’ve been receiving for weeks: they tell us Baba has evolved from saying nothing to saying everything. He’s been trying to convince other residents to leave. He has tried sneaking out multiple times. This afternoon he made it past the substitute security guard. He walked for five miles until the police found him. Could you please come by at your earliest convenience?
The next message has more static. “Maybe you are at work,” it begins in Bengali. “Or the two of you are out to eat. Whatever the case, know that I’m safe, and that you don’t need to panic. Don’t call anyone.”
Message 3 is short. “Do you remember what day it is? I don’t imagine you’d forget.”
Message 4: “Listen, I really want to go back to our home. I think your— I think Ma left a spare key in one of the loose bricks in the back of the house, and those new people shouldn’t have access to it. I’m on my way there, but I needed to stop in the gas station to use the bathroom. This is a pay phone, don’t call me back on it.”
Message 5 is in English. “Aloki, this is Baba. I’m calling from the police station. These fuckers—sorry I had to whisper, they’re right behind me—found me too soon. Such bad luck I always have.” It switches back to Bengali. “Look, if you care about me at all, get me out of this shit house. Christopher is an idiot, and you’re an idiot for listening to an idiot. Come here, and let’s talk about this.”
Christopher promptly deletes all the messages. “He’s gone absolutely crazy. This should be the last thing on your mind.” His voice is soft, but his cheeks are bright red. “I’ll go there tomorrow and sort it out.”
I just nod because I’m too tired to try to argue—with either Christopher or Baba. And if I were to go and tell my father about the field trip, he’d rhetorically ask me who taught me to skate.
When I get into MIT, Baba tells his entire office, our extended family, and our neighbors, even the ones we barely speak to. He calls his old friends with the excuse that it’s been too long, but eventually divulges his news as though he’s a kid with a secret. Ma and I spend the summer shopping for new clothes and shoes and extra-long twin bed sheets. Baba goes out to half a dozen suit stores and picks one out for the graduation party he plans for me. The party is successful except that a third of Baba’s “friends” cancel earlier that week and more than half of the catered Indian buffet food goes untouched. The three of us eat it for the next three weeks.
In August, we drive from the suburbs of Philadelphia up to Cambridge. A few weeks into my college career, I start a job as an SAT tutor for local high schoolers. Each tutor’s rate increases based on how well their students do on their exams. At the end of the semester, my rate increases by 25 percent. The other tutors and I go out to celebrate. The next semester I get twenty kids—many of them former students of the other tutors. My coworkers are no longer happy. I become known as the Savior among them and not in a good way.
When I call home, Ma asks me about my classes and the other people on my floor. Baba takes on the role of college advisor.
“Start looking at labs,” he says. “Send out your resume to all the PIs in the Physics department. If you start out part time, they might keep you on for the summer.”
At the start of sophomore year, I send out applications. Some PIs respond with Thank you for your interest, but our lab is not currently looking for members. Some send back a curt, direct message of Not hiring, sorry. The majority don’t respond at all.
I tell my parents I want to get my teaching license after graduation. They are speechless.
One day I see a flyer for a summer teaching-assistant job for honors physics at a nearby high school. I apply and am signed up. Each day, the students come in after the morning lecture with a new problem set. Some leave immediately after we discuss the questions. But many of them stay longer, asking me to explain the difference between vector and scalar quantities, to help them plot out velocity and acceleration graphs. A student asks me to distinguish the equations for projectile motion. Halfway through, I have an idea. I dig through my lunchbox and find a clementine, which I toss to her in a perfect arc. “Tell me everything that happens when I throw this to you,” I tell her. Her face is unsure, but after a moment she smiles. “Okay,” she says, throwing it back before she begins.
The next time Baba and I speak, I lie and tell him I’ve been hired as a research assistant in a lab at the university. At the start of fall term, the physics department at the high school offers me a part-time supplemental instructor position. I accept.
When sophomore year ends, I tell my parents I want to get my teaching license after graduation. They are speechless. It’s as though I’ve declared that I want to become a theater major or transfer out of MIT or go to Antarctica. Baba stops talking to me for weeks. Ma constantly suggests alternative options over the phone.
“You can teach after you get your PhD, you know. Then if you don’t like it, you can go back to research. Or you can work somewhere else. Think about it,” she says. What she doesn’t say is: Maybe you could not waste $65K each year just to end up working in the public school system.
Problem 4: After weeks of preparation, you go into your college interview and shake hands with the interviewer. A college advisor would say you’ve started with a good impression (unless your hand was sweaty), but a physicist would say the both of you “haven’t connected,” and would even categorize your interaction as “repulsive.” How do you explain this?
This is the last question in my students’ midterm. I watch as they successively reach the question, smirk, and then immediately take stabs at it, writing and erasing, writing and erasing.
As I sit at my desk, I think about Christopher, about our conversation from last night and what he wants. A new couple in a new house. It seems natural to consider a baby. And yet the baby would sleep in a nursery, which would be Baba’s old room, from when he was still living with us. And I’d have time to stay home with the baby, have time to feed and clothe and love the baby. And while the baby and the baby’s mother and father all went to bed each night, the baby’s grandfather would be all alone. I think about what Baba would say if I told him he might be a grandfather. In a wild moment, I even dial the nursing home number. When I ask for him, they put me on hold for a long time.
“Mrs. Davis?” the voice finally asks. “It’s only been a few weeks since your father joined our community. He’s adjusting to his life here. Perhaps give it a bit longer.”
“What do you mean?”
There’s a prolonged pause, and then the voice says, “He still doesn’t want to speak with you. We’re very sorry.”
A few weeks after graduation, I pack up my things and move to Harlem, where I begin my student-teacher assignment at a low-income high school. This is where I meet Christopher. He is a teacher, like me. But he is also not like me.
“This is temporary, you know,” he tells me. “Don’t get me wrong. I love the kids here. But I’m just trying to save up enough to go back to grad school.”
A few months later, as we both sit in my classroom, I invite him to come home with me.
“What are your parents like?” Christopher asks. He has made a series circuit. He disassembles it and starts to make a parallel one. I have taught him how to do both these things.
“I don’t even know how to answer that.”
He thinks for a bit. “If you had to use one word to describe your mom and your dad each, what would it be?”
“My mom is dependable. My dad . . . ” I pause. What do I use to describe Baba? I can think of a number of words, but none come close. I’ve never been good with words. Christopher has finished the circuit, and I watch him turn the lightbulb it’s attached to on and off.
“He’s like an electron. Enlightening”—I point to the bulb—“and negative. But without electrons—well, there would be nothing to attract protons. In fact, if you got rid of electrons, all the protons in the world would instantly repel each other. Everything would explode.”
The next weekend my analogy backfires. I bring Christopher home. He wears a shirt and tie. Brings a bottle of wine. Dinner begins with Baba asking all the expected questions. When he finds out where Christopher went to school, what Christopher majored in, and what Christopher wants to do, I hear the change in his voice.
“A history degree? What will you do with that?”
Yes, Christopher and I have moved in together. A place in Queens. Yes, it’s pretty serious. No, I will not apologize.
An awkward silence ensues, which Christopher breaks by trying to explain all the uses of his college major. But it’s too late, and he soon excuses himself to the bathroom, giving me a wan smile as he leaves the table. When he’s out of earshot, Baba shakes his head. “Of all the people in the world,” he tells me. I get up. Ma tells me to sit back down, but I ignore her. I leave with Christopher minutes later. I don’t invite him home anymore, nor do I return home by myself. At first, I think it will blow over in a few weeks. Months pass. On my birthday, Ma calls me. When she asks for my address so she can mail me her gift, I cry. Then I update her about my life. Yes, Christopher and I have moved in together. A place in Queens. Yes, it’s pretty serious. No, I will not apologize.
“I wish you’d stop holding this grudge, babu,” she tells me.
“I learned from the best, Ma,” I reply, before hanging up.
Problem 5: Imagine a car blasting its horn. A fire engine relaying its siren. You, an observer, completely still as the sound passes you by. What change in frequency do you detect? Now what happens if you are the one to move, at constant velocity, toward the source of the sound? And what happens when you stumble away, covering your ears, failing even once to look back?
The day we cover the Doppler effect, I have the class watch one of those old physics videos from the nineties with a man in a yellow shirt and brown sports jacket. After setting up the scenario, all while keeping his fake smile, Yellow Shirt Man explains the theory: the buildup of sound waves in front of the object, and the increasingly larger gaps behind, which mean the object making the sound, when moving subsonically, sounds higher coming toward you and lower moving away. The concept isn’t hard, but I’ve never had a class in which all the students calculate the answer correctly on the final.
Once someone asks me to explain with an example.
“If you’d read the textbook, you wouldn’t need to ask me this question,” I reply.
In my third year of living in Queens, my third year of not visiting them, Baba calls us to say that Ma has died. It is the worst night of my life. Christopher is in the room when I answer the phone and when I throw the phone and when I run out of the house to the car, without any shoes or keys. When we arrive, there is still an ambulance, and all the lights are on in the house, even though Baba is so averse to being wasteful. He sits inside the foyer wrapped in one of those foil blankets, and his glasses are all fogged up. When I walk into the kitchen, it looks as though nothing has happened. The table is set with dinner for the night: rice, dal, potatoes with poppy seeds, and my favorite, shrimp with coconut sauce. All the food has gone cold. I pack it up and put everything in the refrigerator. I never eat it. When I try to sleep that night, I can only think about the sound of the ambulance leaving, its sound getting duller and duller as it retreated.
Christopher goes back to Queens, and I use up all my leave to stay home. Baba and I develop routines that involve interacting with each other as little as possible. I heat up microwave lunches and dinners, and we watch Hell’s Kitchen, the only show we can both agree on. Eventually, I leave. I check in with Baba once a week.
“The doctor said I need to change my diet,” he tells me one day.
“You went to the doctor?” Baba doesn’t believe in doctors.
“That’s what happened to your mother, you know. Didn’t eat right and just like that…”
He doesn’t even say the words, heart attack, but I shut it down. “Yes.”
The next time I visit, I bring him channa, chili chicken, and store-bought naan—the best I can do—but he isn’t home. I wait for him at the kitchen table, and when he finally returns, he’s sweaty and breathing heavily.
“The doctor said I need to exercise.”
We sit down to eat. He shakes his head at the chicken. “I’m not eating meat anymore.”
“That’s ridiculous, just—”
“What did I say?”
I bring the chicken back home. Baba starts running regularly. In two years, he can run about fifteen miles in one stretch. He never goes back to eating meat. Whenever I call, he tells me about how running is the best thing that ever happened to him. In another year he can run a marathon. He begins running one every other week, and the local news writes an article about the seventy-five-year-old marathoner from India. When it comes out, Baba sends me the newspaper clipping with a note: put this on your fridge!!
After another year, I get a call from an unknown number. Baba has been transported to the hospital after falling in the middle of a race. When I arrive, the hospital confirms a fractured hip. I call Christopher.
“He can’t stay in that house anymore, Chris. We have to bring him home.”
“Are you sure? What about—”
“What do you mean, are you sure? My God, this is my father—”
“I know, I know. I just meant, maybe we can consider other options.”
“I wanted to see how far I could get,” he says when I ask him.
I hang up. Baba moves in with us a month later, and we put his house in Philly up for sale. At first, everything is fine. Christopher and I leave for work, and Baba sets up a routine of walking around the house with his cane, watching TV, and sitting on the porch. But one day I come home to find that he’s gone. I run the perimeter of our house. Then I take my car around the neighborhood. In the next suburb over, I spot him on the sidewalk.
“I wanted to see how far I could get,” he says when I ask him.
It happens over and over. We buy him a cell phone, but Baba never takes it. One morning I answer the phone, and a police officer begins to speak. He tells me that someone looked out their window earlier that day and found Baba roaming around in their backyard.
A year and a half of this, and Christopher makes me sit down one evening.
“Why does he want to do this?” He and Baba are, at the very most, civil to each other.
I sigh. “He’s not happy. Would you be happy living this way?”
Christopher starts. “He has to be, babe. I get it, I really do, but he needs to understand what he’s putting us through.”
“No, don’t do that.” He gets up. “This needs to change.”
Problem 6: Does the force of gravity act at the center of the Earth? Most think that since gravitational force at Earth’s surface is 9.8 m/s2, it should increase as you get closer to the center. Yet this isn’t true: if you stand at one location, the gravitational force will be cancelled out by you standing at the exact opposite location on the other side of the Earth. This means there are infinite, equal gravitational forces that act on the Earth along its surface, which all cancel each other out to leave no forces at the core. If the center of the Earth were hollow and you happened to be inside, you would float there, suspended.
It is overcast the morning we drop Baba off, but the sun starts to shine as we pull into the parking lot. I glance into the rearview mirror. Baba is looking down at his hands in his lap.
He says nothing. “I’ll go in first,” I offer. When I walk in, I see a lady at the security desk. Her name tag says linda. Everything goes wrong after I fill out the registration forms and the orderlies come outside with a wheelchair. Baba won’t leave the car. Christopher and I coax, plead, beg, and, ultimately, force him out.
“Why do you always make things so difficult?” I ask, exasperated, as he sits on the chair.
Baba looks at me, emotionless. “How else are you supposed to learn, babu?”
There’s nothing else for us to say to each other. I get into the car and don’t say a word, watching as the attendants wheel him inside.
“You did the right thing,” Christopher says reassuringly on the way home. When we get back to the house, I find that I don’t want to get out of the car. Christopher tells me my father is bad enough, that he doesn’t need this again. He leaves me there to think. When it grows dark, I step outside, my body stiff from sitting in one position, and take off my shoes. Barefoot, I tread through our manicured lawn and sit down in the middle and don’t leave.
What I think about is this: if Baba and I were to stand at exact, opposite locations on Earth and jump inside a tunnel toward the center. We would accelerate rapidly as we approached each other, and our trajectories would intersect at the midpoint. But as soon as we crossed the exact middle, the gravitational force on the other side would change direction, would make us decelerate slowly, so that in the exact moment we were to land on each other’s spots on the surface, we’d be pulled right back in. That’s how it would go. From surface to surface, traversing the Earth and meeting in the middle. In one trip, I would catch his gaze. In another, we’d smile at each other. And then, in another, he’d look at me with an expression I’d assume meant proud. Infinite trips and infinite possibilities. In the next, I would be happy. So happy. So very happy