A white hole is a hypothetical region in space, a mathematical probability that’s never been observed. It is an eruption of matter and energy, a moment of spontaneous creation.
– Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity
I was counting the stars above Amma’s house, and I wondered whether the moon was a star. It wasn’t – I learned that in first grade, in a yellow schoolroom papered with posters of the Milky Way, the solar system, meteor craters and asteroid belts. The Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, which was still a planet then. Mrs. Rukmini said that if you shrunk the Milky Way to the size of North America, our solar system would fit inside a coffee cup. The moon, a dissolving grain swimming in that cup with the others – planets, comets, stars, a black hole. The entire solar system warms the palm of my hand.
A black hole is a region in space with a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape it. Even light travelling at a speed of 186,000 miles/hour can’t escape. It draws its formidable strength from matter being shrunk into a tiny space. This happens when a star collapses and dies.
The Tell Me Why encyclopedia Tami got me for my sixth birthday teaches me everything I need to know. Each night before bed I thumb through a new section. Last week was Mammals, before that was Life-Forms and Oddities. This week I found Space; it is one of the longer sections of the encyclopedia and would take me more than a week. There is an entry on black holes, with a picture which shows their interior. The speckled debris around the edges – yellow, blue, purple, and white sparks – is supposed to be stardust. It’s pretty but I can’t tear my eyes away from its dark heart. These days I dream of dying stars.
Carl Sagan said, ‘It is better to grasp the universe than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.’
On that night at Amma’s, I knew nothing of black holes and dying stars. I knew the moon and the stars, and I thought the moon must be jealous of the stars. On our old white wrought iron swing-set that was slightly tarnished by the rain, I lay with my legs in Amma’s lap as she patted me to sleep. I refuse to sleep indoors, in the safety of my cot under its cotton covering. I like the open skies, the night at a slant.
Scientists are fascinated by the two great mysteries of the universe: the moment of creation and the black hole. Neither of these phenomena can be observed or tested directly. Even so, some of our greatest minds have spent the entirety of their careers seeking answers that we have no way of knowing are right or wrong.
A tree grew beside Amma’s house, shooting all the way up to our balcony. Its branches bowed under the weight of webbed leaves and yellow flowers that it shed all year long, like golden rain perfuming the floor. Amma said that Mama had planted that tree. Mama had a green thumb. There’s a funny way genes have of showing up or not at all.
Of the many nicknames I’ve had, my favorite and least favorite at different times was given to me by my sister Tami, Cactus.
‘You’re prickly,’ she begins listing out.
‘Maybe,’ I say.
‘And you’re not much of a hugger,’ she goes on.
‘Oh yeah, definitely.’
‘Most of all, you’re happier on your own,’ she says.
‘So we shouldn’t blame the people I’m with?’
‘You’re my cactus.’
If the object stays clear of the black hole’s event horizon there is the merest possibility of its return, but past that is the point of no return. The object is eviscerated.
I can’t get used to seeing her old and frail. Watching the blue veins creep along the back of worn hands. Wrinkles piling upon wrinkles. I used to kiss her cheeks, which smelled faintly of lavender and rose oil, rushing on my way out to keep a play date, join in on a game of pithu, or live out some bookish fantasy.
What Would Nancy Drew Do?
At five I’d go around the neighborhood, a notepad and pen in hand, following unwitting neighbors, jotting down furious notes in attempt to uncover a big criminal conspiracy.
Why was the milkman seven minutes late on Tuesday?
Why was Mrs. Sood walking Bruno down a new route in the evenings?
No mystery was too small. Following strange men, eavesdropping on municipality meetings, breaking into house no. 1087 and 1093, it was all in a day’s work.
‘You can’t break into people’s houses, Baby,’ Amma said.
‘I didn’t break anything,’ I said.
‘No, I mean you can’t climb through their windows into their houses.’
‘Why did they leave them open, then?’
‘Just use the door and wait to be invited in,’ she said.
I didn’t understand what I was doing different.
When Amma was sixteen she’d threatened to push her tutor off the Koti tower if he gave her too much homework. A year later she’d dressed as a man to enter the Piccadilly Show Jumping competition in Shimla. A few months after that she won the Miss Summer Queen Beauty pageant for being the most ‘graceful’ and ‘docile’ contestant in the running. I was only trying to be Nancy Drew.
‘I’d like for your papa to come back to find you in one piece, Baby,’ she’d said over her cards at one of her weekly bridge parties. ‘No breaking into any more houses, and be back before sunset.’
Our home was like a club, with Amma its hostess shining in the center, surrounded by her eclectic selection of guests. All kinds of people came visiting us. Socialites, politicians, writers, actors, military men. I have hazy memories of these gatherings. Sudden vivid flashes intercepting the blurred images of a smoke-filled drawing room crammed with people. There was Netaji telling his long-winded stories about local politics. What the panchayat was discussing that month. How the sarpanch was surely after his land. These stories never seemed to have an end, one drew into the other that into another, like a never-ending saga of intrigue and mischief. Perhaps they did end, but I was too distracted by the long white hair growing out of his nostrils to notice. Shanta Nanu was usually there. I remember when she was recovering from the terrible accident where she’d lost her right forearm. I had stared at the soft rounded stump so long that she’d offered to let me stroke it. I took two showers that night and didn’t return for dinner.
Those nights, like Netaji’s stories, merge into each other, the same elegant women and decorated gentlemen, society gossip that didn’t mean anything in my little world.
What I liked best were the platters of finger foods – pakoras, sheesh kebabs, devilled eggs – which were carried up and down from the kitchen. The parties brought out the best in Biju – he never cooked like that otherwise. For days after I’d sneak the leftovers up to my room, a feast for one.
Now this empty house seems unrecognizable
Thermodynamic time runs backwards within the black hole. It is essential for the black hole to know the future for it to be created. The only pocket of space that is one step ahead.
I was always jealous of Polly but never of Tami.
‘But all little sisters are jealous of their older sisters,’ Amma said, missing my point entirely.
‘It’s not that,’ I insisted. ‘I’m sick of playing catch up.’
‘Don’t, then. It isn’t a race.’
But, it was. It was a race I wasn’t winning. I wasn’t even in the running.
Too young to be taken on holidays, too babyish to bring around older girls. No fancy gifts of lip glosses and hair mascaras for this one, too inappropriate. Not for Polly though, she was bang in the middle, at a threshold where you’re neither a kid nor a teen, and no one knows what to do with you.
The white hole elegantly juxtaposes the black hole, such that if one exists the other should too. A satisfying spectrum for the scientific community. The naked singularity of a white hole provides a complete time reversal of the black hole. A do-over.
The fear of missing out was defined by Dr. Dan Herman as a new form of social anxiety particular to millennials all over the world. The first I heard of it I’d felt strangely validated: there was the monster under my bed, neatly summed up in an acronym, FoMO.
‘See, it’s a real thing,’ I said, flashing my phone in Amma’s face.
‘You children these days,’ Amma said, shaking her head.
‘Fighting to be everywhere all at once and then not being anywhere at all.’
‘Sure I am. I’m here, aren’t I?’ I said, scrolling through my Instagram feed. Svalbard looked pretty in an ice-prison kind of way, I would survive a day there. Not like the Young Adventuress, who was currently in the middle of a month-long hike through its glacial terrain. I would never do well as a travel blogger. Oh, this looks pretty; Yasemin’s chic penthouse balcony, white roses blooming everywhere, it must smell so…I miss Milan. A holiday right now would be perfect.
‘I think you’re missing the point,’ I say. ‘It’s about experience, as much life as you can fill yourself with.’
‘How will that come to be?’ Amma asked. ‘Look around you. This is your life. In a slip of a second it’ll be gone, and your memories will be of you staring at a screen, wishing you had more time.’
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted Pluto out of the solar system. A planet was an object orbiting the sun, rounded by the sheer force of its own gravity, dominating the neighborhood of its orbit. It was a syntactic decision. In 2017, a new definition of a ‘planet was put forth by Kirby Runyon. A round body that has never undergone fusion and has less mass than a star. This would bring Pluto back into the solar system, along with 101 more planetary bodies.
As the youngest child I’m supposed to be a natural-born performer. I know first-hand the pains of having to constantly charm and entertain everyone to earn your keep. I was the kid who put on plays for the grown-ups. The one who could recite all the Ladybird Favorite Fairy-tales from start to finish in a single breath, backwards with Sleeping Beauty. I was never afraid to scale the walls of our house, jumping from one balcony to the other, the two story drop below made me feel alive. Above all I had a knack for worming my way into the secret society of older girls.
The thrill of being under the dim lights of Polly’s room, as she and her friends talked about boys, make up, The Cranberries, and Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
I would follow Polly everywhere. One afternoon chasing after her on her way to Diya’s I heard her call out to Amma, and in my enthusiasm to keep up I tripped, tumbling all the way down to the bottom of the staircase. I was crying till I was all cried out. The horrid Doctor Arya was called home. I never liked him, always ready with his needle.
‘It’s not so bad,’ Amma said, looking at my forehead which now sported a unibrow, as both Tami and Polly struggled to hold back their giggles.
But as a reward for being brave, the next time Polly had a sleepover at Diya’s I was taken along. When they went to watch Jumanji, they bought me a ticket too. On the next visit to Rose Garden I got to ride shotgun.
The small scar between my eyebrows is a physical reminder of my initiation into the world of adults. For Amma it’s a reminder of something else. In her jewelry box safely tucked away she’s kept an old white rag spotted in red from where it held pressure to a wound. She has yet to throw it away.
On July 14th 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft brought us the first topographical images of Pluto. The dwarf planet at the periphery of our solar system is undeniably captivating, with its ice water mountains and heart-shaped plain.
I am convinced there’s a thief in the house. He slips in at night, when he knows no one would come looking. He never comes for the little curios, knick-knacks, and junk kept around. Wall plates from holidays, my parent’s wedding china, the crystal vases Amma likes collecting. He’s not there for the old silver bowl left ignored in the drawing-room. He doesn’t care about the jewelry kept locked away in the safe. The money left carelessly loose doesn’t tempt him. His heart is set on something of greater value to us.
Generously he helps himself to memories of bright summer days spent on holidays at Amma’s, of first steps, first words, first dances, and lasting vows. Bit by bit they disappear.
When I first moved back home I would roam the house when I couldn’t sleep at night. It was a rehearsed walk. Down the passage from my room, down a flight of stairs, across the drawing-room, stopping before the big wooden door with the shiny brass handle.
It’ll be like before, I wish stupidly, clammy hands clutching the cold metallic handle.
When I open the door it creaks. I know she won’t wake up. She has the appearance of a fitful sleeper, ragged breaths, twitching eyes, but she sleeps long and deep.
What a joke it made of my teen rebellion. I’d sneak in and out of the house, slamming doors in my drunken stupor, none the wiser.
These days, it scares me.
Some physicists, such as Alon Retter and Shlomo Heller believe the Big Bang was a result of a white hole. An event when a tremendous amount of energy and matter spontaneously appeared out of nowhere. Spewed out of nothingness, the first step in our existence. We don’t know for sure, and in the absence of information we speculate.
I felt lost at Papa’s second wedding. We were all given small jobs to keep us out of the way. Everyone wanted to do their parts.
I felt infused with a childish sense of self-importance, handing out moringa garlands to the arriving guests. To match my task Amma had dressed me up in a yellow lehenga skirt and a red blouse, the chiffon scarf meant to go around my shoulders trailing after me, ignored.
The months leading to the wedding had been busy. Families meeting families, old friends reunited. Marriages in small communities are insular like that, festering within themselves, growing atomically.
I didn’t mind Nannu Aunty. She brought us gifts when she visited, sang us songs, and read The Shoemaker and the Elves as many times as you asked her to.
Since the discovery of the quantum nature of our universe, there has been a seismic shift in our scientific worldview, a change so momentous that it has transformed the course of human history.
Every time we talk about the wedding my sister says, ‘You couldn’t possibly remember. You were so small.’
Except I do.
We’d returned from a picnic at Pinjore Gardens and I was too wound up on a sugar high for my afternoon nap. Amma insisted I get one anyway and Nannu Aunty volunteered to take me to bed. She sang ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’, as I tried to ape her words, getting them all wrong. We were laughing and I wasn’t sleeping when Amma walked in. She stood by the door watching us, an odd, wounded look on her face that I didn’t understand as she turned to leave.
The wedding banquet was held on a hot May afternoon. I stood by the table fan, cooling in its breeze watching the whirling hands. I wondered if it was as fast as the speed of light.
Stick your finger in, whispered the voice in my head. Before I could stop myself, before I could think, I felt the sharp whack of the fan blade and then nothing.
Polly was shrieking beside me as Nagu uncle wrapped the edge of his saffa around my bleeding hand. I was inconsolable, all I could see was blood, when Doctor Arya made his appearance poking tenderly at my wound.
‘It’ll leave a scar,’ he said.
‘Don’t worry Baby,’ Amma said. ‘Scars tell the best stories.’
In the basement of her house, in a musty old trunk, lies the yellow lehenga, folded neatly between the old clothes and cloth diapers.
The basic tenants of quantum physics say that information can never be lost. The universe, unlike the mind, does not have memory lapses.
Spiced tea sweetened, bread and butter for breakfast. Each morning I prepare her tray. She eats little, a bite, a sip. Most of it goes to waste. I enjoy the ritual. From the kitchen window I watch the sunrise, the first light pouring through a canopy of pink bougainvillea.
Amma once said, ‘Nature’s the golden elixir. It cures any illness, physical or of the mind.’ Here we’re surrounded by natural life: her garden alive, yet the house is like a cactus left ignored for too long.
The blue tablet, the white tablet, the cod liver oil beans are reminders of her sickness. Looking at her you won’t know, but watch for the thief – he comes when I look away.
Tray in hand, I’m at her door for the second time today, I kick it open with a satisfying thud.
‘Morning,’ I say. ‘Gorgeous out, isn’t it?’
The weather doesn’t deserve the enthusiasm, but as I watch her lift herself, straining with the effort, I’m at loss for words.
Embracing her delusion is easier than pulling her into my reality. Hawking said, history and memories are but a deception.
‘Amma, you know me, right?’
Don’t, I scold myself, you don’t want to…
I swallow the panic growing within me.
‘You recognize me?’
I watch her form the words, the right ones, in the right order.
‘Baby…’ she says finally.
The black hole information paradox deals with the loss of information inside the black hole. Once it approaches the event horizon it is stretched and compressed beyond recognition; passing through it is lost to us forever. Except information can never be lost.
Sitting in the backseat of the car, I watch my aunts and uncles wave goodbye. Papa and Nannu Aunty sit in front. Amma watches hawk-eyed through my window.
There are butterflies flitting in my stomach. I don’t know Papa, or Nannu Aunty, I know Amma. I don’t want to leave.
The car starts to roll out of the driveway and she waves goodbye.
Stephen Hawking’s solution to the paradox: the information is stored at the boundary of the event horizon, released through quantum fluctuations in a random order that makes its original state unrecognizable. Like memories trapped in a brain.
The stars Delhi don’t shine as bright. Even the moon hides behind a haze of dust and city lights. Tomorrow Amma will call. We’ll talk about the weather, the traffic, my new school, and the friends I’m yet to make. Before hanging up she pauses, like she’s going to say something important, and then sighing she says goodbye. The phone clicks off.
‘I miss you,’ I mutter into the static.
Girinandini Singh has recently completed her MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University, United Kingdom. She was born and raised in India which has been a fertile ground for inspiration in all her writing. This essay is a part of a series of essays which explore the personal narrative and histories through the wider lens of cosmology.