The Holder of the World
Much of the best, most provocative, and most commercially successful of serious literary writing of the late twentieth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been the work of writers of “minority” ethnic heritage, many of them immigrants. V. S. Naipaul and Kazuo Ishiguro both have won Great Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize. The death threat against Salman Rushdie made him famous and brought into the open many of the festering issues about and between “East” and “West” that his and others’ writing examines. In the United States, Chinese American author Amy Tan has found an audience, as has Indian-born Vikram Seth. Bharati Mukherjee, born in Calcutta, educated in Iowa, and now teaching in Berkeley, is a major figure in contemporary English-language literature, no matter how one defines the categories. Her story collection The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her novel Jasmine (1989) was published to acclaim. The New York Times Book Review called Jasmine “one of the most suggestive novels we have about what it is to become an American.”
Mukherjee is a serious writer who takes on important themes of the contemporary world: rootlessness, the effects of immigration on individuals and a society, and individual versus traditional and communal identities’s. The protagonists in The Middleman and Other Stories are immigrants, legal and illegal, to North America, and the plots deal with their encounters with the liberation it offers as well as the often terrifying demands it makes. Their author clearly has thrown in her own lot with America and has committed herself to using fiction to examine her adopted society in all of its complexity. By making such a commitment, she becomes a target of criticism for “pandering” to a civilization that (as her work does make clear) is not always benign or welcoming.
The Holder of the World is a very bold offering. It is a tour de force, the mature work of a consummate narrative artist. It certainly is both more ambitious and more engrossing than any of Mukherjee’s previous work. Not only does it attempt to renarrate in an imaginative, original way the very beginning of the centuries-long (and still continuing) encounter between Britain and India, but it also adds a chapter, perhaps the most trenchant to date, to Mukherjee’s ongoing examination of America.
Beigh Masters, the book’s narrator, is a thirtysomething “asset-hunter”—a collector and assessor of antiques—who has become obsessed with a diamond called the Emperor’s Tear and with the story of a woman from early Colonial New England who became the mistress of a Hindu raja in South India. Ostensibly, the book is the product of Beigh’s research and imagination, the fruit of her obsession with reconstructing Hannah Easton’s life from scraps of evidence.
Hannah Easton, the protagonist of the tale Beigh reconstructs, was born in the town of Brookfield in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1670. When she was very young, her mother, Rebecca, faked her own death to run away to live with her lover, a member of the local community of Nipmuc Indians. Hannah’s story suggests a mostly implicit but obvious pun on the word “Indian.” The reader is meant to reflect on its misapplication to the native peoples of the New World and to wonder at the scope of the British mercantile and colonial adventure, already in the seventeenth century stretching from New England to India. Beigh finds an artifact of Hannah’s at the Museum of Maritime Trade.” ‘Looks Indian,’ I say [to the curator]. ‘Indian-Indian, not wah-wah Indian.’ I hate to play stupid for anyone, but I don’t want him to suspect me.
Hannah is a curious young woman, not at home in the Puritan world. When shiftless adventurer Gabriel Legge arrives by ship telling lies about his father’s wealth, she boldly and calculatingly accepts his offer of marriage, sensing that she needs to see the world and that he can give her the opportunity to do so. She lives in England for several years, during most of which time Gabriel is away at sea. When he accepts employment with the East India Company, she goes with him to the Coromandel Coast.
Hannah settles into a new role as wife of a Company “factor,” running a household with servants and tacitly tolerating her husband’s “bibi,” or mistress, while he goes about his business. Ambition and adventure eventually lead him to leave the Company to become a freelance pirate. When a riot leads to the (figurative and literal) exposure of Gabriel’s liaison with his bibi, Hannah resolves to return to England on the next possible ship. (Ironically, in India she is considered English,...
(The entire section is 1949 words.)