The Holder of the World Summary
In “A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman” (1991), Mukherjee revealed plans for The Holder of the World: a “major work, historical in nature” about the “making of new Americans.” In the finished novel, Mukherjee experiments boldly with several elements: science fiction, historical romance, captivity narrative, framed narrative, and miniature Moghul painting. Through it, Mukherjee claims that Asia has always been important in the making of America.
The aesthetic of miniature Moghul painting disregards spatial and temporal chiaroscuro and equalizes framing peripheries and focal centers. The novel’s center is the narrative about Hannah Easton, a woman of seventeenth century Salem, Massachusetts (hence an incipient American). The novel’s frame is the narrative of Beigh Masters, a twentieth century woman researcher (the latest American) who traces valuable objects for collectors and antique dealers. The object sought is the most prized diamond in history, “The Emperor’s Tear” of Aurangzeb (1618-1707), India’s last great Moghul emperor. It had disappeared on a seventeenth century battlefield in India; however, a period Moghul painting had depicted it held by a blonde harem-member named Salem Bibi. Beigh’s research identifies her as Hannah Easton, and Mukherjee thus links America and Asia. Hannah’s story is a historical romance. Orphaned (apparently) during an American Indian raid, Hannah marries an Irish seaman who joins the prototypically colonialist East India Company, and they settle in seventeenth century Fort St. George, India (now Chennai, once Madras). Hannah’s husband turns pirate, neglecting her. During a political uprising, Hannah becomes the captive and then passionate paramour of the Hindu king, Raja Jadav Singh. (Noticeably, Hannah’s captivity, like her mother’s, results in her sexual liberation while also echoing the captivity of Rama’s wife recounted from the Ramayana, 300 b.c.e.) Subsequently, Hannah is captured by the Raja’s sworn enemy, the Muslim emperor Aurangzeb. During the battle between king and emperor, the Raja is killed, and Aurangzeb’s diamond lost. Here science fiction merges with historical romance.
Beigh is having a twentieth century romantic affair with Venn Iyer, a brilliant Indian computer scientist at M.I.T. He invents an interactive virtual-reality machine into which all known data about a past time is input. A present human subject is then inserted to interact with that virtual reality and, by extension, events beyond the input...
(The entire section is 577 words.)