BHARATI MUKHERJEE's The Holder of the World is much more ambitious than her earlier novels, The Tiger's Daughter (1 97 1), Wife (1 975), and Jasmine (1989), but it contains two familiar themes: the attempt of a dislocated individual to forge connections in a foreign land, and the effort of a woman to define herself in relation to men, who, of course, set the terms.
The novel's narrator is Beigh Masters, descendant of an old New England family. Engaged in assets research and estate planning, she is married to Venn Iyer, an Indian computer genius working on a database to allow time travel into virtual reality.
But the real centre of interest is a distant relation of Masters, Hannah Easton, or "the Salem Bibi" (beloved or mistress), a 17thcentury New England woman whose amazing history and intense inner life Beigh reconstructs from pictures, letters, diary fragments, and other records. Beigh's effort to produce a textured narrative from such disparate materials stands in sharp contrast to her husband's data-collecting project.
In addition to pure curiosity about Easton, Beigh has a material interest in unravelling her complex history. The wealthy movie mogul Bugs Kilken wants Beigh to locate the Emperor's Tear, a fabulous diamond once owned by the 17th-century Muslim emperor Aurangzeb. Since Beigh has seen a miniature of Hannah Easton holding this diamond, in pursuing Hannah she tracks the gem as well.
Born in 1670 in Brookfield, Massachusetts, Hannah is orphaned after her widowed mother, Rebecca, feigns death to join the Indians "the ultimate unnatural crime of Puritan life" - and subsequently adopted by the conventional Robert and Susannah Fitch of Salem. In 1692 Hannah marries Gabriel Legge, an adventurer, who takes her first to England and then to India, where he works for the East India Company at Fort St. George on the Bay of Bengal. When Legge's restlessness drives him out of this career into life as a pirate, Hannah is shunned by the other white men and women of the British enclave.
Protected during anti-British riots only by her servant, Bhagmati, Hannah is captured and becomes the "guest" of Raja Jadav Singh, who is at war with Emperor Aurangzeb. Attracted, like her mother, by the Other, Hannah falls in love with Singh and the two enjoy an intense affair in which Hannah, sensually awakened, "glimpses a world beyond duty and patience and wifely service." After Singh is defeated in battle, he loses interest in pregnant Hannah and consigns her to the women's quarters.
Desperate but undaunted, Hannah tries to make peace; she visits Aurangzeb, begging him to allow Singh and his followers to survive. Unmoved by Hannah's pleas, Aurangzeb takes her as another item of booty, renaming her Pearl-of-My-Crown. Although the massacre of the Hindus consolidates Muslim power in the region, Beigh Masters points out the final irony: when Aurangzeb died at 89, he "carried the soul of the Moghul Empire with him to his grave; what lingered was the vacuum that invited the British in."
In Aurangzeb's tent, Hannah sees the mobile that contains the Emperor's Tear - a "globe of gold cupped in the cradle of Aurangzeb's hands in perfect golden replica." Imagining himself "holder of the world," Aurangzeb says the diamond is the tear he sheds whenever he fulfils the will of Allah - to kill infidels. How Beigh locates the lost diamond provides the novel's final twist and maintains suspense through a complicated plot.
Mukherjee has created a fascinating narrative that draws readers into Beigh's obsession. The novel illuminates the connections between distant parts of the British Empire in the 17th century and adds a whole new dimension to our perception of American colonial history.
When she lived in Canada from 1966 to 1980, Mukherjee felt that "the country is hostile to its citizens who had been born in hot, moist continents like Asia," as she wrote in her introduction to her 1985 volume of short stories, Darkness. Disappointed as she was with her reception on the Canadian literary scene, in The Holder of the World Mukherjee is clearly staking a claim on both traditional and very new territory in American literature.