In latest novel, Mukherjee travels from New World to Old

October 17, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse

Title: "The Holder of the World"

Author: Bharati Mukherjee

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 286 pages, $22

In her three previous novels and two collections of stories, Bharati Mukherjee has written about latter-20th century immigrants who, dislocated from the lands of their birth, "translate" themselves into American society and culture. In her forcefully intelligent and ambitious new novel, Ms. Mukherjee moves in the opposite direction -- from the New World to the Old -- to tell the story of an American Puritan of the 1690s whose life is transformed in Mogul India during its chaotic heyday of commercial colonialism.

The story of Hannah Easton Fitch Legge is told through a modern scholarly sleuth named Beigh -- "sounds like Bay-a" -- Masters, who is Hannah's distant descendant and who for the past 11 years has been tracking her life through North America, Europe and Asia. Beigh, who calls herself an asset retriever and specializes in locating lost valuables for rich people, has been retained by a motion-picture czar to find the Emperor's Tear, the most perfect diamond in the world.

In an obscure, "user-hostile" maritime trade museum near Salem, Mass., Beigh discovers a cache of 17th-century Indian miniatures that connects her search for the diamond to her investigations into Hannah's life.

In one of the miniatures, Hannah is depicted on a terrible %J battlefield as her Hindu lover lies dying: "Her braceleted hands hold aloft a huge, heavy orb of unalloyed gold and a clear, multifaceted diamond through which a refracted lion and a lamb frolic in a grove of gold grass as supple as silk."

This museum discovery occurs in the novel's first chapter. The story that follows traces Hannah's life from its colonial frontier origins in Brookfield, Mass., to the climactic scene illustrated in the miniature.

Hannah is described as a resourceful and resilient woman in a treacherous and cruel time, who nevertheless carries a scar in her heart: When she was a young child, her widowed mother abandoned her to run off with her Nipmuc lover during King Philip's War. One of the novel's themes is that Hannah's destiny and her mother's are linked; Hannah will grow up to follow another kind of Indian lover: "She had traveled the world, a witness to unimagined visions, merely to repeat her mother's folly, and to live her mother's life over."

Ms. Mukherjee compares and contrasts the cultures and beliefs of Christian Puritanism, Islam and Hinduism by analyzing their clashes and accommodations on India's Coromandel Coast in the 1690s. She draws a parallel between the Protestant King William's deregulation of commercial trade and the "late-stage capitalism such as America saw . . . in the late 1980s": "Every interloper set himself up as an independent factor and became the equivalent of a real estate agent, stockbroker, art dealer, corporate lawyer and investment banker."

For Beigh, Hannah is an inspirational heroine who lives among pirates, scoundrels and despots, yet follows the teachings of her heart: "She had never learned the code of female accommodation. To accommodate meant to demonstrate an intention to please, even on occasion to yield, but with a view to establishing control."

Ms. Mukherjee is an incisive and astute commentator. Orchestrating the complex themes of this novel is an astonishingly ambitious task that she doesn't quite pull off; nevertheless, the failure is more interesting than many successes.

It is difficult to accept the novel's premise: that Hannah's life is being narrated by Beigh, for the story is told with more knowledge than the surviving evidence suggests. For long sections the novel belongs entirely to Hannah, and when Beigh's voice breaks in, it seems an unwelcome intrusion.

Beigh uses superlatives to arouse our expectations of Hannah. "Wherever she stayed, I am convinced she would have changed history," Beigh announces, "for she was one of those extraordinary lives through which history runs a four-lane highway." Yet this buildup promises more than it delivers.

For most of the novel, Hannah is an Englishman's wife, demurely waiting at home while he is away on business, the particulars of which we learn almost more than we need to know. The affairs of the East India Co. are related in great detail, bearing witness to Beigh's -- and Mukherjee's -- assiduous research, and while they are depressingly instructive, it is hard to wait so long to get to the nitty-gritty of Hannah's adventures among the Hindus and Muslims.

Ms. Mukherjee is a learned writer, and literary references abound -- to Keats, Shakespeare, the Puritan Mary Rowlandson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, even Thomas Pynchon. Yet her trick of turning her ending into the rewriting of a famous literary classic seems to mock her own considerable efforts and diminish the importance of her achievement. What is most impressive about "The Holder of the World" is the author's willingness to take fictional risks and to encourage us to think creatively about many provocative and perplexing ideas.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

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