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Authors: Bharati Mukherjee

The Holder of the World

BOOK: The Holder of the World
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Ideas swim like glittering fishes in
The Holder of the World.…
Mukherjee has stocked her new novel with interesting notions about East and West, imperialism, the constricted natures and larger possibilities of women and men, and the contrasting kinds of virtual reality achieved by computers and the written word.… She is as visionary as ever.”

Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Bharati Mukherjee constantly reminds us of the interconnections among cultures that have made our modern world.… [She] draws us with vigor and scrupulous attention to detail across time and space, into the footsteps of not one but two extraordinary women.”

The New York Times Book Review

“So beautifully does Ms. Mukherjee write … [her] prose combines with the multilayered narrative to produce an effect reminiscent of those jewel-toned miniature paintings created by Mogul artists to commemorate Hannah’s life: small, exquisite canvases teeming with people and festivities and disasters, canvases that meld together history and folklore into a harmonious work of art.”

The New York Times

“Mukherjee writes with elegant lucidity … and she spins a rousing narrative of greed, lust, battles and betrayals.”

Publishers Weekly

A Fawcett Book
Published by The Random House Publishing Group

Copyright © 1993 by Bharati Mukherjee

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Fawcett Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Fawcett Books and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This edition published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 94-94255

eISBN: 978-0-307-79228-0


To Anne Middleton
and all travelers to uttermost shores

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time …

“Ode on a Grecian Urn”



in three time zones simultaneously, and I don’t mean Eastern, Central and Pacific. I mean the past, the present and the future.

The television news is on, Venn’s at his lab, and I’m reading
Auctions & Acquisitions
, one of the trade mags in my field. People and their property often get separated. Or people want to keep their assets hidden. Nothing is ever lost, but continents and centuries sometimes get in the way. Uniting people and possessions; it’s like matching orphaned socks, through time.

According to
, a small museum between Salem and Marblehead has acquired a large gem. It isn’t the gem that interests me. It’s the inscription and the provenance. Anything having to do with Mughal India gets my attention. Anything about the Salem Bibi, Precious-as-Pearl, feeds me.

Eventually, Venn says, he’ll be able to write a program to help me, but the technology is still a little crude. We’ve been together nearly three years, which shrinks to about three weeks if you deduct his lab time. He animates information. He’s out there beyond virtual reality, re-creating the universe, one nanosecond, one minute at a time. He comes from India.

Right now, somewhere off Kendall Square in an old MIT office building, he’s establishing a grid, a data base. The program is called X-2989, which translates to October 29, 1989, the day his team decided, arbitrarily, to research. By “research” they mean the mass ingestion of all the world’s newspapers, weather patterns, telephone directories, satellite passes, every arrest, every television show, political debate, airline schedule … do you know how many checks were written that day, how many credit card purchases were made? Venn does. When the grid, the base, is complete, they will work on the interaction with a personality. Anyone. In five years, they’ll be able to interpose me, or you, over the grid for upward of ten seconds. In the long run, the technology will enable any of us to insert ourselves anywhere and anytime on the time-space continuum for as long as the grid can hold.

It will look like a cheap set, he fears. He watches “Star Trek,” both the old and new series, and remarks on the nakedness of the old sets, like studio sets of New York in 1940s movies. The past presents itself to us, always, somehow simplified. He wants to avoid that fatal unclutteredness, but knows he can’t.

Finally, a use for sensory and informational overload.

Every time-traveler will create a different reality—just as we all do now. No two travelers will be able to retrieve the same reality, or even a fraction of the available realities. History’s a big savings bank, says Venn, we can all make infinite reality withdrawals. But we’ll be able to compare our disparate experience in the same reality, and won’t that be fun? Jack and Jill’s twenty-second visit to 3:00 p.m. on the twenty-ninth of October, 1989.

Every time-traveler will punch in the answers to a thousand personal questions—the team is working on the thousand most relevant facts, the thousand things that make me me, you you—to construct a kind of personality genome. Each of us has her own fingerprint, her DNA, but she has a thousand other unique identifiers as well. From that profile X-2989 will construct a version of you. By changing even one of the thousand answers, you can create a different personality and therefore elicit a different experience. Saying you’re brown-eyed instead of blue will alter the withdrawal. Do blonds really have more fun? Stay tuned. Because of information overload, a five-minute American reality will be denser, more “lifelike,” than five minutes in Africa. But the African reality may be more elemental, dreamlike, mythic.

With a thousand possible answers we can each create an infinity of possible characters. And so we contain a thousand variables, and history is a billion separate information bytes. Mathematically, the permutations do begin to resemble the randomness of life. Time will become as famous as place. There will be time-tourists sitting around saying, “Yeah, but have you ever been to April fourth? Man!”

My life has gotten just a little more complicated than my ability to describe it. That used to be the definition of madness, now it’s just discontinuous overload.

My project is a little more complicated.


on a square of sun-faded green velvet under a dusty case in a maritime museum in an old fishing village many branches off a spur of the interstate between Peabody and Salem. Flies have perished inside the case. On a note card affixed to the glass by yellowed tape, in a slanted, spidery hand over the faded blue lines, an amateur curator has ballpointed the stone’s length (4 cm) and weight (137 carats), its date and provenance (late 17c., Mughal). The pendant is of spinel ruby, unpolished and uncut, etched with names in an arabized script. A fanciful translation of the names is squeezed underneath:

Jehangir, The World-Seizer
Shah Jahan, The World-Ruler
Aurangzeb, The World-Taker
Precious-as-Pearl, The World-Healer

In adjoining cases are cups of translucent jade fitted with handles of silver and gold; bowls studded with garnets and sapphires, pearls and emeralds; jewel-encrusted thumb rings; jewel-studded headbands for harem women; armlets and anklets, necklaces and bangles for self-indulgent Mughal men; scimitars rust dappled with ancient blood, push-daggers with double blades and slip-on tiger claws of hollow-ground animal horns.

How they yearned for beauty, these nomads of central Asia perched on Delhi’s throne, how endless the bounty must have seemed, a gravel of jewels to encrust every surface, gems to pave their clothes, their plates, their swords. Peacocks of display, helpless sybarites, consumed not with greed but its opposite: exhibition. And how bizarre to encounter it here, the spontaneous frenzy to display, not hoard, in this traditional capital of Puritan restraint. Spoils of the Fabled East hauled Salemward by pockmarked fortune builders. Trophies of garrisoned souls and bunkered hearts.

The Emperor and his courtiers pace the parapets above the harem, caged birds sing, and the soft-footed serving girl follows them at a measured distance, silently fanning with peacock feathers at the end of a long bamboo shaft. Below, a hundred silk saris dry on the adobe walls. Lustrous-skinned eunuchs set brass pitchers of scented water at the openings in the zenana wall. Old women snatch them up, then bar the venereal interior to the dust and heat. Above it all, the Emperor—a stern old man, sharp featured in profile with a long white beard—contemporary of the Sun King, of Peter the Great and of Oliver Cromwell, splices the sunlight with uncut gems. The world turns slowly now in a haze of blood, then glitters in a sea of gold, then drowns in the lush green that chokes his palace walks. He is the monarch of rains and absurd fertility, bred with dust and barrenness in his veins, this fervent child of a desert faith, believer in submission now given infidel souls to enslave, unclean temples to scourge and a garden of evil fecundity to rule. How useless it must have seemed to those ambassadors of trade, those factors of the East India Company, to lecture an exiled Uzbek on monochromatic utility and the virtues of reticence.

The gaudiness of Allah, the porridge of Jehovah.

in fifteen minutes,” barks the curator, a pink-domed curiosity of a man with bushy white brows, a pink scalp and billowy earmuffs of white hair. His name is Satterfield; the captions are in his hand.

“Comes from the Old English. Slaughter Field,” he offers, uninvited. Perhaps he sees me as a searcher-after-origins, though nothing in my manner or dress should reveal it. High Yuppie, Venn would say: toned body, sensible clothes, cordovan briefcase, all the outward manifestations of stability, confidence and breeding.

“Masters,” I say. “Beigh Masters.” I give him my card—estates planning, assets research. No one ever asks what it means: they assume I’m a lawyer or with the IRS. Back on the seepter’d isle, three hundred years ago, we were Musters, or musterers. A clever vowel change, in any event. “Looks like ‘Bee,’ sounds like ‘Bay-a,’ ” I say.

According to a brass plate in the foyer of this old clapboard house, now museum, on an outcropping of cod-, lobster- and scallop-rich granite where a feeble estuary meets the sea, from this house a certain William Maverick once guided sloops of plundering privateers. Each conqueror museums his victim, terms him decadent, celebrates his own austere fortitude and claims it, and his God, as the keys to victory. William Maverick credited his own hard-knuckled tolerance of cold and pain and hunger to a Protestant God, and credited Him for guiding his hand over the sun-softened Catholics. It pleased him to know that “shark-supp’d Spaniards would have an eternity to offer their novenas.”

It is perhaps not too great an adjustment to imagine pirates sailing from comfortable homes like this after laying in a supply of winter firewood for the wife and family, and chopping it, then some fish and salt pork, molasses and tea, before raising a crew and setting out to plunder the Spanish Main. We’re like a reverse of Australia: Puritans to pirates in two generations. Our criminal class grew out of good religious native soil.

The first Masters to scorn the straitened stability of his lot was one Charles Jonathan Samuel Muster, born in Morpeth, Northumberland. In 1632, a youth of seventeen, C.J.S. Muster stowed away to Salem in a ship heavy with cows, horses, goats, glass and iron. What extraordinary vision he must have had, to know so young that his future lay beyond the waters, outside the protections of all but the rudest constabulary, at the mercy of heathen Indians and the popish French. By 1640 he was himself the proprietor of a three-hundred-acre tract that he then leased to an in-law recently arrived, and then he returned to Salem and the life of sea trade, Jamaica to Halifax. Curiosity or romance has compelled us to slash, burn, move on, ever since.

Twelve years ago I did a research project which led to an undergraduate thesis on the Musters/Masters of Massachusetts for Asa Brownledge’s American Puritans seminar at Yale; everything I know of my family comes from that time when I steeped myself in land transfers, sea logs and records of hogsheads of molasses and rum. And that seminar set in motion a hunger for connectedness, a belief that with sufficient passion and intelligence we can deconstruct the barriers of time and geography. Maybe that led, circuitously, to Venn. And to the Salem Bibi and the tangled lines of India and New England.

that young Charles Muster secreted himself among the livestock aboard the
, a noblewoman in India died in childbirth. It was her fourteenth confinement, and she was the Emperor’s favorite wife. The Emperor went into white-gowned mourning while supervising the erection of a suitable monument. So while the Taj Mahal was slowly rising in a cleared forest on the banks of the Yamuna, young Muster was clearing the forest on the banks of the Quabaug and erecting a split-log cabin adjacent to a hog pen and tethered milch cow. Three years later, barely twenty, he abandoned the country and built the first of many houses on an overlook commanding a view of the sea and the spreading rooftops of Salem. For the rest of his life he scuttled between civilized Salem and the buckskinned fringes of the known world, out beyond Worcester, then Springfield, then Barrington, gathering his tenants’ tithes of corn and beans, salted meat and barrels of ale, selling what he couldn’t consume and buying more tracts of uncleared forest with the profit, settling them with frugal, land-hungry arrivals from Northumberland, while running his own sea trade in rum and molasses, dabbling in slaves, sugar and tobacco, in cotton and spices, construction and pike building. He was a New World emperor. Even today, five townships carry his name.

In this Museum of Maritime Trade, the curator’s note cards celebrate only Puritan pragmatism. There is no order, no hierarchy of intrinsic value or aesthetic worth; it’s a fly’s-eye view of Puritan history. More display cases are devoted to nails, flintlock muskets, bullet molds, kettles, skillets, kitchen pots and pothooks, bellows and tongs than to carved-ivory powder primer flasks and nephrite jade winecups. The crude and blackened objects glower as reproaches to Mughal opulence, glow as tributes to Puritan practicality. As in the kingdom of tropical birds, the Mughal men were flashy with decoration, slow moving in their cosmetic masculinity. What must these worlds have thought, colliding with each other? How mutually staggered they must have been; one wonders which side first thought the other one mad.

About children reared in our latchkey culture, I have little doubt. I’ve heard their teachers on guided tours, listened to the whispered titters of Cub Scouts and Brownies:
We beat those Asians because our pots are heavy and black and our pothooks contain no jewels. No paintings, no inlays of rubies and pearls. Our men wore animal skins or jerkins of crude muslin and our women’s virtue was guarded by bonnets and capes and full skirts. Those Indian guys wore earrings and dresses and necklaces. When they ran out of space
on their bodies they punched holes in their wives’ noses to hang more gold and pearl chains. Then they bored holes in their wives’ ears to show off more junk, they crammed gold bracelets all the way up to their elbows so their arms were too heavy to lift, and they slipped new rings on their toes and thumbs so they could barely walk or make a fist

No wonder!

I move from unfurbished room to room, slaloming between
, imagining
wonder and
dread, now as a freebooter from colonial Rehoboth or Marblehead, and now as a Hindu king or Mughal emperor watching the dawn of a dreadful future through the bloody prism of a single perfect ruby, through an earring or a jewel from the heavy necklace.

The curator returns to an empty darkened room where he can watch me, while lifting the covers off two large, wooden crates. The tea-chest wood is nearly antique in itself, except for the crude, Magic Markered notation: “Salem Bibi’s Stuffs.” The Salem Bibi—meaning “the white wife from Salem”—Precious-as-Pearl! I have come to this obscure, user-hostile museum to track her down.

The opened crates overflow with clothing, none of it from the Bibi’s time. It’s like a Goodwill pickup. Satterfield paws through the upper layers, lets them spill around the crates, unsorted, still in tangles. Only the moths will know this history.

More layers; the crates are like archaeology pits. I want to stop and examine, but the decades are peeling by too quickly. Not all that survives has value or meaning; believing that it does screens out real value, real meaning. Now we’re getting down to better “stuffs,” fragments of cotton carpets and silk hangings, brocade sashes and exotic leggings.

I think we’re about to hit pay dirt. An old rug. Satterfield looks up. “Closing time,” he says. Museum hours: Closed weekends, Monday and Friday and Wednesday afternoon. Open Tuesday afternoon and Thursday morning.

“I’ve come a long way to see this,” I say. “Won’t you let me stay?”

My eyes are more often called steely or forthright than pleading, but to Satterfield they convey, this day at least, the proper respect and sincerity. I get down on my knees, and help lift.

“Wherever did you get this?”

“A donation,” he says. “People in these parts, they have a lot of heirlooms. A lot of seafaring families, grandfathers’ chests and things.”

“You mean someone had all this in his attic?”

“Friends of the museum.”

“Looks Indian,” I say. “Indian-Indian, not wah-wah Indian.” I hate to play stupid for anyone, but I don’t want him to suspect me. Traces of the Salem Bibi pop up from time to time in inaccessible and improbable little museums just like this one. They get auctioned and sold to anonymous buyers. I believe I know her identity, and the anonymous donor.

Mr. Satterfield settles on one knee and lifts out the frayed wool rug with a hunting motif—old, very old—and carefully unfolds it. Inside, there is a stack of small paintings; he lifts one, then two, and finally five crudely framed miniatures from the folds of the carpet. Then he smooths the carpet out.

“Pretty good shape for the age it’s in.”

I get down on my knees, smoothing the carpet in the manner of a guest who, with indifference but a show of interest, might pat a host’s expansive hunting dog. “Well, aren’t those very interesting paintings,” I say. “Don’t you think?” My voice has caught a high note; I want to cough or clear my throat, but it would seem almost disrespectful.

“We don’t keep pictures here. This is a museum of maritime trade.”

There is surely one moment in every life when hope surprises us like grace, and when love, or at least its promise, landscapes the jungle into Eden. The paintings, five in all, are small, the largest the size of a man’s face, the smallest no larger than a fist. They make me, who grew up in an atomized decade, feel connected to still-to-be-detected galaxies.

The corners are browned by seawater or monsoon stains. White ants have eaten through the courtiers’ sycophantic faces and lovers’ tangled legs, through muezzin-sounding minarets and lotus blooms clutched by eager visitors from pale-skinned continents oceans away. But the Mughal painters still startle with the brightness of their colors and the forcefulness of their feelings. Their world is confident, its paints are jewels, it too displays all it knows.

Here, the Salem Bibi, a yellow-haired woman in diaphanous skirt and veil, posed on a stone parapet instructing a parrot to sing, fulfills her visions in the lost, potent language of miniature painting. She is always recognizable for the necklace of bone. Later, when the Indian imagination took her over, the bone became skulls.

“I need to pack these up,” says Mr. Satterfield.

Here Precious-as-Pearl zigzags on elephantback, by masoola boat, in palanquins—the vast and vibrant empire held in place by an austere Muslim as Europeans and Hindus eat away the edges.

In the first of the series, she stands ankle-deep in a cove, a gold-haired, pale-bodied child-woman against a backdrop of New England evoked with wild, sensual color. The cove is overhung with cold-weather, color-changing maples and oaks, whose leaves shimmer in a monsoon’s juicy green luxuriance. At the water’s edge, a circle of Indians in bright feathered headdresses roast fish on an open fire. More braves stand in shallow water, spears aloft, as grotesque red salmon climb the underside of giant breakers. Their wolf-dogs howl, neck hairs rising, as children toss stones in play from the shingled beach. Around her submerged high-arched instep, jellyfish, dark as desire, swirl and smudge the cove’s glassy waves. Crouched behind her, in the tiny triangle of gravelly shore visible between her muscled legs, black-robed women with haggard faces tug loose edible tufts of samphire and sea grasses. I was right—they were fascinated by us. The artist cannot contain the wonders, fish and bird life bursts over the border.

BOOK: The Holder of the World
2.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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