Book Review: Bharati Mukherjee's The Holder of the World

I have to admit I'm on a bit of a Bharati Mukherjee kick, but there are worse ways to spend your summer than watching Merchant Ivory films and reading good books.  Unlike my review of her most recent book, New Miss India, I can without reservation say I loved The Holder of the World.  Set partially in colonial New England, partly in England, and primarily in colonial India, the book is an exploration of one woman's journey toward knowledge of herself.

Hannah Easton grew up an orphan in Puritan society.  Her neighbors gossiped that her mother had been brutally murdered in skirmishes with Native Americans.  But Hannah knew the truth: her mother had fallen in love with a Nipmuc man.  Her mother, well beyond the boundaries of Puritan society, joined her lover and left evidence of her death, allowing her daughter to be accepted by another family.  

This choice influences the rest of Hannah's life, driving her to explore and inhabit the interstices between cultures.  She marries Gabriel Legge, an inveterate liar, because he offers her the opportunity to travel first to England and finally, under the auspices of the East India Company, to Madras.  It is only in Madras, against the contrast of Hindu and Muslim culture, that Hannah begins to fashion an identity for herself outside the starched social constraints of Company life.  When natural and social catastrophe strikes, Hannah is completely divorced from English culture and thrown to the mercy of Raja Jadav Singh.  As she becomes his consort, Hannah is able to construct an entirely novel self-identity as Salem Bibi.

Bharati Mukherjee
The power of this story lies in its exploration of the clash between culture and identity, social expectation and self-revelation.  By slipping between cultural boundaries, Hannah is able to accomplish what every male character in the book can do naturally:  define who she chooses to be and how she chooses to act in the world.  As the story follows the narrative device of a "asset hunter" piecing Hannah's history together, we watch while Hannah effectively peels away deeper layers of herself.  The virtual reality work of the narrator's partner, Venn, was completely beyond me, but that's only a small complication.  If I could have fashioned history like this in graduate school, I'd probably be a full-fledged Indian historian now!  But can Indian historians write historical fiction?