Reading Assignment: pages 1-208 of Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World.
This novel is a very interesting one as the narrator (who I believe up until this point has been nameless) frequently floats between the novel’s present day and the past. In the present, our narrator is on the hunt to both complete the story of her ancestor, Hannah Easton, and for a priceless diamond called “the Emperor’s Tear,” a relic her employer wishes this asset hunter to find. However, the past is composed of the narrator telling us, the reader, Hannah Easton’s tale: from her beginnings in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where her mother ran off with her Native American lover to (so far) her separation from her eventual pirate husband, Hannah’s story is carefully weaved for us by the narrator as she consciously and carefully reveals elements of Hannah’s life in a way that mirrors a living narrative as if we were witnessing it unfold in real time.
This floating between time periods is indeed interesting and is a topic to reflect in regards to effectiveness after I’ve finished the novel, but a small passage caught my attention while I was reading the good chunk of text that was this week’s reading assignment. At one point, Hannah is told the story of a woman named Sita who is abducted by a demon king. The story that Hannah is told ends with Sita’s seeming redemption after she proves her virtue to her husband by “stepping triumphantly out of the flames” of her trial by fire with the narrator stepping in to say that the reason why she only knew that ending because that was the only ending her maid, Bhagmati, knew (Mukherjee 176). The narrator then goes on to discuss the different real endings to the tale of Sita’s life, saying this about the numerous variations:
“Orality, as they say these days, is a complex narrative tradition. Reciters of Sita’s story indulge themselves with closures that suit the mood of their times and their regions” (176).
The narrator reveals the numerous different endings and is ultimately dissatisfied with them all, questioning why there isn’t a narrative from Sita’s point of view:
“I make only one demand of Venn and is mother, and of Jay and his grandmother. Where is Sita’s version of her captivity in Lanka? I want to hear Sita tell me of her resistance to or accommodation with the multheaded, multilimbed carnivorous captor. Did Sita survive because of blind or easy faith in divine Providence? Or did she genuinely believe that deprived of Rama’s protection, she’d transformed herself into a swan whom a crow wouldn’t dare touch? I may not have Sita’s words, but I have the Salem Bibi’s; I know from her captivity narrative what Sita would have written” (177).
At this point, it is difficult to discern which portion of Hannah’s life forms the “captivity narrative” that the narrator is relying on for her much-needed version of Sita’s story. Is it her time with the Fitches? Her marriage? Her time as a factor and then pirate’s wife in India? Or has it not been revealed to us, the reader, yet? Numerous parallels are drawn between Hannah and Sita’s lives on page 174:
“Hannah finds herself attracted to the events in Sita’s life. Like Hannah, Sita was a foundling. The Fitches recovered her from their doorstep; a childless king, Janaka, had unearthed the girl infant with his plow and named her Sita, or ‘furrow.’ Sita adjusted to life as a king’s adopted daughter and a prince’s wife as willingly as Hannah had to her girlhood in Salem. And then, because of machinations against her husband, her life changes abruptly. She has to choose between continuing her breaking away and trying out new surroundings and whatever they will bring.
Sita chooses the new, and new temptations. She banishes herself from court life and sets up pastoral domesticity free of court customs and taboos. But one day she sees a beautiful deer grazing outside the hut. She has to own that deerskin; it is a passion such she has never known.”
However, while this fable seems like a mirror to Hannah’s earlier life, I’m not so eager to call her marriage to Gabriel the fodder that fuel’s the narrator’s designed captivity narrative for Sita. It’s very difficult to make judgement based on a half-life as I have no idea as to what the future events in Hannah’s life are, only where they lead. In the beginning of the text, we are immediately informed that Hannah becomes the Salem Bibi, and through the paintings that the narrator finds in a museum, we learn that her tale will most likely end in blood and death. It’s clear that the narrator is omniscient about Hannah’s life through her research, but she is not ready to reveal all of that life to us at one time, even stopping herself at points and telling the reader that they’ll essentially have to keep reading if they want to know the whole story:
“I am thirty-two years old, and I have devoted eleven years of my life, off and on, to the reconstruction not just of a time and a place, but also of a person. She and I, New England and India, Venn [her boyfriend] and–no, that’s not fair. I will not reveal her life before she leads it; that feels like a violation of the respect I feel and the methods I have chosen. It feels frankly, too much like the methods and wishes of Bugs Kilken [her employer]” (118).
While I appreciate a story that carefully unfolds itself and moves on a very life-like narrative strategy, I found this admission to be quite annoying and I began to lose trust in the narrator. I will admit that her credentials and background do give her credibility, I can’t help but wonder if she herself is “indulging herself with closures that suit the mood of her time.” This question further begs the question as to why Mukherjee wrote the text in a frame narrative-esque way: why have the narrator and the present-day story line? If the narrator is omniscient and wishes to reveal Hannah’s life as if she were living it, why not just let her live it within the pages of the text and lose the present-day story line completely. Within the selected quote above, the narrator does seem to begin to make some connections and draw parallels between herself and her long-lost ancestor, but it is too early to tell what they are and if they’ll truly justify the use of the dual story-line.
Perhaps the necessity of this narration choice and what exactly Mukherjee intended by floating between two time periods will hit me like a ton of bricks at the end of the novel, but as of right now I am skeptical of its effectiveness and am beginning to doubt the narrator.
Until next time where I hopefully will have an “ah-ha” moment and an answer to these questions.
Mukherjee, Bharati. The Holder of the World. Ballantine Books, 1994, New York.