Mukherjee: Floating Through Time

As I will be discussing the end and major events towards the end of The Holder of the World, this is your friendly neighborhood spoiler alert. If you are planning to read this novel and would like to come upon the ending organically (much like our nameless narrator wishes us to experience Hannah’s life), then please skip this week’s blog post.

Reading Assignment: the rest (pg. 211 to end) of Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World.

Last week, I expressed doubt as to why Mukherjee chose to tell Hannah Easton’s story through a present-day Beigh, the narrator, (we finally learn her name within the last few pages of the novel) and where she was leading us with this narration choice. Something that I did not mention in my blog post last week was that within the present day portions of the text, Beigh’s boyfriend, Venn, is working on (essentially) a program for time travel, a note that the novel opens on.

“Eventually, Venn says, he’ll be able to write a program to help me, but the technology is still a little crude. . . Right now, somewhere off Kendall Square in an old MIT 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. . . 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” (Mukherjee 5-6).

Now, reading this novel, I knew that this program was important for numerous reasons: first (and probably the most obvious), one of the first things we’re introduced to in this novel is Venn’s project. Second, Beigh frequently discusses how difficult it has been for her to find the Emperor’s Tear, a priceless diamond she is employed to find as an asset hunter, and that none of her extensive research has led her to the stone. Finally, Venn’s project shows up numerous times over the course of the novel, an emphasis that is is not just a fun fact about Venn as a way to build his character, but rather something that is important that the reader needs to know about (aka, foreshadowing, especially since Beigh remarks on at least two occasions prior to the third section that the program could be used for her research).

Ultimately, my hunches were correct as Venn ends up inputting Beigh’s research into the program as a way for her to go back in time and find the elusive Emperor’s Tear:

 “He has absorbed my manuscript and all the documents, the travelogues and computerized East India records, the lavishly illustrated namas, or chronicles, of the emerors of the Mughal dynasty. He is a thorough researcher; all this is to be expected, even on his own time. Literary prose, as he calls my book, poses certain hierarchial problems for a computer, or a way of rendering even my own words into images. And the diamond is the clue: the fact that is the biggest and most perfect crystal in the world may just be an accident, a kind of informational pun, but it gave him an idea. . . The program will give you what you most care about; your mind is searching through the program though you don’t realize it–it is interacting with my thousand-answer questionnaire–until it finds a place it wants to jump in” (280-281).

When the program does “jump in,” Beigh finds herself in the body of Bhagmati (whom by this point Hannah is calling Hester after her late friend from Salem) as she and Hannah are fleeing from the battle that is depicted in the painting set, The Unravish’d Bride, she found earlier in the novel. Through Bhagmati’s body, she interacts with Hannah, is shot, and eventually commits suicide, stuffing the Emperor’s Tear into her body before she dies.

“Hannah, my Pearl, is no longer visible. Light is spreading but it is not the light of dawn; it is the light of exinguishment. . . . I plunge the knife deep in my belly, watch with satisfaction, and now with the mastery of my pain, the blood bubble from my beautiful brown flesh. More, I think, and plunge the knife deeper, plunge it as Hannah had into the back of Morad Farah, and make a burrow inside me. I feel the organs, feel the flesh, the bowels of history, and with my dying breath I plunge the diamond into the deepest part of me” (282-283).

While this selection from an equally dramatic scene is the way Beigh finds the diamond she has been contracted to locate, it proves problematic for my questions regarding the narrative from last week. While Beigh’s research is what fueled this journey through time, how can we be certain that it is solely her research that has fueled her narrative? Last week, I highlighted the following passage as being the root of my questions regarding the narrator and her narrative choices:

“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 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” (118).

This begs the question regarding Beigh’s omniscience throughout the text, and makes me further question the credibility of her narrative.  Again, she is credible as she has done the research, but the depth of the narration is outstanding and very personal, as if she had witnessed it first-hand. This begs the question as to how much of the narrative is found via her research, own conclusions and speculations (which she would’ve use to fill in the gaps of Hannah’s life her research would have left), and other trips she may have taken into the past. While there isn’t a confirmation from Beigh that she has indeed traveled into Hannah’s life before within her narration, there are places in the novel where Hannah notes that Bhagmati’s character has changed:

“The servant woman appeared young and beautiful, regal in her posture! She had changed into fresh, fragrant garments. The bared lustrous skin of her arms smelled of floral oils and woody essences. Her hair, still wet from a bath or from the rain-churned river, cascaded in raven waves. Even her voice had a new confidence” (219).

When I originally read this passage (and the others where Hannah remarks on Bhagmati’s changing character), I thought that it was perhaps because Bhagmati was more comfortable in the new world and culture Hannah found herself in. However, after discovering Beigh’s possession of Bhagmati’s body, I have become suspicious of Bhagmati’s character.

I will admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this story and loved the ending, and after learning of Beigh’s time travel, I understand and appreciate the way Mukerjee has her float through time both literally and in narration. But this literal floating through time has also proved problematic as it, in a way, discredits Beigh’s narration and knowledge for me. I will have to reread the text to see if I can ease my distrust and answer my questions about the level of influence and personal experience that is in Beigh’s narration and Hannah’s life/story.

Until next time when I’ll be discussing Chapter Four of Burton’s text (the chapter devoted to Bharati Mukherjee).

-Megan Mann

Mukherjee, Bharati. The Holder of the World. Ballantine Books, 1994, New York.



One thought on “Mukherjee: Floating Through Time

  1. I like the way you treat the book as a sort of “detective novel.” As it turns out, your “hunches” came true, mostly! Your article is also a very nice foreshadowing of next week’s treatment of “subaltern theory”–i.e. who gets to tell the stories of the underprivileged/ the forgotten/ the voiceless.


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