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Book Review : Bharati Mukherjee



By Bharati Mukherjee

By Manju Kak

That this book deserves a second reading is clear at the outset.  Masterful and tight, it spins around different worlds in differing times.  The remarkable thing is how dissimilar it is in style from what has gone before.  The machine gun volley of The Middle Man and Other Stories is absent; instead a meandering river sure of its delta overtakes.  The separateness makes up the twin legs of the colossus spanning  Mukherjee’s enormous talent.

Dissimilar in style yes, but familiar threads run through them; migrancy and transgression, keeping apart and bringing together of linkages.  Almost like technology’s preoccupation with communication is the modern writer’s  desire to understand this criss-crossing.  Shades of Ghosh’s In an Antique Land?  Immense, but is the canvas of this continuum of the immigrant experience moving from the small and singular into the vastness of “three time zones simultaneously” – the past, the present and the future?  No longer is the writer exploring the telescoped experience of the Latino, the Viet, the Indian lapping American shores, instead she moves spirally into whole worlds colliding with one another.   Moreover, the tide is reversed, the so-called American dream lies in the Orient and an American seeks it.

Beigh Masters (descended from Muster) and Venn Iyer are embarked on the same quest, namely time travelling.  They wish to reconstruct the universe gone by.  He with his X2989 computer programme – feeding information and animating it – she in the time-honoured intuitive way of relying on the mind and the heart.  She explains further, “Uniting people and possessions, it’s like matching socks through time.”  And Venn, through mathematical permutations, attempts to make time as famous as place, “Yeah, but have you ever been to April 4th ? Man!”  Time-tourism, huh!

Beigh’s trip to the Maritime Museum in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in quest of the most perfect diamond, the ‘Emperor’s Tear’, is, she believes, part of the universal design.  Two crates have just arrived, both magic markered – Salem Bibi’s Stuffs.  For five years Beigh has been tracking Salem Bibi, “a woman from Salem who ended up in the Emperor’s court”, that is, the Mughal Emperor’s.  Yes, Mukherjee hasn’t  yet severed her Indian psyche.  Beigh abandons the ‘Tear’, for more enthralling is the reconstruction of Bibi’s life.  She is none other than Hannah Easton of Brookfield, “a hesitant hilltop Puritan outpost deep inside Nipmuc (American Indian) country”.  The time is the 17th century.  Her farmer father Edward Easton is dead, mother Rebecca mysteriously disappears  “in the scorched and septic month of August, 1675”, in a fateful night of Indian raids.  Hannah of the tempestuous blood is fostered within the folds of pragmatic puritanism of the Fitch household.  Hers is the power to attract.  Her hyped imagination finds recourse in embroidery, but why is it vibrant, passionate and wild, so full of the lurking devil eh?  And what is it about her mother she cannot, dare not, reveal?  The hard working Pitches worry.. It is the swaggering seafarer Gabriel Legge who takes her away.  Married, she returns to pale England whence her father Edward Easton, “a doughy-skinned, soft bellied, fact-fevered scribe” with the East India Company, came.  But the post Cromwell old country cannot contain the adventure-hungry Legge.  Employed as a factor of East India Company, he sails for the Coromandel Coast where Hannah comes into a destiny pecullarly her own.  At White Town in St. Sebastian, the Indian  Pandora’s box sets free her overpowering sensuality.  Company wives of closed minds and little hearts hold nothing for Hannah.  It is Bhagmati, her Indian ayah, who brings to her the glimmerings of understanding of an aged civilization.

Hannah’s fate is narrated as Beigh pulls out of the crate, one by one, five brilliant Mughal miniatures beginning with the largest of the series, ‘The unravished Bride’ depicting a bloody battle where the Rat of the Coromandel, the Raja of Devgad, is vanquished.  (Hindu infidels, like the Europeans, have begun to gnaw at the  fringes of Aurangzeb’s empire.)  In the Raja’s death Salem Bibi, precious as pearl, loses her best lover.  Yes, Hannah with her passion, could not have lived with just Legge.  When Legge, unable to bear bureaucracy, chooses to part ways with the Company, it is Marquis’’s land of pirates he joins.  A misadventure with Haj pilgrims sees the band slaughtered by Deccani troops and Hannah escapes with Bhagmati to Panpur under the protection of Jadav Singh of Devgad.

In narrating this, Mukherjee reverses the telescope for Americans.  Look how you were in context, with the larger world then.  Today yours is this world.  Yesterday it was the fabled Orient’s.   As for tomorrow, who knows?

This is one level.  At another, Salem Bibi is a metaphor of man’s spirit that must roam.   Mukherjee tries to unravel this quest; why one world is not enough to contain the spirit of some;  they must always search for new boundaries, travel to the uttermost shores.  Salem Bibi, Gabriel Legge, Venn Iyer, Jay Basu are all the same – travellers, constantly seeking frontiers, now no longer of space but of time.  It is this spirit that founded America.  It is the same spirit that will crack the X2989 and track Salem Bibi and the ‘Emperor’s Tear’,.

So far I applaud.  But one reservation – where is the need to detail the Ramayana, a full 6 pages of it?  (Surely no Biblical references call for the same?)  Here, the book ceases to work for the Indian reader.  He is  sidetracked while Beigh/Mukherjee expounds for the benefit of her American (Western?) audience.  An inherent contradiction, this, for it was just such a mind-set that the book seeks to break.  Maybe Mukherjee too is reaching a new balance with her own two worlds – Indian and American.