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Slipping Off the Continental Shelf : THE HOLDER OF THE WORLD, <i> By Bharati Mukherjee (Alfred A. Knopf: $22; 286 pp.)</i>

Ideas swim like glittering fishes in “The Holder of the World,” but they swim in a muddy and turgid river. Bharati Mukherjee has stocked her new novel, a mock-historical mixture of romance and myth, 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.

The notions are inserted with considerable agility, but the novel they are inserted in is awkward and overblown. It tells of a New England woman’s search--passion in the garb of scholarship--for a remote ancestor who journeyed to India to become the lover of a Hindu Rajah and the prisoner of the Mogul emperor.

Beigh Masters is restless, aware of her cultural constrictions, and avid for something larger, warmer, more polychromatic and mysterious. Mukherjee, who seems impatient to expound her story and more engaged with the expounding than with the story, has Beigh rattle off the symbols of her constriction. She delivers a hasty, antiseptic recitation of her lovers from the age of 15 on. There was Andrew on a beach. (Dolphins were swimming about, emblem of a greater wildness than Andrew’s.) There was Blake at Yale, and Chace at Harvard, and a junior year abroad in London with Giles, Gavin and Devon, an IRA terrorist. It was time to move along.

“I had slipped off the continental shelf of shallow, undergraduate affairs, into the dark, cold, maritime trenches.” There she found “the older men, the professors and the bosses and men with complicated lives and fatal flaws.” Beigh’s voice, ornate and inert, is a considerable shadow upon the book.

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Leached out by so much civilized bleakness, she comes, just in time, upon Venn, a computer expert from India. He is short, modest and her haven; from there she can begin a quest that will take years. It is for Hannah Easton, who left Salem, Mass., in the 17th Century with a charming freebooter and went to the Coromandel Coast of India where he began as a trader for the East India Co. and ended up as a pirate. One of Mukherjee’s points, strikingly illustrated, is that there was little difference between the two.

Beigh’s search, which will take her to museums and libraries and eventually to India, begins with a miniature that shows Hannah as a prisoner in the court of the Moslem Mogul emperor, and labels her the Salem Bibi (concubine). Hannah and her Hindu Rajah, Beigh and her Venn; these are the parallel East-West patterns of the story that Beigh tells and that, at the end, Venn computes into a few seconds of virtual reality. These will transport his wife, electronically helmeted, into the midst of a terrible battle between the forces of the emperor and those of the Rajah.

In the book’s first part, Beigh records Hannah’s life in New England. When the Wampanoag chieftain, King Philip, rose up against the settlers, and other tribes revolted throughout Massachusetts, Hannah’s widowed mother was saved by her Indian lover. He abducted her and deposited her baby on the doorstep of a neighbor. The knowledge of her mother’s affinity for a wilder and freer tradition--and lover--than the West could provide haunted the child, who grew up in Salem with foster parents. It would be replicated later in her own choice of lover and, centuries later, in Beigh’s choice of Venn.

The story of Hannah in America is choppy and ragged; alternately perfunctory and pretentious. The portrait of her life as an East India Co. wife on the Indian south coast is much richer. There are vivid scenes: the Indian traders waiting in their palanquins on the beach for the latest East India ship, and tended by fan-bearers and spittoon-carriers. The description of an imported desk dropped in the water during unloading, and washing ashore later “with deadly sea snakes nested neatly in each letter compartment.” Not only is the description memorable, but it is a wicked image of Western orderliness--those compartments--invaded by a lavish wilderness.

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Mukherjee is at her fierce best portraying the Englishmen who serve the company, which functioned free of any control by the British government. Many were little men swollen grotesquely into absolute power. One is a sadist; another, half-mad, establishes a new trading post to allow him to set up a 5-year-old Indian girl as his concubine. A third, shunned by his fellows because of his passion for India and its culture, is the prototype of a rarer kind of expatriate. A male counterpart to Hannah, her mother and Beigh, he takes an Indian as his unwedded mate. For him, too, the West is a starveling unless it lets itself be nurtured by other civilizations.

In the last part, Hannah is rescued from drowning--her husband has gone off to be a pirate--by the forces of the Hindu prince Jadav Singh. They become lovers, are besieged by the army of the Mogul emperor, escape, are ambushed and escape again. There are some remarkable scenes--notably the Elephant Walk in which a victorious army’s elephants are used to crush, one by one, the skulls of the fallen enemy--but the writing swells up. It is appropriate, in a sense, to the mythical fairy tale that Mukherjee has embarked on, but it becomes cloyingly overblown. The author, of Indian origins, has drawn from Eastern literary traditions in her account of the bejeweled and perfumed love of Hannah and her prince, but the effect is of a sugar-rush only partly digested.

Mukherjee is the author of “Jasmine,” a visionary novel told with stunning fictional control about an Indian woman who marries an American farmer. Here she has attempted a more unbelted approach to her great theme: non-Western history and culture as commentary and prophecy upon the culture and history of the West. She is as visionary as ever but her control has slipped. Beigh, the narrator, is thin and artificial; still, an unsatisfactory narrator has its uses. But though Hannah, who is the point of it all, is more intriguing, she remains largely symbolic and undefined. The messages have value, but fictionally the book is a weak lens trained upon an unformed landscape.


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