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“An amazing literary feat and a masterpiece of storytelling. Once again, Bharati Mukherjee prove she is one of our foremost writers, with the literary muscles to weave both the future and the past into a tale that is singularly intelligent and provocative.”—Amy Tan
This is the remarkable story of Hannah Easton, a unique woman born in the American colonies in 1670, “a person undreamed of in Puritan society.” Inquisitive, vital and awake to her own possibilities, Hannah travels to Mughal, India, with her husband, and English trader. There, she sets her own course, “translating" herself into the Salem Bibi, the white lover of a Hindu raja.
It is also the story of Beigh Masters, born in New England in the mid-twentieth century, an “asset hunter” who stumbles on the scattered record of her distant relative's life while tracking a legendary diamond. As Beigh pieces together details of Hannah's journeys, she finds herself drawn into the most intimate and spellbinding fabric of that remote life, confirming her belief that with “sufficient passion and intelligence, we can decontrsuct the barriers of time and geography....”
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Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta. She attended the universities of Calcutta and Baroda, where she received a master’s degree in English and Ancient Indian Culture. She came to America in 1961 to attend the Writer’s Workshop and received a master of fine arts and Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa. She became an American citizen in 1988. She is a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and is married to the writer Clark Blaise.
Mukherjee is the author of eight books of fiction—Desirable Daughters, The Tiger’s Daughter, Wife, Darkness, The Middleman and Other Stories (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989), Jasmine Leave It to Me, and The Holder of the World—and two books of nonfiction, written with her husband, Days and Nights in Calcutta and The Sorrow and Terror.
I LIVE in three time zones simultaneously, and I don’t mean Eastern, Central and Pacific. I mean the past, the present and the future.
The television news is on, Venn’s at his lab, and I’m reading Auctions & Acquisitions, one of the trade mags in my field. People and their property often get separated. Or people want to keep their assets hidden. Nothing is ever lost, but continents and centuries sometimes get in the way. Uniting people and possessions; it’s like matching orphaned socks, through time.
According to A & A, a small museum between Salem and Marblehead has acquired a large gem. It isn’t the gem that interests me. It’s the inscription and the provenance. Anything having to do with Mughal India gets my attention. Anything about the Salem Bibi, Precious-as-Pearl, feeds me.
Eventually, Venn says, he’ll be able to write a program to help me, but the technology is still a little crude. We’ve been together nearly three years, which shrinks to about three weeks if you deduct his lab time. He animates information. He’s out there beyond virtual reality, re-creating the universe, one nanosecond, one minute at a time. He comes from India.
Right now, somewhere off Kendall Square in an old MIT office 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. By “research” they mean the mass ingestion of all the world’s newspapers, weather patterns, telephone directories, satellite passes, every arrest, every television show, political debate, airline schedule ... do you know how many checks were written that day, how many credit card purchases were made? Venn does. 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.
It will look like a cheap set, he fears. He watches “Star Trek,” both the old and new series, and remarks on the nakedness of the old sets, like studio sets of New York in 1940s movies. The past presents itself to us, always, somehow simplified. He wants to avoid that fatal unclutteredness, but knows he can’t.
Finally, a use for sensory and informational overload.
Every time-traveler will create a different reality—just as we all do now. No two travelers will be able to retrieve the same reality, or even a fraction of the available realities. History’s a big savings bank, says Venn, we can all make infinite reality withdrawals. But we’ll be able to compare our disparate experience in the same reality, and won’t that be fun? Jack and Jill’s twenty-second visit to 3:00 p.m. on the twenty-ninth of October, 1989.
Every time-traveler will punch in the answers to a thousand personal questions—the team is working on the thousand most relevant facts, the thousand things that make me me, you you—to construct a kind of personality genome. Each of us has her own fingerprint, her DNA, but she has a thousand other unique identifiers as well. From that profile X-2989 will construct a version of you. By changing even one of the thousand answers, you can create a different personality and therefore elicit a different experience. Saying you’re brown-eyed instead of blue will alter the withdrawal. Do blonds really have more fun? Stay tuned. Because of information overload, a five-minute American reality will be denser, more “lifelike,” than five minutes in Africa. But the African reality may be more elemental, dreamlike, mythic.
With a thousand possible answers we can each create an infinity of possible characters. And so we contain a thousand variables, and history is a billion separate information bytes. Mathematically, the permutations do begin to resemble the randomness of life. Time will become as famous as place. There will be time-tourists sitting around saying, “Yeah, but have you ever been to April fourth? Man!”
My life has gotten just a little more complicated than my ability to describe it. That used to be the definition of madness, now it’s just discontinuous overload.
My project is a little more complicated.
THE RUBY RESTS on a square of sun-faded green velvet under a dusty case in a maritime museum in an old fishing village many branches off a spur of the interstate between Peabody and Salem. Flies have perished inside the case. On a note card affixed to the glass by yellowed tape, in a slanted, spidery hand over the faded blue lines, an amateur curator has ballpointed the stone’s length (4 cm) and weight (137 carats), its date and provenance (late 17c., Mughal). The pendant is of spinel ruby, unpolished and uncut, etched with names in an arabized script. A fanciful translation of the names is squeezed underneath:
Jehangir, The World-Seizer
Shah Jahan, The World-Ruler
Aurangzeb, The World-Taker
Precious-as-Pearl, The World-Healer
In adjoining cases are cups of translucent jade fitted with handles of silver and gold; bowls studded with garnets and sapphires, pearls and emeralds; jewel-encrusted thumb rings; jewel-studded headbands for harem women; armlets and anklets, necklaces and bangles for self-indulgent Mughal men; scimitars rust dappled with ancient blood, push-daggers with double blades and slip-on tiger claws of hollow-ground animal horns.
How they yearned for beauty, these nomads of central Asia perched on Delhi’s throne, how endless the bounty must have seemed, a gravel of jewels to encrust every surface, gems to pave their clothes, their plates, their swords. Peacocks of display, helpless sybarites, consumed not with greed but its opposite: exhibition. And how bizarre to encounter it here, the spontaneous frenzy to display, not hoard, in this traditional capital of Puritan restraint. Spoils of the Fabled East hauled Salemward by pockmarked fortune builders. Trophies of garrisoned souls and bunkered hearts.
The Emperor and his courtiers pace the parapets above the harem, caged birds sing, and the soft-footed serving girl follows them at a measured distance, silently fanning with peacock feathers at the end of a long bamboo shaft. Below, a hundred silk saris dry on the adobe walls. Lustrous-skinned eunuchs set brass pitchers of scented water at the openings in the zenana wall. Old women snatch them up, then bar the venereal interior to the dust and heat. Above it all, the Emperor—a stern old man, sharp featured in profile with a long white beard—contemporary of the Sun King, of Peter the Great and of Oliver Cromwell, splices the sunlight with uncut gems. The world turns slowly now in a haze of blood, then glitters in a sea of gold, then drowns in the lush green that chokes his palace walks. He is the monarch of rains and absurd fertility, bred with dust and barrenness in his veins, this fervent child of a desert faith, believer in submission now given infidel souls to enslave, unclean temples to scourge and a garden of evil fecundity to rule. How useless it must have seemed to those ambassadors of trade, those factors of the East India Company, to lecture an exiled Uzbek on monochromatic utility and the virtues of reticence.
The gaudiness of Allah, the porridge of Jehovah.
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