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[152] The Glass Palace – Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which revives memory of this incredible piece of historical fiction that I never reviewed on this blog.

The Glass Palace will probably disqualify as fiction has it not for a majority of characters that bear no resemblance to reality besides King Thebaw, Queen Supayalat and their four daughters, who were actually forced to exile. The book, which assiduously parallels to the history of colonial India and British invasion of Burma, depicts the country in a century of traumatic sub continental history through the independence in 1947, the assassination of General Aunt San shortly before his assuming of office after election, and up to the presence. The indelible characters, most of whom entwined and descended down the same family line of Rajkumar, seemed to float between boundaries of both geography (Burma, India, Malaya) and class; and transcended across time and generations, powerfully illuminated the painful history of Burma.

Amitav Ghosh conveys all the excruciating details of the characters in a an unusual air of equanimity, with a detachment, serenity and moral strength in the face of such overwhelming turmoil. At the same time, the complex and riveting book evokes the impact of the turmoil events that had thumped families and individuals. Set in Burma during the onset of British invasion in 1885, fortuity had brought 11-year-old Rajkumar to Mandalay. The sampan on which he worked as an errand boy had been in repair and forced him to seek employment in the city. Rajkumar, a brawny figure for a boy of his age and with a quick-witted mind, worked at a food stall in exchange for meals and a roof. He met Saya John and later under whose tutelage Rajkumar entered the timber business and made a considerable fortune. When the British soldiers forced the royal family out to exile, Rajkumar encountered Dolly, the youngest of Queen Supayalat’s maids who took care of the Second Princess, and befriended her as the city’s scum came surging berserk, looting in the Glass Palace.

Dolly was one of the last remaining members of the original Mandalay contingent when the royal family exiled to Ratnagiri, India. For 20 years Dolly had lived in India as she progressed into adulthood, overseeing the daily chores and negotiating with local workers in the royal household. But Rajkumar could neither forget her nor remove any vestige of her – he set out on a quest for a girl whom he had met in the midst of havoc some 20 years ago, when she was only 7. What follows is a twist-and-turn chronicle, salt-and-peppered with historical background of the relevant countries, of Rajkumar’s life and his family. Through Ghosh’s writing Burma’s destitution, ignorance, famine and despair was relived.

Reading The Glass Palace reminds me of The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, a book about an English piano tuner being summoned to repair a piano that belonged to a Surgeon-Major in the midst of Burmese jungle. Characters in “The Glass Palace” traveled the very same route to and from Burma as the piano tuner and described similar sceneries. The second half of Ghosh’s book is replete with commentary-like prose on politics, history and warfare. An overlapping theme is the fact that the British had recruited Indian soldiers to conquer the Burmese. In a sense, the Indian soldiers, bearing no cause, were made to kill for the British Empire, fighting people (the Burmese) who really should be their friends. The Burmese vented out anger and resentment toward the Indians and, what was more, as subjects of the British Empire, the Indians were treated as enemy aliens by the Japanese. Amitav raises the ineluctable truth: that the Empire was no less guilty of racism, aggression and conquest than the Nazi’s institutionalizing racism, violence and atrocities.

6 Responses

  1. Hi! I found your blog through the BBAW list. Nice blog you have! ANd great review.

  2. I just picked this book up a couple of weeks ago – I’m glad you gave it such a great review! It makes me look forward to it more.

  3. Found your blog through BBAW. Glad I did. THE GLASS PALACE sounds like a really good book. Nice review. I’ll have to check it out.

  4. Alessandra:
    Thank you for your kind words. I’m just grateful for this book blogging community. 🙂

  5. Meghan:
    He’s one of my favorite writers who is often overlooked. I plan to read Sea of Poppies, which is short-listed for Booker prize. 🙂

  6. Gwendolyn:
    It’s a page-turner, full of historical and cultural details. 🙂

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