The Glass Palace

by Amitav Ghosh

Published by Random House

470 pages, 2001

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Epic Under Glass

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


A vibrant blockbuster of a novel, a London critic described The Glass Palace as "a Doctor Zhivago for the Far East." It's historical drama on a grand scale, swift-moving yet packed with detail, as naturally cinematic (and romantic) as Gone With the Wind. But beneath this colorful exterior run deep currents of conscience, lending the novel extra dimensions. Two lovers are the glue binding together a massive century-long sweep of story, from the British invasion of Burma (now Myanmar) in the late 1800s through the chaos of two World Wars to the age of e-mail and the Internet.

The novel opens in 1885 with an ominous rumbling sound, "unfamiliar and unsettling, a distant booming followed by low, stuttering growls." Only one person in the marketplace of Mandalay knows that the sound is an 11-year-old Indian-born orphan boy named Rajkumar: "'English cannon,' he said in his fluent but heavily accented Burmese. 'They're shooting somewhere up the river. Heading in this direction.'"

The canny young survivor's instincts are correct. British soldiers have invaded the royal city of Mandalay and are about to send the king and queen into bitter exile. Burma is rich in teak forests and, though the people are incredulous ("A war over wood? Who's ever heard of such a thing?"), they soon must join neighboring India in submitting to British rule.

As King Thebaw and the haughty Queen Supayalat are forced to leave the glittering Glass Palace, looters quickly move in to scavenge what they can find. Young Rajkumar watches in shock as the unguarded palace is stripped of its treasures: "Armed with a rock, a girl was knocking the ornamental frets out of a crocodile-shaped zither; a man was using a meat cleaver to scrape the gilt from the neck of a saung-gak harp; and a woman was chiseling furiously at the ruby eyes of a bronze chinthe lion."

The irony here is that the king and queen are respected and even beloved figures in Burma. But Ghosh is adept at stripping the veils off human nature, to reveal the crude drive for survival that lives even in seemingly innocent hearts.

Before the royal couple are sent away to India, Rajkumar has an extraordinary encounter with a young girl, one of Queen Supayalat's attendants: "She was slender and long-limbed, of a complexion that was exactly the tint of the fine thanaka powder she was wearing on her face. She had huge dark eyes and her face was long and perfect in its symmetry. She was by far the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld, of a loveliness beyond imagining." The young girl shyly tells Rajkumar her name: "Dolly." It is as if the name is branded into his heart, for even after years of separation he continues to believe that this still, mysterious creature is his destiny.

Rajkumar seems to represent the human will to survive and even thrive under the most adverse conditions. Destined for success, he goes to work for his friend and mentor Saya John in the teak industry, eventually creating a kind of empire of his own.

Meanwhile, in Ratnagiri, India, Dolly continues to care for the daughters of the exiled royal family. District Collector Dey, a sort of combination jailer and protector-figure, keeps close watch over the family; like so many of the oppressors in the British regime, he is Indian. His wife Uma, restless and intelligent, strikes up a close, unlikely friendship with Dolly which neither of them realizes will last a lifetime.

Ghosh deeply explores the complex nature of oppression as his huge story unfolds. Of the British, one of his characters comments, "They don't wish to be cruel; they don't want any martyrs; all they want is that the King should be lost to memory like an old umbrella in a dusty cupboard." The Collector cynically observes about Rajkumar, now a well-known figure, "Do you think this man Raha would have been able to get rich if Thebaw were still ruling? Why, if it were not for the British, the Burmese would probably have risen up against these Indian businessmen and driven them out like sheep."

When Rajkumar meets Dolly again in Ratnagiri years later, she is little changed, "a prisoner who knew the exact dimensions of her cage and could look for contentment within those confines." This odd stillness gives her a rare sort of power and for the rest of the story she will become the eye of a hurricane of world events. When Rajkumar and Dolly finally marry, there is a satisfying sense of resolution. But where a less epic novel might have ended, this one is just getting started.

There are several strands of story that radiate outwards from the golden couple. When Uma's husband the Collector dies, she reinvents herself dramatically as a world traveler and, later, a political radical for the cause of Indian self-rule. Her nephew Arjun, first an eager young recruit in the British Indian army, undergoes a huge upheaval in conscience when he realizes that serving the oppressor (and thereby gaining some personal status) is morally indefensible.

The bond between Uma and Dolly is further cemented when Uma's niece Manju marries Neel, one of Dolly's sons. The other son, Dinu, falls in love with Alison, the granddaughter of Rajkumar's old mentor Saya John. (At the end, Ghosh takes us nicely up to the present day when Dolly's granddaughter Jaya embarks on an Internet search to find her uncle Dinu, now a very old man.) Though all these interconnections are complex, the skeins of story never become tangled due to Ghosh's awesome gift for storytelling, which includes an ability to cover tremendous ground without shirking on intimate details.

The Glass Palace is a novel brimming over with ideas, exploring the ways we cooperate with our own oppression, the nature of exploitation, the dehumanizing effects of racism and dispossession, and the miraculous way in which a change of consciousness (as with Uma and Arjun) can eventually alter the course of history.

Ghosh is so adept at entertaining us with his big, rip-roaring story that we barely realize we are being enlightened. Through his characters he delivers some powerful punches, as in this exchange between Arjun and his friend during World War II:

"As colonial masters go the British aren't that bad -- better than most. Certainly a lot better than the Japanese would be."

"In a way the better the master is, the worse the condition of the slave, because it makes him forget what he is."

The way Ghosh drops in jarring little references to British culture is masterful. At one social event on a rubber plantation in Malaya, peanut crumpets are served. Manju goes to fetch "the Huntley and Palmer's biscuit tin in which she kept Arjun's letters." And Arjun remarks to his friend (whose name has been Anglicized from Hardip), "Just look at us, Hardy just look at us. What are we? We've learned to dance the tango and we know how to eat roast beef with a knife and fork. The truth is that except for the color of our skin, most people in India wouldn't even recognize us as Indians."

The highest calling of a writer is to serve as the conscience of humanity. Ghosh's writing is so saturated with conscience that it transcends all but the best historical works. (The author lives up to his convictions. He recently turned down a shot at the prestigious Commonwealth Literary Prize on the grounds that the very existence of a "Commonwealth" smacks of the old imperialism.) In The Glass Palace Ghosh has created a work of literature that deserves to become as permanent as all the maddening, beautiful paradoxes of human nature. | May 2001


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.