The Glass Palace is a wonderful novel by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh. I have previously read two of his novels, the first two parts of the Ibis trilogy – Sea of Poppies and The River of Smoke. Both were superb novels and I was keen to explore more of Amitav Ghosh’s work. The Glass Palace is an earlier work, published in 2000, but it shares some of the key features of his later work, in particular a rich array of fascinating characters.
What is different about the Glass Palace is the long time span of the novel which covers the lives of three generations of people. The novel starts in 1885 and ends in 1996. As with his later novels we are transported across countries to some exotic places. The novel begins in Mandalay the old royal capital of Burma and ends in Burma, but in modern Yangoon. In between we are taken to Malaya, various parts of India and briefly to the USA. The heart of the novel is Burma though. 1885 is the year when the British complete their annexation of the whole of Burma. This ends the various Burmese wars and brings about the forced exile of the royal family – King Thebaw and Queen Supalayat, the last king and queen of Burma. Their fall is mainly seen through the eyes of a young Indian boy – Rajkumar – who is living in Mandalay at the time. As the royal family are forced into exile, Rajkumar glimpses a beautiful young girl, Dolly, one of the Queen’s maids, and falls in love with her. The next part of the novel follows their different paths. Dolly follows the Queen into exile in Ratnagiri on the west coast of India, where she lives a life of quiet seclusion. Rajkumar on the other hand gradually makes his fortune in the teak business, with the help of his mentor Saya John. Amitav Ghosh goes into great detail to describe the dangerous life of the men and their elephants as they strive to get the giant logs down the mountains and rivers to Rangoon.
Rajkumar eventually makes enough money to embark on a voyage to discover the whereabouts of his childhood love. By chance de meets her at Ratnagiri and persuades her to leave India and marry him and return to Burma. The years pass and they have two sons – Neel and Dinu. Characters from earlier in the novel reappear and the rest of the book relates how this new generation develop their own relationships with each other, whether through marriage, friendship or business partnerships.
We are now well into the 20th century and the wider world impinges on their lives more and more. The world’s need for rubber leads Rajkumar and his partners, Saya John and his son, Matthew, to develop a rubber plantation in northern Malaya. The rise of the Indian independence movement is another key factor in the novel. Uma, an Indian friend of Dolly’s from her Ratnagiri days becomes a leader of one of the pro independence factions, and her niece, Manju will eventually marry Neel, the elder of Dolly and Rajkumar’s sons. The other world wide event to intrude into the lives of our characters was the 2nd World War, which brought destruction and chaos to both Malaya and Burma. Tragedy was to befall all of the characters in one way or another. The novel does not end here though and the survivors continue with their lives and other generations are born to continue the story. The book ends with the great grandson of Dolly and Rajkumar remembering a touching moment involving his great grandfather.
Though the novel is at heart about the loves and lives of the main characters, many more of them than I have outlined here, the book also deals with some of the most fundamental issues of the last century. The criss crossing of countries was not just for a few people, but rather millions of people were more or less forcibly uprooted from their homelands, mainly in India and China, and transported to far away places in Burma, Malaya and elsewhere. All part and parcels of the great British Empire. Someone had to do the donkey work on all these plantations and for as little money as possible. These mass transportations caused great suffering for the people involved and brought them little in the way of monetary compensation. They were also in the main bitterly resented by the populations of the host countries – Burma and Malaya. At tines this could lead to violence. The whole question of the rights and wrongs of these mass transportations forms an important background to the novel.
The rise of the Indian independence movement is another key background factor in the novel. In particular there is much debate among some of the characters about the role of Indian soldiers in fighting for the British Empire. Especially when that meant killing Burmese in order to expand the Empire. Someone else’s Empire. This reached a height during the 2nd World War when some Indian soldiers refused to fight for the Empire and instead fought with the Japanese. As the novel makes clear they did not fight for the Japanese, but against continuing British rule in India. In their own way they were fighting for India. The internal anguish this could create is sensitively handled in the novel.
All in all this is a very good book, which combines the loves and lives of three generations in Burma, Malaya and India, while anchoring the tale in the darker world of colonialsm.