Amitav Ghosh,
The Glass Palace
(HarperCollins, 2001)

Anthropologist-turned-writer Amitav Ghosh is yet another literary talent of the "Indian Diaspora." A versatile writer, he has tried his hand at travel writing, science fiction and now a historical novel. As a storyteller Ghosh is at least at par with Vikram Seth and Michael Ondaatje.

The Glass Palace is loosely based on the military career of the writer's father and an uncle's life as a trader in Burma; both inspired the author to set a novel in various British possessions in Asia. It relates the interconnected experiences of three families in Burma, India and British Malaya, covering the period from 1885 to the present.

Starting with the fall of the Burmese capital Mandalay to a British expeditionary army, it depicts the exile of Thibaw, last King of Burma, with a small entourage of courtiers. Considered one of the most dramatic events in Burma's recent history, we witness the episode through the eyes of two orphans: one is Rajkumar, a Bengali deckhand turned dishwasher, the other Dolly, a 10-year-old Burmese girl serving as a maid to Queen Supayalat, the wife of the deposed monarch. British colonial power is at its apogee, and it is -- ironically, perhaps -- the very extent of British supremacy which will give these two impoverished children some unexpected opportunities.

At the knee of Saya John, a Catholic Chinese originally from British Malaya, Rajkumar learns the tricks of the teak trade and becomes a prosperous timber merchant in his own right. In the meantime, Dolly is whiling her life away in the Indian town of Ratnagiri, where King Thibaw has been sent to live out his days. Through a remarkable chain of events she ends up as Rajkumar's wife; he had only caught a glimpse of her some twenty years before, but was unable to forget.

It is at Ratnagiri that the lives of Dolly and Rajkumar become intertwined with that of a prominent family from Calcutta. Dolly's friendship with Uma, the politically active widow of one of the first native Indians to serve the British government in a senior government position, seals the shared fate of the "nouveau riche" Bengali-Burmese couple and the high caste Roy family. Through the career of Uma Roy, initially a fierce nationalist politician but later a more gentle supporter of the Mahatma Gandhi, Ghosh finds a vehicle to expound his own political views, which are sometimes a bit moralistic.

The years between the two World Wars, though at times turbulent, are generally kind to most of the characters in this epic tale. Rajkumar and Dolly's eldest son marries a niece of Uma, Saya John's son Matthew becomes a successful rubber planter in Malaya, running a huge estate in which Rajkumar has a substantial share -- knitting the futures of the three families ever closer together. Only Dinu, the younger son of Rajkumar and Dolly, seems to have trouble finding his niche, but towards the end he becomes instrumental to keep story together.

But the Japanese invasion of southeast Asia throws everything into turmoil. Family members are cut off from each other, fortunes are lost, and a number of them perish in a variety of war-related incidents. The post-war period is dearly needed to heal the emotional wounds. One of the most moving episodes in this part of the book is the description of how Rajkumar and Dolly live out their days ... separated by choice.

As the narrative progresses in time the tale does not run out of steam. On the contrary, it now appears as if we are on a runaway train. This is somewhat regrettable, because until now Ghosh had developed both story and characters meticulously. In order to bring his epic to an end it seems that he starts to economize on the development of both plot and psychology. In a number of flashbacks he wraps up the remaining loose ends and leaves us behind in the Burma of Aung San Su Kyi. However, he partly makes up for this by introducing -- at the very end -- an unexpected twist in the composition of the book.

Apart from its absorbing story, what makes The Glass Palace into a special book is the fact that in this history of the British Empire there is hardly an Englishman in sight. The epoch is seen entirely through the eyes of locals, the so-called colonized people -- or "subalterns," as many postmodern scholars from the Indian subcontinent like to call them. So in answer to the question raised by one of them in a debate on historiography -- "Can the subaltern speak?" -- we may now reply with a wholehearted: "Yes, most eloquently."

[ by Carool Kersten ]
Rambles: 25 August 2001

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