The Glass Palace – Amitav Ghosh

Some 200 pages into this 547-page-book, someone asked me what the book is about. I had no idea. And that’s my biggest complaint. But then, let’s begin with page 1 ?

Rajkumar lost his family as a little boy and now, all alone in the world, he fends for himself in Mandalay. Mandalay, the site of Burma’s Golden Palace, ruled by King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat is in awe of its monarchy. But the inevitable happens and soon the King and Queen are sent into exile and Burma, like India, becomes a British colony. Fate, however, leaves a delicate string hanging between Burma and India when Dolly, the first princess’s maid must leave an infatuated Rajkumar behind to do her duty in exile.

Rajkumar’s journey thereafter into the heartland of the timber trade is narrated in wonderful detail. We learn of the oo-sis and their elephants. We read of the British Assistants sitting miles away from home in their teak Tais. We are awed by the technique of transporting the logs by the Chaungs. We imagine in our mind’s eye Saya John in his ill-fitting English clothes mentoring Rajkumar on the tricks of the trade. We grow with Rajkumar and watch him become a confident young man ready to venture into the world by himself.

Meanwhile, the Burmese Royalty have been left to themselves in Ratnagiri, a sleepy little town in Maharashtra, India. King Thebaw is resigned to his fate, Queen Supayalat continues to despise the British and the princesses are growing with the servants as their play mates. Young and beautiful Dolly only has the collector’s wife, Uma Dey, as her confidante and friend in this journey of unending loneliness.

The Glass Palace at the outset seems to be a story on and about the characters mentioned. We have talked about the Invasion of Burma, the monarchy, the intertwined lives of Dolly, Rajkumar and Uma. What more could there be, right? But Amitav Ghosh has other plans in mind. Confined in those 547 pages are life stories spanning a period of 111 years!!! He takes us through a myriad journey of relationships…the main protagonists, their children, their children’s spouses & children..the story grows like an Indian joint family! And always, just always, there is a political undercurrent running through. Be it the worries of a revolt in Burma against the colonial masters, or the Indian Independence League in the US, one is always reminded of the political situations that push the characters into the decisions they make. At one point in the novel, I was almost convinced that the entire story was a build-up to the realization of a romance, beautiful and almost spiritual, that Ghosh was narrating. It made sense…giving the reader the complete background so one could understand the nuances of this relationship. And then just when one thinks This is a love story with the backdrop of colonialism, Amitav Ghosh springs a surprise and the reader is found falling headlong into the Second World War, the Indian National Army, and the throng of thousands of refugees from Burma! What could be a love story suddenly becomes a story of life in a war engulfed region.

And that’s exactly my complaint against the book.  The author has so much to tell, so many stories to share, that none is allowed enough time to grow roots in the depths of the reader’s mind, leaving behind a feeling almost of longing. Given a chance, Amitav Ghosh’s beautifully detailed narration could have left strong imprints on the readers. The last 70 pages of the book are particularly disappointing, almost as if hurriedly thrown in to close all the loose ends and give the readers some closure, even explain the reason behind the title! If only the author had left some things unsaid, allowing the reader to take over with the way the story ended, the book could have left a better after-taste.

In conlusion, I think I finally understand what the book is about. Adding to Wikipedia’s explanation that it is a Historic Novel, this is a novel about three countries and 3 people(plus family)and how their lives are irrevocably intertwined. It is a story of love, found and lost. It is a story of dreams, realised and shattered like a glass palace. Amitav Ghosh doesn’t fail to impress with his style and I am already looking forward to reading another of his books. But this book in particular, did not live up to my expectations.

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