The Glass Palace
by Amitav Ghosh
Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks (2002)
So many notable events occur around us on a daily basis. This makes the recording of news a difficult task. How do you select what is relevant and what is not, how do you choose what to report, and what to leave out? It’s also what makes the study and recording of History such a vast task. Human history has not been kind to historiographers. Nor has it been kind to authors of historical fiction. Ghosh, however, makes writing and living through a century an easy feat. In this accomplishment lies his greatest feat.
The Glass Palace is a fascinating account that takes place across borders. Politically, it reflects happenings in Burma and India around when Burma becomes colonized, and fascinatingly enough, the roots of an independence movement begin to develop in India. Economically, it looks at, and analyzes the impact of the discovery of teak and rubber as important trade items in Asia – the impact it has on individuals possessing these resources, and the broader societal structures relying on these individuals. On the whole, it’s perhaps the best novel I’ve read that focuses exclusively on the impact of colonialism on a lower-middle class society, incorporating the upper classes interactions with them.
The novel begins in Burma – focusing on a young kalaa (we later learn he is Indian) without a home, without parents. It introduces us to Rajkumar, and through the eyes of youth, describes the conduct of the Burmese Royals. Set in their ways, with several oddities. A short while later, Ghosh shifts perspective to focus on the Royals, and explains their history in brief. The shift in tone is evident, but not abrupt, and the pace of writing quickens through this passage to allow for a build-up to the exit of the Royals from India.
It is here that Rajkumar meets his Rani. An encounter with the Queen also leads to Rajkumar meeting Dolly – who he believes to be the most beautiful woman he has ever met. Their chance encounter appear to be the first of only two. They are separated, rather quickly, and the destruction the British Empire metes out is evident, rampant, and Rajkumar is also soon separated from his adoptive family, Ma Cho.
A significant accomplishment of Ghosh is how he interweaves the latter parts of Rajkumar’s and Dolly’s life. Living in completely different continents, Ghosh is able to use language effectively to sift through settings with ease. The vivid detail allows you to transition between what feels like two different novels with no real discomfort, and continuous plot progression.
The latter parts of the book highlight the inertia with Indian independence struggle at its initial phases, told through the relationship of a woman who connects Rajkumar and Dolly with the country. As a post-colonial read, the book is a fantastic account of history, told through an ever-expanding, but connected set of leading characters.
However, at points, events take place with an absurdness and staccato which is uncomfortable. People falling in love, people becoming best friends – these are events and feelings which develop over time, and Ghosh attempts to circumvent the process of describing his characters’ interactions by using a deadpan “X and Y became fast friends” in its absence. Understandably, a limitation of historical fiction is that a lot of words are spent on historical detail, but words are necessary at times to describe slowly developing feelings.
On the whole, an enjoyable read from an Indian-born author – a great start to 2019.