"Tells of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who creates an empire in the Burmese teak forest. During the British invasion of 1885, when soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, the woman whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her."--Jacket.
Your mileage may well vary on this book, but for myself, I would have preferred the Ghosh focus in more closely on a specific time period and set of characters. I'm going to say, though, that overall I'm glad I read the book, and remember to point out that in most places the actual writing and descriptions are very, very strong.
Sometimes though I feel it is an extended history lesson, which isn't a criticism as such, but the style might not appeal to everyone.
Rajkumar Raha enters Burma in the late 19th century as an illiterate worker. He is present during the British invasion of Burma in 1885, when teh English deposed the Burmese royal family, ousting them from the Glass Palace, and forcing them into exile in India. Rajkumar sees and is immediately obsessed by Dolly, a young Burmese attendant of the Queen; many years later as a wealthy man, he pursues Dolly into India and persuades her to marry him and return to Burma.
The story line follows Rajkumar and his family, along with those of his mentor Saya John and his family. Their fates follow that of Burma and India, as the rising movement for Indian independence, one of whose factions is led by Gandhi, affects the politics of Burma as well, with its large Indian laboring class.
One of the best sections of the book covers the Japanese invasion of Burma in World War II. It is impossible not to compare it with J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip, which covers the exact same event, since it led to the invasion and fall of Singapore. Farrell, an Irishman who had no love for the British colonial policies in any part of the Empire, and Ghosh, writing from the Indian point of view, tell almost exactly the same story, differing only in the details of separate events in Burma and Malaya. Of the two, Ghosh is the more forgiving of British military blunders and failures, simply because his point of view is that of the Indians caught up in the invasion; Farrell is far more scathing, given his British protagonists.
The best way I can describe Ghosh’s writining is that is is “old fashioned,” far more formal than that of most contemporary Indian writers. This serves very, very well for the story up until the present day, including the military coup that took over Myanmar (Burma). Perhaps because Ghosh was not that invested in the modern story, the tale loses momentum and impact at the end. However, the contemporary section is not that long--it's almost an epilogue-- and should not deter anyone from reading what is a very fine historical novel. Highly recommended.
Enjoyable in parts, beginning was good, though later in the book lots of history was covered in paragraphs which was unfortunate......
Amitav Ghosh conveys all the excruciating details of the characters in a an unusual air of equanimity, with a detachment, serenity and moral strength in the face of such overwhelming turmoil. At the same time, the complex and riveting book evokes the impact of the turmoil events that had thumped families and individuals. Set in Burma during the onset of British invasion in 1885, fortuity had brought 11-year-old Rajkumar to Mandalay. The sampan on which he worked as an errand boy had been in repair and forced him to seek employment in the city. Rajkumar, a brawny figure for a boy of his age and with a quick-witted mind, worked at a food stall in exchange for meals and a roof. He met Saya John and later under whose tutelage Rajkumar entered the timber business and made a considerable fortune. When the British soldiers forced the royal family out to exile, Rajkumar encountered Dolly, the youngest of Queen Supayalat's maids who took care of the Second Princess, and befriended her as the city's scum came surging berserk, looting in the Glass Palace.
Dolly was one of the last remaining members of the original Mandalay contingent when the royal family exiled to Ratnagiri, India. For 20 years Dolly had lived in India as she progressed into adulthood, overseeing the daily chores and negotiating with local workers in the royal household. But Rajkumar could neither forget her nor remove any vestige of her - he set out on a quest for a girl whom he had met in the midst of havoc some 20 years ago, when she was only 7. What follows is a twist-and-turn chronicle, salt-and-peppered with historical background of the relevant countries, of Rajkumar's life and his family. Through Ghosh's writing Bruma's destitution, ignorance, famine and despair was relived.
Reading "The Glass Palace" reminds me of "The Piano Tuner" by Daniel Mason, a book about an English piano tuner being summoned to repair a piano that belonged to a Surgeon-Major in the midst of Burmese jungle. Characters in "The Glass Palace" traveled the very same route to and from Burma as the piano tuner and described similar sceneries. The second half of Ghosh's book is replete with commentary-like prose on politics, history and warfare. An overlapping theme is the fact that the British had recruited Indian soldiers to conquer the Burmese. In a sense, the Indian soldiers, bearing no cause, were made to kill for the British Empire, fighting people (the Burmese) who really should be their friends. The Burmese vented out anger and resentment toward the Indians and, what was more, as subjects of the British Empire, the Indians were treated as enemy aliens by the Japanese. Amitav raises the ineluctable truth: that the Empire was no less guilty of racism, aggression and conquest than the Nazi's institutionalizing racism, violence and atrocities.
The characters feel real and there is a lot of depth in each. However we see very little of them as the focus appears to be directed at their surroundings rather than the individuals themselves.
I have studied a lot of postcolonial theory. This book raises many of the major postcolonial issues: is violence or non-violence a better approach to throwing off an imperialist power? Are the benefits of colonialism (education, roads, etc.) worth the costs (subjugation, loss of culture)? To whom should a soldier in an imperial army be loyal? Ghosh treats these topics very sensitively, showing just how impossible it is to come up with a good answer to any of the questions raised by a postcolonial situation. This would be a wonderful introduction to postcolonialism; however, I've read enough postcolonial literature and theory that the book felt a bit like a postcolonial primer to me.
All in all, a very enjoyable book that raised some interesting issues, but perhaps had too much of an agenda to really be an enjoyable story.
I listened to the audiobook, and as always, Simon Vance's narration was wonderful
I really enjoyed this book as it transported me to Burma in the 19th century right through to contemporary times. It also takes the reader to India and Malaysia over a number of years. I
My only wish is that the book included a "cast of characters". Because it is long and I wasn't able to read continuously, I often found myself forgetting the relationship the major characters had to one another. (Several families become blended and it was difficult remembering who was aunt to whom, etc).
This book certainly drives home the fact that families are families regardless of whether they live in Kansas or Burma.
A young Indian boy is witness to the departure of the royal entourage from Burma and is deeply smitten by a girl in the service of the queen. The history of that part of the world is described as a backdrop to the history of the rise and fall of the family created by the boy, Rajkumar. Colonialism and the end of it (in India at least, WWII, military dictatorships are described, but always as an integral part of the story.
Sweeping in scope, perhaps not as immediate infeeling as Hungry Tide. The Glass Palace is another of the great books written by Amitav Ghosh. Highly recommended!
Maybe I am going through a bit of historical fiction burn out, but I found this story jumped around too much, tried to be too grand and over the top and as such, became a chore to read, even as I enjoyed the wonderful descriptive details of Burma and India.
I found some of the ideas espoused by Arjun and his comrades interesting but it felt like his character was invented in order for the author to say these things, unlike Uma. Her developing nationalism felt natural and real.
In this book, Ghosh uses personal stories to shed light on the social, political, and historical changes in Burma, India, and Malaysia at the close of the British Empire. Further, he skillfully illustrates the fact that, as he suggests, the angle, or trajectory of a people’s entry into the future and the choices they have are inexorably set by their starting point. Thus the present condition of a people cannot always be easily overcome; one must know the past to understand the present. And like a photograph, one must know the negative to understand its reverse, and the shadows and omissions to understand what is right before your eyes.
The story begins in Mandalay, Burma (present day Myanmar) in November of 1885, where Rajkumar, an Indian orphan, is a young boy of 11. The King and Queen of Burma then resided in Mandalay in “The Glass Palace,” named for the vast central hall that had crystal walls and mirrored ceilings. At the end of that month, the British, crossing over from India (most of which they controlled at that time) took control of Burma. King Thebaw and his entourage were exiled to Ratnagiri on the west coast of India.
Rajkumar was taken under the wing of a businessman, Saya John, and taught to work in the teak industry: a fascinating enterprise that necessitated cooperation between man and elephant. The business was based in Burma. The characters lived in a settlement ringed by a towering wall of foliage:
"Hidden behind this wall were vast flocks of parakeets and troops of monkeys and apes – white-faced langurs and copper-skinned rhesus. Even commonplace domestic sounds from the village – the scraping of a coconut-shell ladle on a metal pot, the squeaking wheel of a child’s toy – were enough to send gales of alarm sweeping through the dappled darkness: monkeys would flee in chattering retreat, and birds would rise from the treetops in an undulating mass, like a wind-blown sheet.”
When Rajkumar became successful on his own, he traveled to Ratnigiri to find Dolly, another orphan who served as one of the queen’s attendants. He brought her back as his wife. The stories of Rajkumar, Dolly, Saya John, Uma (the wife of the Ratnigiri Imperial District Collector whom Dolly befriended), and their families intertwine over the years in the long strands of DNA that extend over three countries and generations and bind them all together.
As the years pass, the families expand their teak empire to include rubber trees, and the children get caught up in the world wars. In World War II, Burma and Malaysia are particularly vulnerable, sitting between Japan and India. Indians had to answer questions raised by not only others but themselves: do we fight for the power that has enslaved us (India), or against it for our own freedom, but risk letting the Axis win the war? At one point, one of the adjutants asks:
"What is the fear that keeps us hiding here, for instance? Is it a fear of the Japanese, or is it a fear of the British? Or is it a fear of ourselves because we do not know who to fear more?”
One of the Indian soldiers wanted to support the Japanese precisely because they were worse than the British:
"What are we? Dogs? Sheep? There are no good masters and bad masters… in a way the better the master, the worse the condition of the slave, because it makes him forget what he is...”
By the end of the book, you will learn a great deal about the history of British relations with its Asian colonies and the nature of the racism that infected all the actors, but via a literary landscape rather than by reading the often cold and dispassionate facts of nonfiction. Scholarly texts militate against emotional reactions. Intimate family histories, on the other hand, encourage them. Which represents reality more faithfully? Or are they complementary?
Evaluation: I loved this book. I really like authors such as Ghosh, Uris, and Wouk who do meticulous research and on whom I can depend to let fictional characters express the authentic concerns and emotions of an historical era. Ghosh’s characters aren't always fully sketched, especially the women, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story. Give me the rudiments of life, love, and death, and I can fill in the blanks. I loved the descriptions of how the teak and rubber industries operated, and what life was like for members of different castes and classes in that part of the world. I loved getting enmeshed in the debates over colonialism. I learned a lot, and cried a lot. Who can ask for anything more?
The Indian perspective is interesting and makes this book very unusual as it reveals the turmoil many Indian nationals experienced during the second World War as they found themselves caught in the middle. Do they maintain their loyalty to the British empire, to which they belonged (and its army in which many of them served), or should they join the Japanese (as Aung San Suu Kyi's father once did) hoping for their support in their bid for independence. (I have an Indian friend who grew up in Burma as a young boy who remembers being sent into exile with his family from Burma during one of the country's periods of anti-Indian political misbehavior…also recounted in this novel, which adds even more complexity to the question of Indian independence against the Burmese landscape.) As a frequent visitor to Myanmar, I can assure readers that there remains to this day an anti-Indian bias. Whether you choose to call the country Burma or Myanmar has strong political undertones for Burma consists of more peoples than the Burmese.
I confess I don't like fiction as a genre but The Glass Palace did engage me for its coverage of these issues and this period in Southeast Asian history, based upon author Ghosh's research and his own family history. Had I known of any non-fiction works covering the same topic, I would undoubtedly have preferred them as I found the stories of the individuals only irritating 'clutter', but I'm sure many will find the fictionalized approach entertaining. I've just started reading Thant Myint U's Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia and hope to continue to learn.