The Glass Palace: A Novel

by Amitav Ghosh

Hardcover, 2001

Collection

Genres

Publication

Random House (2001), Edition: 1st U.S. ed, 496 pages

Description

"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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member rocketjk
The synopsis on the back of my edition of The Glass Palace says it is "set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885." In fact, this 470-page novel begins at that point and covers a sweep of around 120 years, right through the "present" day (the book was published in 2000). That narrative sweep is one of the book's thematic strengths but also it's major narrative flaw, in my view. The thematic strength arises from Ghosh's deft examination of the complicated relationship between Burma (now Myanmar), India and the British Empire which occupied and ruled both for so long. One of the most fascinating episodes revolves around the Japanese invasion of Burma in World War 2, and the complicated and varied reactions of the Indian soldiers serving in the British army (a generations-long tradition), just as agitation for independence from the Raj had been growing. And while much of the narrative drive of the plot is interesting enough, there are long stretches of the book where the characters seemed to me to be more in place to serve these thematic ends then to present the reader with engrossing personal tales. One of the problems for me was that, while one of the main characters begins life as a young ragamuffin, he soon uses his wiles and ambition to gain success. From then on, the book focuses on characters of relative privilege. Such stories have always held less fascination for me than tales told from closer to the bottom of the ladder looking up. I can't help but compare this book to Väinö Linna's brilliant Under the North Star trilogy, which shows us the struggles and triumphs of three generations of Finnish tenant farmers and which, to me, was so much more moving.

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.
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LibraryThing member Safia
This book held special meaning to me as I have a burmese heritage and the time that this was set in was relevant to my family. It is a good book and you will learn a bit about burma and it's people and their history.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Joycepa
Covering the period of time between the mid-19th century to the present, set mostly in Burma, The Glass Palace is a story of two Indian/Burmese families over a period of generations during times of vast political and social changes in Burma. It is a fascinating account of the large Indian migration to Burma in the 19th and early 20th centuries, first to harvest teak, then to work the rubber plantations. The Indians imported into Burma--and “imported” is a euphemism for economic slavery--were mostly exploited by other Indians, who were able to become wealthy by contracting to supply labor for the teak and rubber plantations mostly (but not entirely) owned by foreigners, especially the English.

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.
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LibraryThing member ebethe
Wonderful, simply wonderful. Here I am, a white guy, sitting in America, and wondersing what it woud have been like to be part of "this".
LibraryThing member sikdar
As is the case with most of Amitav's books, they are well researched, detailed in capturing cultural nuances, sweeping in their story-telling craft. The trace from Burma to Madras to Ratnagiri and then back to Burma is educating and gripping. After reading I actually went to visit the derelict fort that King Thebaw built in Ratnagiri -- felt like living the pages of Amitav's tale.… (more)
LibraryThing member thejohnsmith
Amitav Ghosh is a great story teller and a polished writer. In the Glass palace he has created a wonderful novel that tells of the lives, times and interrelationships of a group of people and their families over three generations. Starting in the 19th century and spanning the 20th in India, Burma and Malaya this is a tale that draws you in and makes itself hard to put down.… (more)
LibraryThing member awatiku
I dont think i really like this book but the fact that it makes me think and ponder over many issues made me glued to this book. There are a few parts that i did not understand like the issue about Uma's role in the India politics but i will google it anyway. The colonialism, the road to independence are heavy for me, but i want to read about it. This is the first book by Amitav that i read, i may want to read some more books by this author.… (more)
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
Great storytelling. Just a little bit of purple prose by the end.
LibraryThing member nordie
This book starts in Madalay and follows the exile of the Burmese royal family to India. This book goes across three generations and looks at tradition and Empire.

Enjoyable in parts, beginning was good, though later in the book lots of history was covered in paragraphs which was unfortunate......
LibraryThing member mattviews
The Glass Palace will probably disqualify as fiction has it not for a majority of characters that bear no resemblance to reality besides King Thebaw, Queen Supayalat and their four daughters, who were actually forced to exile. The book, which assiduously parallels to the history of colonial India and British invasion of Burma, depicts the country in a century of traumatic sub continental history through the independence in 1947, the assassination of General Aunt San shortly before his assuming of office after election, and up to the presence. The indelible characters, most of whom entwined and descended down the same family line of Rajkumar, seemed to float between boundaries of both geography (Burma, India, Malaya) and class; and transcended across time and generations, powerfully illuminated the painful history of Burma.
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.
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LibraryThing member Humblefish
The premise and story are interesting but the overlong descriptions make the book hard to read. Ghosh has a vast amount of knowledge about the different Asian cultures and the lives they lead. Unfortunately his strength becomes his weakness as he extensively illustrates the settings to the point where it gets tiresome. While the story and characters are interesting, the book is hard to read.

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.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
The Glass Palace follows one family through most of the Twentieth Century in Burma, India, and Myanmar. It explores the family's relationship to British Imperialism and the personal and political struggles of India's fight for independence. It's an ambitious book: it covers a lot of territory, history, and themes. Ghosh is good at depicting people and events vividly; in some ways, this is actually a weakness of the book. He is very good at bringing characters to life quickly, but the book's scale is so large that he can't focus on many of these characters for long. I would have preferred a story that only covered 10 years, instead of nearly 100. Any book that spans such a long time period must skip over some events, and the pacing felt uneven to me.

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
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
A multi-generational saga of an Indian-Burmese family over the course of a century. Starting with the British invasion in 1885, when the Burmese royal family was sent into exile, The Glass Palace follows Rajkumar, a poor Indian boy who finds himself in Burma during the invasion and later builds a life and wealth in Burma. After much searching, Rajkumar finds Dolly, an orphan girl who served the Burmese royal family in exile, and together they create a family which experiences turns of fortune during the span of the twentieth century. Their family sees the creation of great wealth during the First World War, the surprise and violent of the Japanese during the Second World War, and the struggles for independence in post-colonial Asia. A fascinating portrait of Asian history over the wide span of the 20th century.… (more)
LibraryThing member traveltrish
Doorway - setting
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
LibraryThing member maryreinert
Fascinating read set in a time and place that comes alive through the characters and scenes that are so vividly described. This historical saga stretches through 3 generations and crosses at least three countries that are undergoing major changes in politics and culture. Anyone enjoying historical fiction set in exotic places should appreciate the excellent writing of this author. I was never bored, but was so fascinated that I took time to look up many references to clothing, personalities, and food on the Internet.

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.
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LibraryThing member rajveerspace
Very well researched book....Loved the way it moves
LibraryThing member vonChillan
This family saga, mirror to the history of South and Siuth East Asia is very well written and researched. The author feels for his characters and for the events they are immersed in. The lack of understanding between the Burmese king and queen and tyhe British would be funny if not so poignant. The end of absolute monarchy in Burma is described in sympathetic but honest detail.
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!
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LibraryThing member sianpr
An epic family saga spanning Burma, Malaysia and India. The pace picks up in the last third of the book set during and post WW11 & this was the most enjoyable part of the book for me.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
There is much love for Ghosh's The Glass Palace. This was the right balance of historical fiction, love story, and political commentary within a sweeping saga. Dolly is a woman who has been in the service of the Queen for as long as she can remember. Rajkumar is an orphan boy taken in by a teak logger and taught the trade. Glass Palace follows them through childhood, their storybook romance, growing families and the inevitable, old age. Intertwined are the stories of their children, their children's children, war, politics, fashion, feminism, and life. The way it was written the story could have been without end.… (more)
LibraryThing member lesleynicol
My favourite genre is historical novels and this book fulfilled all my interests. It took me a while to get the numerous family characters sorted out, nut when I did, this book became a very enjoyable read. The saga of a family over three generations begins in Mandalay, Burma in 1885 ( when the royal is ousted) through their exile in India, where the main female Dolly is a kind of "lady in waiting" to the queen. Raj, an Indian/Pakistani migrant worker in Burma falls in love with Dolly when they were still children and when he has reached success in the teak timber trade, follows her to India 20 years later and persuades her to marry him. The story then continues with their successful life in Rangoon and also that of their friends who establish rubber plantations in Malaya, The lives of these families become intertwined through marriage. All goes well until the invasion of the Japanese in 1941 when their lives take a very different turn. This was a very enjoyable read, with really interesting characters, and a great story set against the background of the history of Burma, World War 2 and the partition of India.… (more)
LibraryThing member lkernagh
This is one of those sweeping saga stories that has appealed to a number of readers here on LT. Sadly, while there were sections that I found made for excellent story telling, for the most part, I think it is a book filled with too much: Too much time span coverage (the story spans 100 years and three generations), too many topics (the story covers everything from cultural differences, colonialism, war, political ideology, lumber enterprises, photography), too many characters (the story jumps around between immediate family, friends, neighbours, in laws), too much attention to minute details (I don't really need to know the make and model of every single vehicle and camera used in the story).

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.
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
While I was fascinated by the Burmese (Myanmar) and Indian history, this sweeping epic covering over a hundred years (1885-1996) disappointed me in the second half. In the first half, the lives of Dolly and Rajkumar are given in detail for about 10-15 years (1885-1900 or so) and I became invested in them but then the story starts making great leaps in time, skipping ahead with just brief summaries of what was happening to the characters. I didn't get fully invested in the second generation and the third generation was an outline of a character, never fully fleshed out, while the 4th generation was invisible - discussed but never met. At the same time, the author tells us less and less about the original characters (Dolly, Rajkumar and Uma).

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.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
What a very rewarding book this proved to be! The Glass Palace falls into the family saga category (albeit characterized by rigorous historical research and analysis), and so there is love, death, enlightenment, disappointment, contentment, astonishment, sickness, fear, happiness, and tears – both by the characters and by me.

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?
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LibraryThing member pbjwelch
This is a fictionalized account of two families that begins with the imprisonment of Burma's last king (Thibaw) and ends around 2005 in almost present-day Myanmar, but is unusual in that it covers that period of Burmese history from the perspective of one of its neighbors--India. It begins with a young Indian boy who hears the roar of English cannon while working in a tea shop in Mandalay…and his subsequent marriage to a Burmese woman, intertwining the destinies of these two individuals and their descendants and friends.

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.
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LibraryThing member untraveller
I do not normally go in for these mega novels, but the appeal here was too great....Burma, India, modern history, etc. Generally speaking, the characters were not very well developed and there was too much of a coincidental nature in the book, but it still held my interest. Much of the book I read while in Myanmar though I finished it in Cambodia.… (more)

Pages

496

ISBN

0375501487 / 9780375501487
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