Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Publishing Date: 2001
Number of Pages: 547 pages
Genre: Historical, Romance
An extraordinary epic, THE GLASS PALACE is a masterful novel of love, war and family and presents us with a band of memorable characters, spread across Burma, Malaya and India, and across three generations – before the door to Burma closes behind them, and the glittering light of that civilization seems extinguished.
When I first came across Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh, I was a bit apprehensive about purchasing the book even though its title and cover fascinated me. However, it kept haunting me until the next day so I researched on it. Finding out that it was a historical novel that is right on my alley, I returned to the bookstore to purchase it. Fortunately, it is still there. It was only in 2018 that I was able to read the book when I subconsciously begun my April 2018 Asian literature month.
Before reading the book, Burma’s history, for me, was just once defined by the military junta that taunted the entire country for nearly half a century. Through reading the glossy pages of encyclopedias, I have become familiar with the Shwe Dagon Pagoda and the magical city of Bagan. However, my understanding of Burma’s past is quite limited. The Glass Palace gave me an intimate peek into a portion of its history through its faithful portrayal.
“To use the past to justify the present is bad enough—but it’s just as bad to use the present to justify the past.” ~ Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace
Spanning a century, The Glass Palace chronicles the events that transpired in Burma, Bengal, India and Malaya beginning with the fall of the last Burmese Dynasty, Konbaung Dynasty, leading to modern times. At the center of the narrative is Rajkumar Raha, who, as an 11-year old boy worked on a food stall under the shadows of Mandalay’s Glass Palace, the residence of King Thibaw, his wife and daughters, the princesses. During the British invasion of Burma, Rajkumar met Dolly, one of the princesses’ attendants, in the Palace and fell in love with her. The story follows the exiled Burmese royal family in Ratnagiri. From Ratnagiri, the story moved to Malaya, to Burma and to India.
Historical novels rarely ever disappoint, and such is the case for Amitav Ghosh’ The Glasss Palace. Ghosh spent five years of research and traveling to render the book historical credence. His hard work eventually paid off as he was able to successfully conjure an engaging and atmospheric saga about a country ravaged by war. At the heart of the saga is family that is trying hard to flow with the tides of time, and of changes.
This tale concocted by Ghosh took the readers into a sweeping journey that goes beyond the quotidian activities transpiring on the streets of India, Burma and Malaya. To give life to his tale, he led the readers inside the houses, invading their personal spaces. These intimate peeks gave the readers a better understanding and perspective of the diverse culture covered by the story. Personally, it was these elements that has kept me to the story. Truthfully, I am a sucker for family sagas as evidenced by books that I have read before, such as Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance. But what made A Glass Palace different from the family sagas I have previously read is its vivid depiction of the diverse cultures in the story.
Aside from the intimate peeks into the lives of the primary characters, a healthy portion of the story dealt with colonial mentality and overall colonialism. It highlighted how colonialism, particularly the British colonialism, has changed the course of Mandalay history, how it changed the dynamics of daily routine in the once thriving kingdom. Control of most of the resources of the kingdom was seized and capitalized upon by the vanquishers. So as not to awoken patriotism, the head of the kingdom was put into exile. Everything that the former king had to do must first be censored by their conquerors.
“There was no place more solitary than a dark room, with its murky light and fetid closeness.” ~ Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palance
The story possessed some undertones of romance as well, something that is quite common in family sagas. Moreover, the narrative touched base with a myriad of family-related issues such as marital affairs, betrayals, and royal marital challenges. Just like other monarchies, the Mandalay royalties are precluded from marrying people who does not have royal blood. Marriage to a commoner is paramount to a cardinal sin amongst the royalties. Anyone who commits this act could be banished from the royal family.
The Glass Palace is a heartwarming story about families and friendships. Members of the family could rage war against each other all they want but in the end, they are bound by an invisible thread. No matter what one’s travesties are, they are always forgiven for they are loved. The essence of it all is that no family is ever perfect, as demonstrated in the book. However, if there is something I lament in the book is the overwhelming number of losses and deaths. It seems like everyone is dying one by one and in the end, only one is going to survive and end up where everything has started.
Amitav Ghosh’s writing style veered on the ordinary, sans any ostentatious displays but nevertheless clean and clinical, serving to the story’s advantage. Everything in the narrative is crystal clear and no further elaboration is required. The characters, at least the primary ones, were adeptly developed. The secondary characters were mostly sketchy. Perhaps this is one of the inherent faults in family sagas – there are too many characters that it is difficult keeping up with everyone. I guess writers intentionally don’t devote that much time in developing them. If there is another fault in the book that I must point out is its intricateness. There were some unnecessary details that Ghosh could remove without impairing the story.
“If there was an implicit self-hatred in trusting only your own, then how much deeper was the self-loathing that led a group of men to distrust someone for no reason other than that he was one of them?” ~ Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace
Nevertheless, I did end up enjoying The Glass Palace because it infused some of the elements that I love in reading – history, family sagas and culture. This synergy, paired with Ghosh’s writing combined for a syncopated reading. All of those years Ghosh has poured into researching about the story ultimately paid off as he was able to bring justice to the narrative. There were hits and misses but they were minor and did not really affect the reading experience. In my years of family saga reading, what is most important is rhythm because of their lengths and Ghosh did just that. He gave me a delightful reading journey.
Recommended for readers who like historical fiction and family sagas, those who are into South Asian literature, those who like well-researched and detailed storytelling, and readers who are looking for a different reading flavor.
Not recommended for the British conquistadores, those who are not into lengthy and elaborate books, those who are not into historical fiction and those who are bored with family sagas.
About the Author
(Photo by Wikipedia) Born on July 11, 1956 in Calcutta, India, Amitav Ghosh is an Indian writer.
His interest in writing begun when he was younger, becoming the editor of Doon School’s The Doon School Weekly. Post-Doon School, Ghosh received degrees from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and Delhi School of Economics. He completed his Doctorate in Philosophy in Social Anthropology at St. Edmund Hall, Oxfor under a scholarship. After graduating from the university, his first job was at the Indian Express.
In 1986, Ghosh’s debut novel, The Circle of Reason, was published. It was shortly followed by The Shadow Lines (1988), The Calcutta Chromosomes (1995), among others. He also published some non-fiction books such as In An Antique Land (1992), Countdown (1999) and The Imam and the Indian (2002).
Ghosh lives in New York with his wife Deborah Baker. They have two children