Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Review: The Glass Palace

I have been meaning to read The Glass Palace for a long time now. I finally managed to get hold of it and have not been disappointed. Amitav Ghosh has an acute sense of observation and facility to weave history into a story of love, life and death.
The Glass Palace is a delicately layered, sprawling saga that starts with the fall of the Burmese monarchy and ends in junta-led Myanmar. Trailing the ups and downs of 4 generations, the lush book spans from Rangoon, Madras, Ratnagiri (India), Calcutta to Malaya. The variegated lands provide a dense backdrop. It is on the shadowy main road of Mandalay that the central protagonist, Rajkumar, chances upon the beautiful Dolly as she accompanies the royals into exile. Rajkumar’s story is weaved with the tumultuous rule of the British Raj and the ensuing travails of the locals in all these places. Poignant and honest, the book contemplates the implications of the empire and questions of identity incisively.

As we follow Rajkumar, from a ragged orphan into a timber tycoon, the first generation ravaged by the expanding empire becomes the focus. The subjugation of the Burmese royals marks the beginning of the impending sense of loss, shame and displacement that will be translated to the following generations. Rajkumar symbolizes the tenacious individual, seemingly unaffected by the rapacious empire, building his wealth in oblivion. He realizes his folly at the end, with tragic circumstances.

Dolly on the other hand, cannot cope as well. The ravishing beauty retreats further and further into her shell and finally seeks solace in religion. It is the second generation however, the children of Rajkumar and Dolly as well as their friends, who turn to form the pivotal study. Amongst the colourful cacophony of characters, Ghosh chooses to develop a tale of bewildering passions. Rajkumar’s two sons, Neel and Dinu explore different destinies. Hovering amongst them is the angst and corresponding canker-infested search for a sense of self amidst countries huddling under imperial rule. Love blooms amidst the sombre days, resuscitating a sense of hope. Yet, peace is far away. They wait much longer for freedom. Fear hounds in the background and each clutch on to the other. Not really sure of the right feeling.

These themes are explored further with the Japanese occupation, particularly in Malaya. Promising an eastern brotherly hand, the Japanese turn out to be like any other power crazed pack. Death begins to smell distinct everywhere. Finally, at the end, they are free from the clutches of a ravenous empire but they find that they cannot free themselves from their inner demons. Of what they thought of themselves and what they had eventually become. It is only when they truly reach out to each other and open themselves to love that they purge the inner demons.
Ghosh's best writing may still be coming. Apparently The Hungry Tide which is a newer novel by him is better than this. I will be looking for that book soon.


At 8/02/2005 08:33:00 pm, Blogger Sunflora said...

Finally! I found someone else who read The Glass Palace! i read it 3 years ago and I am still mesmerized. Thanks for telling me about The Hungry Tide, will look out for it soon.

Am currently reading A Beggar at the gate by Thalassa Ali. And I think she is good too.

Found your blog via Kakteh btw.

At 8/03/2005 04:36:00 am, Blogger Jane Sunshine said...

Hello. Yes, Ghosh is a meticulous writer and I am looking forward to The Hungry Tide. It is set in the Sunderband Islands off the Andaman Coast. I have not read Thalassa Ali but will look her up next time.

At 8/04/2005 07:55:00 am, Blogger Ms.B said...

If you keep writing your book reviews like this, I may just end up buying every single book you write about, if not so much to read them, but after being mesmerised by your reviews.

I'd like to make a guess .. do you already HAVE a book, or ARE in the midst of writing one? If not, you SHOULD.

At 8/05/2005 05:23:00 pm, Blogger Jane Sunshine said...

Blabs, I write imaginary stories in my head.


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