The novel starts in 19th century as the British invade Burma and King Thebaw is deposed and sent to India in exile. The story is woven around Rajkumar, an orphaned Bengali working in a tea shop in Mandalay and Dolly Sein, a nine year old caretaker of the Burmese Princess. Initially the novel moves at a leisurely pace, giving us rich details about Burmese life at Mandalay and how Indians are viewed by them - coolies working for half an anna, while nobody in Burma is poor or starving. The story picks up pace once the King is exiled to India, first to Madras and then Ratnagiri. In Ratnagiri, the other important character of the novel joins them, Uma Dey - wife of the Indian Collector. The story takes interesting twists and turns and spans across decades and continents.
More than the characters, it is the settings that capture your imagination. The pre colonial Mandalay with its glass palace, Teak felling and transportation across Irrawady river, the tumultuous Rangoon, sleepy Ratnagiri, rubber plantations of Malacca - Gosh takes the readers on a big tour. He is at his best when writing about Burma. The characters are etched well initially, but at the later part of the story they become more of caricatures. The second generation doesn't capture the reader's imagination except for Dinu and Alison to an extent. The character of Arjun, an Indian officer in the British Army who joins with INA, doesn't evoke sadness or poignancy but makes the reader feel that he is just an overgrown teenager. The last chapter tying up all loose ends wasn't necessary.
Gosh is brilliant in his use of words and turns of phrases. He writes about King Thebaw looking at his exile's house in Ratnagiri
In this room the hours would accumulate like grains of sand until they buried him
The book made me think about so many unconnected things. When he writes about lonely Scotsmen working as Forest Assistants in inaccessible hills to oversee felling of teak, I could see parallels in Irish and Italian in drilling rigs off Kakinada. His description of King Thebaw's exile reminded me of the present day Burmese Junta trying to erase the memory of Aung Saan Suu Kyi in similar fashion by placing her under house arrest.