Friday, June 30, 2006

The Glass Palace - Amitav Gosh

I picked up this novel purely by chance. And what a chance it was. I had heard about Amitav Gosh vaguely, and had no expectations. The blurb said the novel is about Burma before it closed its door to civilisation. I was interested since I had a tenuous connection to Burma - my great grandfather had gone there as a moneylender and lost his life to plague / cholera / whatever.

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.

Highly recommended.


Lg said...

I am very glad you liked Amitav Ghosh. He is one of my favourite authors and I agree with your observation that he makes you think of a lot of unconnected things. Amazing writer. I hope you will try Hungry Tide and the others too.

Chenthil said...

Definitely Lavanya. He has a marvellous way with words, and gets you to think a lot about present day, without trying to be preachy or sermonising.

ammani said...

Don't you think it kind of lost the plot towards the end? btw, Thebaw palace is still there in Ratnagiri. It was closed the day we went there. Some blogger had put up photos of the palace from a recent visit.

Chenthil said...

In the end it did look like Gosh was trying to tell too many things. But the first 100 pages were too good and for that alone the second half could be forgiven.

You know what, replace King Theebaw with Saddam Hussein and Britain with US, and Teak with Oil, the scenario looks very similar. I even found a clipping of an interview given by Theebaw to the Times correspondent after abdicating his throne.

Anonymous said...

Just got an opportunity to visit your blog.Quite interesting.


raj said...

Chenthil, Glad to see this post on Amitav. A powerful writer, indeed. I think I agree with you on all points made - I am also thrilled to see that you spotted the same parallel I had spotted on first reading - the imperial force-colonial occupation-teenage soldiers giving their life for a purpose they have no idea about.
As you said, the Mandalay and Ratnagiri setpieces were lovely and evocative. The Tsu-Ki references seemed inserted in the end - Dinu becoming, though in a reluctant and harmless way, a revolutionary was not convincing. You are right, Allison is a fantastic character sketch. I thought Rajkumar himself was a brilliant sketch - with his indefatigable and relentless rise in Life and a graceful submission to fate in the end. Also, Manju, with her privileged background fails to survive the wal from Burma to Calcutta while the much older Rajkumar and Dolly, with their struggle-filled childhood and adolescence, make it with determination. That was a good plot point.
A very rewarding novel to read - I'd also recommend David Davidar's House of Blue Mangoes to you , dont have the same expectations, though - its primary charm is in its tamilnadu background of early 1900's.

Tarun said...

Have you read his "The shadow lines" ? That I think is his best work.

Masih Bisa said...

i bought this novel of Amitav Ghosh, purely because of my subtle obsession towards anything that has to do with Indian, Pakistan, and other exotic places in Asia.
i fell in love with Ghosh, right from the very first pages..

saw said...

Pls let me share this blog link to my facebook. I am reading this The glass palace , Myanmar translation. Very glad for this book.