Monday, 22 September 2014

The Queen of the Quagmire - Gertrude Bell

Desert Queen, The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

When the British needed a senior political officer in Basra during World War I, they appointed a forty-six-year-old woman who, apart from a few months as a Red Cross volunteer in France, had never been employed. She was a wealthy Oxford-educated amateur with no academic training in international affairs and no experience of government, policy, or management. Yet from 1916 to 1926, Gertrude Bell won the affection of Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, developed a deep knowledge of personalities and politics in the Middle East, and helped to design the constitution, select the leadership, and draw the borders of a new state. This country, created in 1920 from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which were conquered and occupied by the British during World War I, was given the status of a British mandate and called Iraq.
When I served as a British official in southern Iraq in 2003, I often heard Iraqis compare my female colleagues to “Gertrude Bell.” It was generally casual flattery and yet the example of Bell and her colleagues was unsettling. More than ten biographies have portrayed her as the ideal Arabist, political analyst, and administrator. Does she deserve this attention? Was she typical of her colleagues? What are the terms by which we can assess a policymaker eighty years after her death?
The British Mandate of Iraq had problems from its beginnings. A revolt in 1920 cost the British several hundred lives and an estimated £40 million and convinced them of the impossibility of direct colonial control. The monarchy, which they established under the Hashemite King Faisal—a foreigner and a Sunni with close links to the British—was unpopular with many Kurds, Shia, and nationalists. And even after Iraq joined the League of Nations in 1932, having developed some of the institutions of a modern state, it continued to be threatened by ethnic and sectarian divisions and religious and nationalist opposition. In 1958 the monarchy was brutally overthrown, in favor of military rule and then Baathist dictatorship.
ll’s letters, now all available on-line in an archive prepared by the Newcastle University library, suggest that Bell’s strength lay not in her political success—she did not succeed in forming a sustainable, stable, unified Iraqi state—but in the clarity and imagination with which she explored failure. She wrote almost as soon as she arrived in Basra in 1916:
…We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. We treated Mesop[otamia] as if it were an isolated unit, instead of which it is part of Arabia…. When people talk of our muddling through it throws me into a passion. Muddle through! why yes, so we do—wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.
She places some blame on the pre-existing chaos, as did the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. In her “Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia” in 1920, she notes that
if it took rather longer to open some of the Baghdad schools than expected, the delay may be attributed to the people themselves, who looted all the furniture and equipment of the schools and carried off the doors, windows and other portable fittings.
Eighty-five years later, when I was working in Amara, a city on the Tigris north of Basra, we had to replace the doors, windows, and furniture in 240 of the four hundred schools that had been looted in the province. Bell complains of the former Ottoman rulers as we did of the former Baathist leaders: the senior officials had all left, taking or destroying the most important administrative data. But she recognizes that much of this complexity and uncertainty is an inevitable element in any occupation.
By 1920, Bell had added to fluent Arabic and a decade of travels in the Middle East four uninterrupted years of experience in the British administration in Iraq. Yet she never pretends in her letters in that year to be able to predict, explain, or control events. She emphasizes the weaknesses of the previous Ottoman administration; the persistence of the tribal system; the divisions between urban and rural areas. She writes about the new state’s vulnerability to troublemakers from Syria and to new forms of nationalism and radical Islam such as the vision of a Sharia religious government, promoted by Shia clerics in their 1920 revolt.
Bell shows how RAF aerial bombardments and the cultural insensitivity of British soldiers exacerbated hatred. She portrays Iraqis who loathe foreign occupation yet worry about the alternative. She knows that the occupation is unsustainable and ineffective but she cannot contemplate total withdrawal. She recognizes that British colonial control is unworkable and that there must be an Arab government, but she finds the sacrifices and uncertainties hard to stomach. The situation, she concludes, is “strange and bewildering.”
All these themes are common paradoxes and compromises of foreign occupation, hauntingly familiar in Iraq today but rarely so crisply expressed. Instead, in 2003, we steeped ourselves in “lessons learned” and absorbed the abstract doctrines taught by Western governments for dealing with “post-conflict” situations: management, counterinsurgency, and economics. Our reports referred to “capacity-building,” “hearts and minds,” “civil society,” “truth and reconciliation,” “governance,” and “micro-credit.” Our mission statements postulated dizzying relationships between free markets and peace, terrorism and human rights, elections and growth. These opaque words obscured the gap between our aspirations and our power, concealed the necessity for compromises with lesser evils, conflated problems with solutions, and disguised our failure.
Bell’s writing is both more lively and more honest. She is open in her use of paradox and irony, her expression of unpleasant truths. She acknowledges impotence and comedy, without denying her moral responsibility. She admits the uncertainty and difficulty of trying to make policy in such an environment. This is almost never dressed up in jargon or platitude. To take a few examples from her letters in 1920:
…There’s no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don’t know.
No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.
[The politician] Saiyid Talib…is the ablest man in the country. He is also, it must be remembered, entirely unscrupulous, but his interests and ours are the same….
…We are largely suffering from circumstances over which we couldn’t have had any control. The wild drive of discontented nationalism…and of discontented Islam…might have proved too much for us however far-seeing we had been; but that doesn’t excuse us for having been blind.
[In talking to an Arab nationalist leader] I said complete independence was what we ultimately wished to give. “My lady” he answered—we were speaking Arabic—“complete independence is never given; it is always taken.”
Such comments—which may seem simple to an outsider—are difficult to articulate within an active mission and under the orders of a strong bureaucracy. Bell’s political reports avoid economic or legal or political theory and instead focus on identifying and describing the most powerful, effective, and representative Iraqi figure in specific districts, from the sheikhs on the Tigris to the ayatollahs in Najaf. Although Bell was prejudiced in favor of aristocratic tribal warriors, she was conscious that Arab notions of leadership did not correspond with her own. Thus Bell acknowledges Ibn Saud—the founder of Saudi Arabia—as the greatest leader in contemporary Arabia while conceding that
his deliberate movements, his slow sweet smile and the contemplative glance of his heavy-lidded eyes… do not accord with Western conception of a vigorous personality….
Her views had been refined by her travels as a lone European in remote areas, dining and sleeping in tents, during which she had observed sheikhs in their majlis, or “meeting-place,” receiving beggars, petitioners, and sycophants, judging recalcitrant tribesmen, commanding in battle, and settling vendettas.
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Saturday, 20 September 2014

Amit Chaudhuri: Odysseus Abroad

In spite of its archly allusive title, referring to two grim literary classics—Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses—Amit Chaudhuri’s sixth novel, Odysseus Abroad, is a nimble-footed creature. It unfolds in short episodes, through bursts of elegant but edgily comic prose—a good deal of which is devoted to ruminations on canonical English poetry and descriptions of the joys of Sylheti cuisine, gently mocking the epic conventions of the poem and the novel it draws on. Breathtaking Proustian sentences flow languorously, coming to rest against breathlessly pithy interjections. But the pastiche seems more intensely haunted by another unspoken, if persistent, literary influence—that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Chaudhuri’s protagonist, 22-year-old Ananda Sen, may be a far cry from Clarissa Dalloway, but, like his possible fictional counterpart, he enjoys walking around the posh neighbourhoods of central and north London, where he is studying for a degree in English literature. The purpose behind his peregrinations, however, is not to buy flowers for a party he is throwing—on the contrary, he seems to be least interested in merry-making of any sort, intolerant of the din created by his raucous housemates. Rather, Ananda is on his way to visit his maternal uncle, Radhesh, who has retired early, on a handsome pension, into a life of indolence, though, alarmingly, also of reckless eating, spending, and the lack of basic hygiene (while he cleans himself every day, Radhesh takes a proper bath only every few months. He also prefers to use a bottle instead of stepping out of the warmth of his bed and walking up to the bathroom on chilly nights). A substantial part of Chaudhuri’s novel traces one day in Ananda’s life—as Joyce does with Leopold Bloom and Woolf does with Mrs Dalloway. In Ananda’s case, the day is spent in the company of his uncle and his “grumbling ennui”. By intimately documenting the dynamic between uncle and nephew—their weekly ritual of walks, meals, arguments, and affections—Chaudhuri explores the politics of race, friendship, identity, and (male) sexuality, through their amusingly conflicting perspectives.

While Ananda recognizably belongs to the upper-middle class Bengali milieu that Chaudhuri invokes in his fiction, Radhesh is unprecedented in the author’s oeuvre. A stark contrast to the genteel, mild-mannered characters of Chaudhuri’s previous novels, Radhesh is an anachronism. He pours almost a dozen spoons of sugar into his morning coffee, subsists on meals of chicken liver cooked in its blood, and claims to have remained a lifelong bachelor and virgin due to an inscrutable fear of contracting syphilis (though he confesses to have a glad eye for “maidservants”). In spite of having lived in London for the better part of his adult life since emigrating from Sylhet (now in Bangladesh), Radhesh has not outgrown certain provincial eccentricities, atrocious as these may be. So, although he dons a three-piece suit over his pyjamas before stepping out of the house, he does not hesitate to pull his sister Khuku, Ananda’s mother, by the hair in the heat of an argument in the middle of a London street. If Ananda pushes his uncle away in fury, he also forgives his transgressions quickly. He does this partly because he depends on Radhesh’s largesse to make his thrifty, student’s existence in London bearable; but mostly, because he, like the rest of his family, has come to accept his uncle for what he is—a genius, albeit a forlorn one, with a streak of perverse, if incurable, cruelty lodged at the heart of his expansive generosity. Compared to Ananda’s delicate Bengali constitution—he is afflicted with a vicious cycle of insomnia causing acidity leading to migraine—Radhesh is robust, full of a hedonistic, Falstaff-like appetite for decadence. He may be pinched when it comes to carnal pleasures, but a full-throated advocate of drinking 10 glasses of water to ensure that his bowels are vigorously cleared every morning. Unexpected as it may seem, Chaudhuri employs a Swiftian vocabulary to bring alive Radhesh’s quirks. It is not often that one encounters adjectives like “urinous” in his writing.

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Friday, 19 September 2014

Robert Burns: A Winter Night

Robert Burns

When biting Boreas, fell and doure,
Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r;
When Phoebus gies a short-liv'd glow'r,
         Far south the lift,
Dim-dark'ning thro' the flaky show'r,
         Or whirling drift:

Ae night the storm the steeples rocked,
Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,
While burns, wi' snawy wreeths upchoked,
         Wild-eddying swirl,
Or thro' the mining outlet bocked,
         Down headlong hurl.

List'ning, the doors an' winnocks rattle,
I thought me on the ourie cattle,
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
         O' winter war,
And thro' the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle,
         Beneath a scar.

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!
That, in the merry months o' spring,
Delighted me to hear thee sing,
         What comes o' thee?
Whare wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing
         An' close thy e'e?

Ev'n you on murd'ring errands toil'd,
Lone from your savage homes exil'd,
The blood-stain'd roost, and sheep-cote spoil'd
         My heart forgets,
While pityless the tempest wild
         Sore on you beats.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Remembering India

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and now its successor, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, give a portrait of the slow but triumphant self-discovery of a powerful writer. During this process, Nirad Chaudhuri was in the grip of dramatic public events in India. Independence and the partition of the con tinent in 1948 were widely hailed as states manship and the reparation of imperial wrongdoing, but Chaudhuri drew quite another conclusion—that his country had no future.
The British and their counterparts, the Indian nationalists, in his view, had con trived a ruin for which ordinary people had to pay. Slogans about progress and mo dernity concealed corruption and decadence. Having escaped, Chaudhuri now lives in England, in a mood befitting a wise man of “stern, almost exultant despair.”
One of the numerous books to have influenced Chaudhuri was The Decline of the West, and he may be seen as an Indian Spengler with a belief in the predestination of history. Granted the nature of the British and the Indians alike, he thinks, misunder standings between them could only have ended in tragedy. With hindsight, it can be suggested that the British had no need to dig a pit for themselves, but at the time they could not have behaved except as they did. Yet the role of chance in his own literary evolution obliges Chaudhuri to take responsibility for himself and his achieve ment with a pride which is entirely justified. These books illuminate the mysterious area between literature and politics and individ ual character.
A large part of Chaudhuri’s development rested initially on an adoption of heroic models. It seems marvelous that he could have found them in Kishorganj, where he was born in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This small town on a river in Bengal was divided into Hindu and Muslim communities immemorially settled in their ways, contented, yet about to be shaken and destroyed by a violence that nobody could have imagined.
There never was a time, Chaudhuri recalls, when he did not know who were the leading personalities of the day, from the Queen and Empress herself to her ministers and generals. The likes of Napoleon, Raphael, Milton, and Burke were household names. His father, part lawyer and part merchant, read him a passage from Shakespeare and made him recite it by heart. Bengalis by the thousand took for granted such familiarity with the world’s high culture, it seems, and the Chaudhuri family was by no means ex ceptional. The youthful Nirad found models of enlightenment in Lytton Strachey, Middleton Murry, Percy Lubbock, and others. In order to read Sorel or Aulard, as well as Rémy de Gourmont and above all Julien Benda, a freethinker like himself, he learned French. Next came German, for the sake of Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (“Textbook on the Historical Method”).
This formidable autodidact writes a splendid rhetorical prose, adorned with quotations and allusions caught on the wing from his eminent peers. Among the multi farious subjects to have fired his imagination was artillery, especially the design of breech blocks, and naval history, French wines, the origins of man, the Latin names of trees and plants, the growth of Calcutta and Delhi, and Western music. Here was someone ab sorbing equally The Times Literary SupplementThe Aeroplane, and The Gramophone. When he found himself alone with the wife who had been married to him according to customary arrangements between families, he asked her to spell Beethoven.
Such a dynamo for acquiring knowledge had an inappropriate frame. Chaudhuri pokes fun at himself as someone just above five feet, weak in physique. At various times he was ill and hungry, with only his father and brothers between him and destitution. Even in the tightest of squeezes, however, he continued to buy books on credit, or a box of educational bricks for his son. It is typical of his combative humor that he describes with delight how he once kicked downstairs a man who offered him a bribe, and also how he beat another, who had insulted him for being a “servant,” until this fellow wept. “Gandhi suggested the primitive primate tarsier to me,” is a good example of how Chaudhuri combines style and outlook. This passage continues, “But a beatific unworldly look suffused what was basically mere animal innocence,” concluding with the sweep, “There was not a trace on his face of the repulsive arrogance which disfigures the face of every Hindu holy man.” He likes play fulness, too, as in a chapter entitled “Mount Batten piled on Mount Attlee.”
It was all very well to be a strong-minded individualist and libertarian with marked literary tastes, Chaudhuri realized early, but he had to find a proper outlet, too. Moving to Calcutta, he was first a clerk in a department of military accounts, and then a journalist. His first published articles were in English in 1925 and in his native Bengali two years later. So hard was it to advance in literary circles that he is perhaps over anxious in his memoirs to fight again some battles of long ago and far away, reprinting articles which prove him to have been right.
If Chaudhuri was unpopular or marginal, did the fault lie in him or in circumstances? Gradually he sensed that the political climate between the wars was thwarting and de pressing not just him but everyone else as well. A complete reappraisal was needed of the relationship between India and Great Britain.
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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Jung Chang interview: why I'm still banned in China

It is 35 years since Jung Chang arrived in Britain from Communist China and 22 years since the publication of Wild Swans, her bestselling memoir. She is 61 now. And yet the figure picking her away across the hotel restaurant looks, from a distance, like a young girl.
She is wearing a short white dress, cinched at the waist with a wide belt, and high, strappy beige boots cut out at the toe. Her hair is long and black, youthfully half-bunched, and her face seems unlined.
The venue – the five-star Royal Garden Hotel in London – was chosen by her. It is an imposing establishment. A single orchid floats in a glass bowl on the table, the waiting staff give small bows. I am expecting Chang to be as grand, or at least to wear a certain pre-eminence on her sleeve. She has earned the right.
Wild Swans, in which 100 years of Chinese history is told through the eyes of three women (her grandmother, her mother and her), became the highest-selling non-fiction paperback book ever published.
Translated into 37 languages, and selling more than 10 million copies, it established Chang as the spokesperson of 20th-century China, a woman who experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand – including her parents’ torture, her own brainwashing as a member of the Red Guard, periods of forced labour, and subsequent disillusionment – but who recorded it with a calm if moving dispassion.
Mao: The Unknown Story, a 900-page biography she published in 2005 with her husband, further established her academic credentials.
But Chang, when she sits down, only wants a glass of tap water, and her manner is more nervous than imperious. She talks as if she expects me not to know who she is. (“Wild Swans, my book in which…”)
Her manicured nails are as shiny as oyster-shells, but she fidgets a lot, folding the skirt of the dress over and over, and smoothing the buttons. She has just got back, she tells me, from a friend’s birthday party.
I mishear the location and when we establish that the celebration took place on the Greek island of Hydra, she blames herself for my misunderstanding, shaking her head and repeating, “Sorry, sorry… Yes… My mistake, the pronunciation.” She has a small habit of speech, too, a noise she uses to punctuate her thoughts, half smack of the lips, half hum.
Her third book, which she is here to discuss, is a biography of Empress Dowager Cixi . Cixi was a semi-literate concubine who, through her own determination and wiles, ruled China behind the scenes from 1861 to 1908.
It is a serious work, based on eight years of research, but as well as being a political portrait it is as full of fascinating detail about eunuchs, Pekinese “sleeve dogs” (so small emperors would carry them in their robes’ sleeves) and Chinese habits of mind (the tendency to appease a deadly force by exalting it – so smallpox was known as “heavenly flowers”).
Cixi, Chang argues, was not the brutal despot of conventional opinion, but a free thinker who opened the doors to the West, revolutionised the education system, abolished such cruel practices as foot-binding and “death by a thousand cuts” (in which the victim was sliced up alive), and embarked upon a system of modernisation, including industry, railways, the freedom of the press, women’s liberation and plans for parliamentary elections.
Cixi’s last act was to poison her own stepson, to prevent his rule. “Isn’t it unbelievable?” Chang says, with glee. “He was no good… He was obsessed with clocks… He was content never to travel from the Forbidden City, or to meet outsiders. He would have been a catastrophe. She has been universally maligned for 100 years, mainly because she was a woman. But how can you not feel..?”
Chang emits a small hum. “He is the one regarded as the hero, but it’s the Empress Dowager who deserves our sympathy!”
Would she agree, I venture, that she had fallen in love with her subject? She smiles broadly. “Yes. Yes. I did. I’m afraid I did. I felt, I very felt… um. I try to keep a detached tone, but I never wanted to erase the passion in my writing. This is my interpretation of her, my take on the facts.” She throws back her head and laughs. “Fall in love with her? Yes. I did.”
Both Chang’s previous books are banned in China, and she is only allowed to return there, to visit her sister and mother (her three brothers live in Canada, France and Britain), on condition she visits no other friends and avoids all travel and political activities. Much of the research for this biography took place in the Chinese archives.
“Cixi is OK because she is history, and actually the Ching period is a big period to study in China because it was the height of the Chinese empire.” She gives a wry smile. “I think the authorities might have been rather relieved that I was going into a history rather than a Communist leader.”
Does she think this might be her first book to be published there? She picks her words carefully. “I think if someone else had written it, it would be fine. But they won’t want to raise my profile.”
You can tell she is careful what she says – she doesn’t want to bring attention to her friends and family. But her scholarship is, of course, itself a criticism.
In conversation, Chang repeatedly contrasts the policies of the Empress Dowager with those of the Communist regime. The speed of modernisation, she says, did untold damage to the Chinese landscape and culture – both of which Cixi was careful to safeguard. “In the mad rush of high-speed growth people did the most devastating thing – they destroyed nature.”
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Haruki Murakami: 'I'm an outcast of the Japanese literary world. Critics, writers, many of them don't like me'

'Strange things happen in this world," Haruki Murakami says. "You don't know why, but they happen." It could be a guiding motto for all of his fiction, but he is talking specifically about a minor character in his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The character is a jazz pianist who seems to have made a pact with death, and is able to see people's auras.

 "Why that pianist can see the colours of people, I don't know," Murakami muses. "It just happens." Novels in general, he thinks, benefit from a certain mystery. "If the very important secret is not solved, then readers will be frustrated. That is not what I want. But if a certain kind of secret stays secret, it's a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it."

The world's most popular cult novelist is sipping coffee in the sunny library of an Edinburgh hotel, which – perhaps disappointingly for admirers of his more fantastical yarns – is not reached through a labyrinthine network of subterranean tunnels. Murakami is relaxed and affable, rather than forbiddingly gnomic. "I'm not mysterious!" he says, laughing.

Tsukuru Tazaki, as the author calls his own novel for short, sold a million copies in two weeks when it came out last summer in Japan. (Murakami was born in Kyoto to two literature teachers, and grew up in the port city of Kobe. These days he lives near Tokyo, having spent periods in Greece, at Princeton and Tufts universities – where he wrote his masterpiece, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – and recently in Hawaii.) It contains passing mysteries like the pianist who sees auras, but it is also a mystery novel in a larger sense. Tsukuru, its 36-year-old protagonist, is still in mourning for the years before he went to university, when he was part of an inseparable group of five friends – until one day they told him, without explanation, that they never wanted to see him again.

"In the first place I had the intention to write a short story," Murakami says. "I just wanted to describe that guy, 36 years old, very solitary … I wanted to describe his life. So his secret was not to be dissolved; the mystery was going to stay a mystery."

But he hadn't reckoned on the inciting power of a woman to move the story forward, as Murakami's female characters so often do. "When I wrote that short-story part," he continues, "Sara, [Tsukuru's] girlfriend, came to him and she said, 'You should find out what happened then', so he went to Nagoya to see his old friends. And the same thing happened to me. Sara came to me and said, 'You should go back to Nagoya and find out what happened.' When I was writing the book, my own character came to me and told me what to do … The fiction and my experience happened at the same time, in parallel. So it became a novel."

Murakami has often spoken of the theme of two dimensions, or realities, in his work: a normal, beautifully evoked everyday world, and a weirder supernatural realm, which may be accessed by sitting at the bottom of a well (as does the hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), or by taking the wrong emergency staircase off a city expressway (as in 1Q84). Sometimes dreams act as portals between these realities. In Tsukuru Tazaki there is a striking sex dream, at the climax of which the reader is not sure whether Tsukuru is still asleep or awake. Yet Murakami hardly ever remembers his own dreams.

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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Of love, war and empire - Amitav Ghosh: The Glass Palace

A story spanning more than a century of the subcontinent's history; relationships across countries; the greed of British colonialism and the active participation of Indians in the process ... The Glass Palace admirably evokes all these without recourse to gimmicks or experiments with language and technique, says MEENAKSHI MUKHERJEE.

THERE was a fabled hall called the Glass Palace in Mandalay before the British annexed Burma in 1885. Its walls of shining crystal and mirrored ceiling "shimmered with sparks of golden light" when the lamps were lit. Situated in the spacious garden of the fort where the Burmese royal family lived, it was a dazzling emblem of the country's elegance and self-sufficiency until devastated by foreign rule. At the beginning of the novel the readers are given a brief glimpse of the palace through the awe-struck eyes of a 11-year-old urchin as it was being sacked and plundered by the local people before the British troops arrived to take possession.

After that, for nearly 500 pages there is no mention of the building which gives the novel its title. Just before the novel ends, the Glass Palace is mentioned twice,: we find a young research student of Rangoon University writing a dissertation on a famous 19th Century history of Burma called The Glass Palace Chronicles; later, one of the few survivors in this vast saga of intertwining families, rediscovered in the final chapter, is seen to be running a modest photo studio called The Glass Palace where young people, stifled by the military dictatorship of present day Burma, gather to open their minds, to discuss books, pictures and ideas. Without labouring a symbolic point, in retrospect the author is able to imbue the title with images of loss as well as hope.

This is how most of the novel works. There are so many issues, so many events and so many people involved that the author rarely ever pauses to create special effects or heavily underline an idea. The story spans more than a century in the history of the subcontinent, people get involved in unexpected relationships across countries and cultures, wars are fought, rebellions quelled, political and ethical issues are debated, fortunes are made and lost. The writer reports everything accurately, thoughtfully - his precision backed up by meticulous research. Military manoeuvres, models of automobile and aircraft, drilling of oil, timber trade, food, clothing, every detail is historically specified. No one is directly indicted in the novel, not a single person idealised. Yet casually mentioned details get linked across space and time to form haunting patterns, their cumulative effect staying with the reader long after the novel is over. For all its vividness of description and range of human experiences, The Glass Palace will remain for me memorable mainly as the most scathing critique of British colonialism I have ever come across in fiction.

The novel begins and ends in Burma, a country physically so close to us yet about which our ignorance and indifference have been abysmal. In our childhood we occasionally heard of rich Indian families who had come back from Burma to escape Japanese bombing. No school book taught us anything about the country's past before it became part of the empire and I am embarrassed to admit that my first acquaintance with Mandalay and emperor Thebaw was through a silly Rudyard Kipling jingle about a British soldier and Burmese girl:

Her petticoat was yellow and little
coat was green.
Her name was Supi-yaw-let, just
same as Thebaw's queen.

Thebaw's proud queen, I am chastened to learn now from Amitav Ghosh's book, was Supayalat, feared and admired blindly by the people of Burma. The unceremonious removal of the king and the pregnant queen from Mandalay to distant Ratnagiri in the west coast of India (the reverse movement of Bahadur Shah Zafar's deportation to Rangoon a generation ago) was an astute move by the conquering British, successful in humiliating the royal couple completely, also erasing them from public memory at home. Forgotten and abandoned, the king and queen led a life of increasing shabbiness and obscurity in an unfamiliar territory while their country was depleted of its valuable natural resources - teak, ivory, petroleum. The rapacity and greed inherent in the colonial process is seen concentrated in what happened in Burma, and the author does not gloss over the fact that Indians were willing collaborators in this British enterprise of depredation.