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
the
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.

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