Critical Analysis of Amitav Ghosh‘s The Glass Palace

The Glass Palace is filled with unrequited love and passionate consummation of desire. It is a narrative of dramatic adventure, great migrations, and unbelievable chance encounters. It is also packed with historically verifiable details, such as colonial India’s invasion of Burma, and announces dates in chapter headings to remind of the plot’s imbrications with historical chronology. However, its thematic material is carefully organized according to the principles that govern the crafting of fiction: language, narrative technique, and genre. In The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh has staked a different claim: turning the clock backward to examine a lesser-known, earlier Indian Diaspora, and in doing so exploring the foundation of modern Indian identity.

In the 19th century, Britain was expanding its commercial interests, especially in its colonies. India in particular had become not just a continent to exploit and rule, but a source of raw labor and military muscle that bolstered British dominance worldwide and kept the imperial machine humming. With the end of slavery in the empire in 1833, thousands of poor, willing Indian workers were recruited for work in Burma, Fiji, the Caribbean and Africa – on plantations, in docks, mills and railroads – while others were conscripted into the British army, turning India into what one character in The Glass Palace calls a “vast garrison.”

In 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny, a failed rebellion of Indian soldiers, contributed to a jittery mistrust between English and Indians. By World War II, when Indian soldiers were forced to put the fight against Japan ahead of their own independence, this simmering tension culminated in a group of soldiers rebelling and forming their own Indian National Army.

This is the complicated backdrop for Ghosh’s novel, which centers on the fascinating story of Indians in Burma. By the late 19th century, there was a sizable Indian community in Burma; many were recruited to fill the lowly positions; others, such as Rajkumar, came to prosper as merchants in the growing economy. In the 20th century, as India’s independence movement gained strength, and England and Japan faced off in East Asia, these overseas Indians stood at a particularly agonizing crossroads, which tested their sense of national identity. Tragically, the idyll of Indian families in Burma ended in 1942, during the Japanese invasion, when thousands were forced to flee by foot through jungle and mountains back to India.

Rajkumar is the quintessential opportunist, in the best sense of the word. He makes his first money recruiting indentured workers in India, and then builds up a teak export business in the hills of Burma. Through Rajkumar we can observe the wheels of British commerce transforming the subcontinent and its other colonies into a vast network of trading and exploitation.

The first real stirrings of disquiet occur in the transitional figure of Beni Prasad Dey, the district collector responsible for the welfare of the king of Burma, who was exiled to Ratnagiri in India. The Collector, as he is known in The Glass Palace, has achieved the ultimate status for an Indian, as an esteemed civil servant in the bureaucratic Raj. And yet the Collector is plagued by doubts, “haunted by the fear of being thought lacking by his British colleagues.” On a deeper level, though, the Collector is confronted with the awkward position of being a willing servant to an alien power.

A generation later, in the late 1930s, Arjun, the nephew of Uma, takes this self-questioning to new, agonizing heights. Arjun joins the British Army and becomes one of the first Indian officers to rise in its ranks. At first, as a colonized subject, even eating at the officer’s mess hall, was an exhilarating barrier to smash, “an adventure, a glorious infringement of taboos. They ate foods that none of them had ever touched at home.

In the Indian epic the Mahabharata, Arjun is the warrior who pauses in battle to question the purpose of war and the kingdom he is fighting for. So too does this modern Arjun who begins to doubt his soldier’s training–during World War II, when he encounters those drawn to the aims of the Indian National Army. As a fellow soldier remarks, “It was strange to be sitting on one side of a battle line … knowing that you had to fight and knowing at the same time that it wasn’t really your fight …” During the Japanese invasion, Arjun comes to understand what it means to literally give over his trained body in bloody battle, and he wonders whether he even possesses his own self.

The opening scene of The Glass Palace also introduces us to a question that is repeated throughout this momentous epic narrative: the question of authority and, in particular, the authority to interpret new signs as they appear on the constantly changing landscape of colonized territory.

Questions of economic, artistic, cultural and national authority emerge in the novel’s portrayal of two families over three generations, pushed apart and pulled together by the forces of capitalism, colonialism and insurgency movements. It is Ghosh’s particular talent to interlace these questions with the telling of his characters’ lives and to use them to probe deeply into the intricate. Ghosh‘s novel spans vast temporal and spatial dimensions in which people are shaped by larger forces, without ever abandoning the thread of personal ambition, struggle, love, and death that ties the times and places together. Individual efforts, material progress, and grand historical transformations move the plot from its Burmese beginnings through cities and sites in India and Malaya. With a remarkable eye for detail, Ghosh describes the material conditions – from the curious ingredients of meals to cutting-edge technologies – that also tie lives together. We learn, for instance, that in the year of King Thebaw‘s overthrow, 1885, Karl Benz unveiled the ‘motorwagon’ run by a small internal-combustion engine. This modernizing moment brought the industrialization of Europe to the streets of Mandalay in a conversation about a paper illustration of the vehicle in question.

It is through family networks that the novel is able to achieve its ambitious span in time and space. The family begun in Rangoon by Rajkumar and Dolly is linked by long time friendships, business, and the lives of their sons Neel and Dinu to the Indian subcontinent and Malaya. The complexities of lives constituted within the ageing British Empire are explored vividly, linking the prewar years to events and chains of significance going back to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and forward to the retreat of colonialism signalled by the Second World War. Along with the British Empire, Rajkumar‘s business is brought to ruin and his family struck by tragedy during the war.

The Japanese Imperial Army‘s swift takeover of British Malaya and advance on Burma are evocatively rendered through the protagonists‘ disrupted lives in Rangoon, Calcutta, and the environs of Sungei Petani, Kedah. The war breaks the empire into parts, sundering connections that depend on sea, road, and rail transportation and ending the lives of several key characters. Rajkumar and Dolly themselves only decide to leave Burma when there is no longer transportation to ferry them away. Rajkumar had been reluctant to leave, despite the rise of anti-Indian politics and the nearing war.

Reading The Glass Palace at the start of the twenty-first century reminds us how much our lives have been linked by transnational spaces and transformations well before the contemporary preoccupation with notions of globalization. Peoples have moved and been forced to move as a result of European imperialism and nationalism. And peoples have survived and thrived in their various incarnations, absorbing the local and distinctive while cognizant of far-reaching events and people linked to them. I read this book as a means of evoking other Asias. The novel‘s region, the eastern British Empire, becomes another Asia, given a life through and beyond colonial-mindedness. It is evocatively rendered as a space within which people, goods, ideas, and so forth flow in distinctive, textured, and dynamic ways.

A piece of painstaking historical work itself, The Glass Palacepersonifies in gritty and rich narratives the great transformations of the twentieth century in one corner of Asia. It reminds us of our connections with others in the world by reviving the long dormant, even invisible, tremor that have shaped us.

History is more than a backdrop for the story of Dolly’s and Rajkumar’s lives; it is a powerful force that constantly threatens and dwarfs each individual in the novel. All of Ghosh’s characters struggle through an almost overwhelming number of turbulent events: British imperialism, depression, World War II, the Japanese invasion of Burma and Malaya, India’s struggle for independence, and military rule in Myanmar.

Both Rajkumar and Dolly make close friends – a Malayan businessman and an Indian woman named Uma, respectively – whose own families become intertwined with the lives of Rajkumar and Dolly’s descendants.

With the advent of World War II, Ghosh carefully illuminates how Arjun slowly and painfully becomes aware of what he has sacrificed in order to “become” British. As many Indian troops mutiny and the Japanese invade Malaya, Ghosh describes Arjun’s attempt to grasp the surrounding cataclysm in a wistful and haunting voice: “He tried to form the sentences in his head and found that he did not know the right words in Hindustani; did not even know the tone of voice in which such questions could be asked. These were things he did not know how to say, in any language.”

With this novel, the author demonstrates that he can balance the sweep of history with the depth and complexity of the individual. Ghosh spins his tale with harrowing precision and insight, leaving the reader with a lingering disquiet about how the forces of history can irrevocably alter the lives of ordinary men and women.

Ghosh’s stand against the Commonwealth draws on a long tradition of nationalism in Indian English writing. A literature composed in the language of that nation’s colonizers almost necessarily occupies a terrain of ambiguity and anxiety. Unable to shed the burden of colonial legacy, Indian English Literature has tried to compensate for it by espousing the cause of nationhood. The construction of national culture and community has thus been a persistent motif in Indian English Literature. It has been a method for Indian English writers to express their anti-colonial stand and indigenous identity.

The removal of the royal family from the centre to the periphery, the utter neglect and deprivation that they suffered, the squalor and dirt in which they lived, the physical and mental torture that they have undergone, the factors that people might easily forget after the deposition are meticulously etched by Ghosh in The Glass Palace. The marginalised history of Burma would have gone unnoticed if Ghosh had not captured it in this magnificent novel.

In order to examine the after-effect of colonization on India, Malaya and Burma, Ghosh creates a large number of fictional characters. Raj Kumar Raha the orphan turned capitalist, his wife Dolly, the orphan attendant of Queen Supayalat; their sons- Neeladhri Raha, Dinanath Raha, RajKumar‘s friend and benefactor Saya John – a Chinese businessman, his son Matthew, the Collector – Beniprasad Dey and his wife Uma Dey, her brother‘s twin children Arjun and Manju are some of the characters. The deposition of King Thebaw of Burma, the transformation of Burma from the monarchy to a British Colony, the resistance to the imperial centre by the indigenous people of Burma, the deploying of the Indian sepoys for the suppression of the rebellion that broke out in various colonised locations, the awakening of the national consciousness in the people of the colonised countries, and the First and Second World Wars are some of the major historical events dealt with in the novel. Each character has a specific purpose to serve. Events in the history and events that take place in the life and family of fictional characters mix and merge in the novel leading to a confluence of history and human insights.

An attempt made for the cause of national reconstruction can be traced through the fictional works of Ghosh especially in The Glass Palace but it ends without any hope for realisation. Burma became independent from the hold of imperialists in January 1948, but they couldn‘t enjoy freedom for long, because the military Junta took over the regime of Burma. Aung San‘s endeavour to provide democratic rule for Burma, which promised equal opportunity to all minority groups did not bear fruit and he was assassinated in July 1947. There has been more repression in Burma than when it was under the British rule. People bestowed all their hopes on Aung San‘s promising and efficient daughter, Myanmar‘s charismatic leader and the pro-democracy icon Aung San Suukyi. Though she scored landslide victory in the 1990 elections as a candidate of National League for Democracy, the military which had run the country since 1962 ignored the result. There ends the hope for reconstruction and the situation of Burma remains unchanged even today.

One of the central themes in The Glass Palace is the way colonial discourses (primarily the military discourse) have moulded the subaltern identity and resulted in severe alienation. Self- alienation is apparent in the characters of the soldier, Arjun, who has been moulded into a war-machine in the hands of British military discourse and in the character of the Collector, a Britain- trained colonial administrator. Both these characters are destroyed: they end up in a dead end in their existential moorings and kill themselves. Arjun, the more prominent of these figures, can initially express himself only within the discourse of the military culture. As he finally realizes his condition as a puppet of this colonial discourse and manages to create some distance from it, he is left with nothing. He has nowhere to place his allegiances, so to speak, no language that would help him build a new self with other affiliations.

The novel proceeds mainly through the examination of various ideas through discussions, in which differing ideologies are pitted against each other in an ethical manner that prioritizes or vindicates none of them. Yet such juxtapositioning brings into view the pros and cons of each way of seeing the world more clearly and reaches towards a synthesis of viewpoints where each view is allowed to retain its voice and stance while they are brought into a meaningful relationship with each other. The debates address, among other things, nationalism, which is one of the major concerns in this novel. The discussions are not superfluous to the narrative; they cannot be over-looked in favour of the actual story line. In The Glass Palace, meaning lies not in individual utterances, but in their dialogical negotiations, the emphasis being on the manifold entirety of the plurality of viewpoints. The stances of most of the major figures become gradually modified during the course of the narrative through mutual interaction. Themes like theory and experience, duty and emotion etc., tend to become interwoven to muddle the borders between polemics and praxis.

The action in the novel is centered in Burma, but it features Diasporas to India, the eastern half of the Indian Ocean (South East Asia), Europe and North America. The Glass Palace is a refreshing departure from the norm in South Asian fiction. This shift is evident from the novel‘s concentration on two key institutions of colonial rule: the plantation and the colonial army. The plantation and the army are two institutions that vividly illustrate the racial technologies of rule employed at the colonial frontiers – the plantation is a ‘terror formation’ where the master literally has absolute power over the life and death of the slave-thing; the colonial army is both a ‘tool’ of colonial sovereignty, and also exists outside the purview of ‘normal’ law and order in the colonial context. Moreover, the recruitment policies for the plantation and the army also employed a racialist logic. Influenced by mid- nineteenth century racial discourse, ‘races’ in India were divided into ‘martial‖ or ‘fallen’ categories depending upon their relative physiognomic distance from the ‘Aryan’ norm. It comes as no surprise that most of the recruits for the army were selected from the so-called ‘martial races,’ while the indentured labor for the plantations were recruited, oftentimes forcibly, from the ‘fallen’ races – a fact represented directly in the novel as well.

This entire story is told against the background of the situation in both India and Burma, with the Burmese resenting the intrusion of Indians into their commercial life and the Indians increasingly wanting to get rid of the British. While this is essentially a family saga, set against the background of major changes in India, Burma and Malaya, Ghosh uses it to make his political points. He accepts that India was not a paradise before the British got there, with poor treatment of women, the caste system and so on. He also points out the exploitation of the Burmese by the Indians and indeed, how the Indians exploit each other. We are even made aware through stories of those Indians who helped the Japanese, with a view of getting rid of the British and found Japanese to be worse than the British. Ghosh is quite clear that, however bad the British were, the Japanese were worse. As regards the Burmese, he makes it clear that the generals have caused a lot of harm to their country and its habitants. He even mentions that Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, went over to the British but then changed his mind.

Thus The Glass Palace is the novel most profound from the point of view that human beings are molded in large part by forces beyond their control. The result is a rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland – a literary territory that is as resonant now in our globalized culture as it was when the sun never set on the British Empire. TheGlassPalace contributes something essential to the current debate about Indian cultural identity in the face of Western hegemony. Ghosh further lends his experience and insight to an examination of the nature of colonialism and the struggles that were inherent in winning independence.

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