The Glass Palace – Summary

Amitav Ghosh‘s The Glass Palace, published in 2000 is the latest expedition in understanding the havoc done by colonialism. The Glass Palace is a historical novel which mainly tells the history of the fall of Mandalay in 1885, the subjugation of Burma under British colonization, and the political developments up to the situation of the Myanmar in 1996. The novel focuses on the problem of Indian identity which appears after the Second World especially with the Japanese invasion in Burma which the British Sarkar has declared to be a part of India. The story begins in 1885 Burma when the Burmese Royal family under British subjugation was sent into exile. The Glass Palace refers to the Burmese royal palace at Mandalay. It is the magnificent hall of mirrors which forms the center-piece of the royal residence. It is the traditional hall where the Burmese monarchs held audience. But it is also the name of a small photo studio in the late twentieth century where the novel The Glass Palace ends. The studio which derived its name from its original, is a reminder of the old days when Burma was free, both of the colonial powers and the junta which controls it now.

The book traces the life of Rajkumar, an orphan boy of Indian origin, who later on with lots of struggle succeeds in becoming a rich teak merchant. The book is actually a short history of a nation seen through the eyes of subaltern. Rajkumar meets three important persons in his life which gives him a sense of completeness by the binding of important relations. In Saya John he finds father, in Matthew he finds brother and in Dolly, he find, his soul mate.

Summary

The novel begins in Mandalay, Burma, in 1885, when the British are about to seize the city with a powerful army of Indian sepoys. The Burmese royal family is sent into exile in a small Indian village and the royal palace is ravaged. Rajkumar, a Bengali orphan boy, gets the chance to enter the ―glass palace‖ during the chaos following the fall of the Ava Kingdom, and there he meets one of Queen Supayalat‘s maid servants, a breathtakingly-beautiful young girl called Dolly. Rajkumar makes his fortune with teak and finally marries her. Rajkumar‘s story, the protagonist of the novel is directly connected to the institution and breakdown of the plantation economy. The plantation economy flourishes after British rule is institutionalized after the 1885 invasion and breaks down dramatically after the Japanese attack on Southeast Asia during World War II. In the meantime, the royal family is ―incarcerated‖ by the British in a place called Ratnagiri, on the western coast of India, almost forgotten by the Burmese and everyone else. They make friends with their jailers nonetheless: Uma Dey, the District Collector‘s wife, and Dolly become close friends. When her husband dies, Uma reinvents herself and feels as an activist for Indian independence and has a chance to travel to Europe and America.

After marriage Dolly and Rajkumar travel back to Burma and have two sons: Neel and Dinu. Of the two sons, Dinu plays a very important role in the text as he survives World War II and the invasion of Burma by the Japanese and the subsequent destruction of the Raha family fortune. Dinu becomes successful teak businessman and marries a Burmese princess exiled to Ratnagiri. Neel is killed during the Japanese attack on Rangoon in 1942. During the interwar years, Rajkumar and Dolly trek to India as refugees during the “forgotten long march‖ of 1943 (More than a million people, mostly of Indian origin, trekked to India through hazardous forest routes). They manage to take the dead Neel‘s infant daughter, Jaya, along with them to Calcutta. While Dolly returns to Burma as a Buddhist nun in the post-war years, Rajkumar lives on in India as a hanger-on in the household of Uma Dey. Uma Dey is an Indian nationalist politician, and also a close friend of Dolly‘s from Ratnagiri, who was instrumental in bringing Rajkumar and Dolly together. Rajkumar dotes upon his grandchild, Jaya, and dies long after she marries and has a son, who later reveals himself to be the narrator of the story.

Another strand follows Uma‘s nephew Arjun, a dedicated officer in the British Indian Army. He comes from Calcutta. He becomes Dinu‘s brother-in-law when his sister Manju marries Dinu‘s elder brother Neel. On occasion of Manju‘s marriage Arjun and Denu meet in Calcutta, have a conversion and start to fight for India‘s own side after realizing the contradictions of being a colonial and fighting for the British. At this time for people like Arjun the identification with the culture and the spirit of the British Army means to be modern. He doesn‘t mind eating beef, drinking alcohol but takes it as his life style.

The novel follows three generations and three families across borders, giving us a multi-layered portrait of colonial and post-colonial India, Burma and Malaysia. The novel spans more than one hundred years, finally ending in the 1990s, when Rajkumar‘s grand-daughter Jaya embarks on an internet search to find her long-lost uncle Dinu, who now lives in Rangoon. Burma, now called Myanmar, is no longer the ―golden country‖ it used to be: bad politics, famines and the selfishness of its rulers have turned it into an impoverished land, where the military junta has seized the power and incarcerated opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The family reunion coincides with the period when Aung San Suu Kyi‘s democracy movement has started gaining strength in postcolonial Myanmar. Dinu, who has adopted a Burmese name of U Tun Pe lives a relatively solitary life, eking out a living giving photography lessons in his studio. The novel reveals that the name of this studio was ―The Glass Palace Studio.‖ Thus the novel, in a circular mode, begins and ends with scenes in ―The Glass Palace.‖ From the grandeur of King Thibaw‘s opulent palace to the decrepit ruin of Dinu‘s tiny studio, the narrative traverses a huge arc that spans the precolonial, colonial and post-colonial history of Burma/Myanmar.

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