Best Book of the Week!
In the late 19th century, the kingdom of Burma was one of the wealthiest in southeast Asia. Its people were all literate, and no one in the country went hungry. Hundreds of thousands of Indians and people from other nearby countries traveled there to work on the waterways or the teak plantations.
In 1885, the Burmese government imposed a fine on a British trading company for avoiding taxes by under-reporting the amount of teak it was exporting. The British government used this incident as a pretext for invading the country and taking the royal family captive. King Thebaw and Queen Supalayat and their children, along with a few servants, were deported to India, where they were kept captive for the rest of the king’s life in a crumbling, poorly maintained house. Their personal possessions, including the king’s valuable jewelry collection, were confiscated and returned to England.
It is around this shameful incident that the beginning of The Glass Palace is constructed, an ambitious novel that tells the recent history of India and Burma/Myanmar through the stories of several related families. Rajkumar is a 10-year-old Indian orphan whose mother died in their attempt to reach Burma, and he is working at a small cooking stall near the palace when it is breached. He witnesses the removal of the queen and the princesses, and is struck by the beauty of Dolly, their young servant. Dolly is the only one of the lady’s maids who chooses to follow the royal family into exile.
Rajkumar goes to work for a Malayan businessman named Saya John Martins. With Saya John’s help and advice, Rajkumar eventually makes his fortune in the teak industry and finally travels to India to look for Dolly. She accepts his proposal and returns to Burma with her friend Uma, the recent widow of the first Indian Collector, the official in charge of the Burmese royal family.
These are just the bare bones of a dual story rich in characters and detail, on the one hand that of Rajkumar’s efforts to better himself, on the other hand that of the lives of Dolly and the royal family in exile. But this novel is not a love story, and that is just the beginning of this novel, which continues until the present. The novel follows the fates of Rajkumar and Dolly’s children and grandchildren and those of Uma’s nieces and nephews in India and Burma as the families intermarry with each other and with Saya John’s children. As we follow the fortunes of some family members in Burma and Malaya, other family members get involved in the Indian movement for independence from the British empire.
During the Japanese invasion and bombings of Burma and Malaya during World War II, various family members struggle to survive, one an Indian soldier in the British army, one a rubber plantation owner, one a photographer who disappears in Malaya. Rajkumar and Dolly and their daughter-in-law and grandchild are forced with thousands of other Indians to make the thousand-mile trek back to India.
Ghosh is interested in telling a complex story of culture and history, so he keeps us at a remove from his characters, but that does not make the novel any less moving. The novel does an amazing job of exploring the roots of problems in Myanmar and India through its exposition of events and the varying points of view of its characters. This is a captivating and ambitious novel.