Literary Shelf

The Glass Palace

Continued from "Countdown" 

‘The Glass Palace’ is comparatively a thicker book, not because Ghosh has changed his style or subject matter but because the narrative is extended up to three generations. This is, once again, a book about geographical entities, space, distance and time. Many stories have been woven together. There are many characters. It is a saga of many families, their lives and their connection with each other. 

To take this book in its entirety and comment on it, is not an easy task. But to begin with the beginning, we can say that this novel of Amitav Ghosh is the story of an Indian orphan who is transported to Burma by accident. The name of this character is Raj Kumar. As a child, Raj Kumar is remarkable for his exploring spirit, keen perception and his ability to take calculated risks. Raj Kumar works in a tea stall of a matronly lady Ma Cho. He loves exaggerating his age just to feel like an adult. A well-travelled orphan, Raj Kumar is worldly-wise. Right at the beginning of the narrative, the author drops enough hints for the legitimacy of his choice of a protagonist. Although, a child, an orphan, yet this boy is established as bold, and remarkable. Once Raj Kumar lands in Mandalay, his life-long search for places and people begins. He is taken in by the city. 'Long straight roads radiated outwards from the walls, forming a neat geometrical grid. So intriguing was the ordered pattern of these streets that Raj Kumar wandered far a field, exploring' (5). And we must remember that this
explorer-boy is a complete destitute in an alien city with absolutely no acquaintances. Finally he goes to Ma Cho for job and he receives a thorough rebuke and scolding at the very outset. But his keen perception helps him to know that this outburst was not aimed directly at him: that it had more to do with the dust, the splattering oil and the price of vegetables than with his own presence or with anything he had said (5-6).

Ghosh is a master at pointing out small details that actually make the characters and the narrative real. Soon the boy Raj Kumar develops his sense of belonging at the new place. Barriers are challenging to him. ‘In fact, barriers cause progress. If there would be no hurdles, who would think of ascending and getting beyond. As he views the fort of Mandalay the crystal shining glass palace, he instinctively knows that orphans like him cannot go there and yet 'No matter what Ma Cho said, he decided, he would cross the moat-before he left Mandalay, he would find a way in' (7). It is this spark that sets Raj Kumar apart for a life of success' adventure and prosperity.

His lessons of worldly wisdom come soon. With no one to guide or look after him, he goes where his fancy takes him. Through the creaks in the wooden walls, he starts viewing Ma Cho at nights. He gets to know about female anatomy and sex in this way. He even gets his first physical sensations through
Ma Cho, though fortunately she does not go beyond limits and resists herself well in time. It is pathetic to watch the condition of an orphan growing boy whose only tutor is life. He is just a toy and Ma Cho could have made him whatever she wanted. But 'abruptly, she pushed him away, with a yelp of disgust. What am I doing with this boy, this child, this half-wit kalaa? Elbowing him aside, she clambered up her ladder and vanished into her room' (57).

Once again the sanity of the situation is saved by a woman's strength. I have been watching this pattern quite regularly in Ghosh's works where ‘animality’ is more or less left to men and women save the grace of human existence. 

It is at this roadside tea stall only, Raj Kumar meets the man in Ma Cho's life, Saya John. Saya John comes closest to  what Raj Kumar could have called a father. But this does not come in a day. Raj Kumar matures fast. Life teaches him its own lessons. At his heart, he is always certain about his success in life. When the British throw down the king of Burma, Raj Kumar is told that the British wish to control Burmese territory for wood. And from this point starts his shaping of his future plans. He senses wealth in teak. When the city is rampaged by the British, it is the Indian soldiers who come on orders of their colonial masters. Suddenly Indians become the target of mob frenzy. Raj Kumar is also attacked. He is saved by Saya John. That day, Saya perceives something unique in Raj Kumar. 'There was something unusual about the boy-a kind of watchful determination. No excess of gratitude here, no gifts or offerings, no talk of honor, with murder in the heart. There was no simplicity in his face, no innocence: his eyes were filled with worldliness, curiosity, and hunger. That was as it should be. 'If you ever need a job,' Saya John said, ‘come and talk to me' (3).

We can say that Raj Kumar earns his job at Saya's company with his integrity and personality. But his learning process is far from over. When the palace of King Thebaw is evacuated, everyone rushes into it to loot as much as they can. Raj Kumar also goes in. But what he gets there is not an item of loot but his future wife Dolly. Dolly like Raj Kumar is an orphan. She is a maid who looks after the princesses. At that tender age Raj Kumar is struck by this girl. He offers her some sweets. Soon he sees her sharing those sweets with a soldier. Raj Kumar feels angry but soon learns a lesson. ‘Dolly was doing exactly what had to be done. What purpose would it serve for these girls to make a futile show of resentment? How could they succeed in defiance when the very army of the realm had succumbed?' (46).  This is how Raj Kumar's life goes. He learns from experiences. He is receptive. He is forming friendships that will endure for generations. He is learning to see the world not only through his own eyes but also as others see it. Saya is his tutor for all practical purposes. When Saya is rebuked by an English boss, Raj Kumar flares up. It is Saya that passes his wisdom to Raj Kumar, literally teaches him to see the other side of a picture. Through these poignant phases, Raj Kumar grows. When Saya earnestly tells Raj Kumar how to live, how to deal with people and situations, once his orphan hood strikes him right at heart, 'Rai Kumar could tell that Saya John was thinking not of him [...] but of Mathew, his absent son and the realization brought a sudden and startling pang of grief.  But the pain lasted only an instant and when it had faded Raj Kumar felt himself to be very much the stronger, better prepared'(75).

His being an orphan gives him a unique sensibility. He is able to watch every scene with detachment. His only concern ‘pure and simple’, is to defend himself and provide for himself. He is a growing boy, without strings. It is a disadvantage but then it is an advantage as well. Or we may say that Raj Kumar takes this negative fact in his stride and makes good use of it. It makes him what he is-practical. 'He reserved his trust and affection for those who earned it by concrete example and proven good will [...]. But that there should exist a universe of loyalties that was unrelated to himself and his own immediate needs-this was very nearly incomprehensible' (47). So this attitude of Raj Kumar leaves out all loyalties related to place, nationhood etc. He is free.

He uses this free will in building his business. His professional rise is impressive. When he decides to take a loan from Saya and establish his separate timber yard, Saya is full of doubts. Now it is Raj Kumar's turn to give a few tips to Saya, 'If I'm ever going to make this business grow, I'll have to take a few risks' (130). With risks he grows and grows very well. By the time Raj Kumar is ripe to go to India to search Dolly, he is already a successful and respected businessman. Tracing Dolly is not difficult because she has been with the deposed King and Queen of Burma.

Being a practical businessman, Raj Kumar brings with him a letter for the Collector of Ratangiri from a relative of the Collector's wife Uma Dey. Usually no one from Burma is allowed to meet the deposed king or staff lest such a meeting may not create problems of revolt at Burma. Uma, who is a good friend of Dolly arranges the meeting between Dolly and Raj Kumar. But before going to that, the letter of endorsement that Raj Kumar brought with him speaks volumes about his character and reputation. '[...] he (Raj Kumar) had had several other successes and had risen to eminence within the business community. And all this at the age of thirty, before he had even had time to marry (...) Raj Kumar babu is not the kind of person to whose society you are accustomed. You may well find him somewhat rough and even uncouth in his manner [...]. But here in Burma our standards are a little more lax. Some of the richest people in the city are Indians and most of them began with nothing more than a bundle of clothes and a tin box' (135).
Raj Kumar is an individual here as well as a representative, a symbol of a whole migrated community. His fate and rise have been linked to that of his community and what we get in a wonderful individual picturization as well as functioning of an entire group of people in an alien land. This is what I call flashes of genius on part of the author.
Raj Kumar's meeting with Dolly is catastrophic. There is no clue, no meeting point, no headway. It is all blocked, clogged. Dolly has her own problems. She has to clear her mental picture. But this we shall discuss later while talking about Dolly. For no fault of his, Raj Kumar receives a cold and hostile response from Dolly. His dreams are all but broken. As  fate would have it, they are married at Ratangiri. Uma is their benefactor, protector, everything. They would not have been married but for the Collector's wife Uma Dey. From here begins Raj Kumar's life as a family man. He gets two sons Neel and Dinu. He celebrates to compensate for all the missed celebrations of his own life. But his life cannot be called perfect as he falls prey to the turbulent times in his old age and his world is torn apart. Dinu moves away from him, Neel dies and Dolly goes to a monastery. Although the end can be blamed at fate, one flaw is very much Raj Kumar's own. Once Dinu as a child, develops slight polio in one leg. Dolly consumes herself day and night in Dinu's care. She becomes more and more introvert. She cuts herself off from the world, including her elder son, Neel and husband. Dinu and his well being remain the focal point of her existence for months or even a year or so. It is as though the mother and the son have reentered the prenatal period of oneness. The child is safely in mother's protective presence, her womb and all his needs are fulfilled without asking. During this period Raj Kumar goes into physical relationship with one of the workers forcibly and Ilongo, his illegitimate son is the result of this extramarital mating. We can only attribute this act on Raj Kumar's part to his free will and the kind of a man that he actually is. Saya, his mentor, was the same and so is he. Our civilized and often hypocritical rules of morality will not work here simply because this novel, like other good novels, is a true depiction of life. Howsoever absurd such an act may look to the cold, distant gaze, it is perhaps the most natural thing to happen in the mess of life. Devoid of the power of reasoning as to why Dolly has withdrawn, Raj Kumar succumbs to his physical needs. He remains, despite his achievements, an uneducated orphan.
Dolly is initially Queen Supayalat's maid who later grows into her own person. It is actually Dolly's contact with Uma Dey that ripens her and gives her a personality. Dolly is beautiful, even more beautiful than the princesses that she attends. Basically it is this extraordinary beauty that enforces a sort of depth on her. Not everyone is able to manage beauty, I mean, extraordinary beauty. Beauty attracts. Beauty demands protection. Beauty also demands graceful behavior, lest it may be marred. Well, Dolly fulfills many prerequisites of beauty if not all. Her life is intertwined with the life of King and Queen. Dolly is introduced most casually just as an attendant, an attaché to the bigger, larger, royal way of life. Dolly's specialty lies in her ability to calm the youngest princess who is extremely stubborn and who cries and shouts on every possible occasion. Dolly, herself a child of ten, manages the youngest princess as best as she can. The scene where Dolly is not able to carry the young princess in her lap when the palace is ravaged is particularly touching because one individual's suffering looks so small and yet so poignant. 'I can't, she cried. I can't. She would fall, she knew it. The princess was too heavy for her; the stairs were too high; she would need a free hand to hold on, to keep her balance (...) Quickly, quickly. There was a soldier behind her; he was prodding her with the cold hilt of his sword. She felt her eyes brimming over, tears flooding down her face. Couldn't they see she would fall, that the Princess would tumble out of her grip? Why would no one help? (23)’.
These beginning pages of the novel juxtapose two aspects of female power so well. On one hand goes the story of queen Supayalat who is an expert in cruel court intrigues and palace politics and on the other hand a twelve years old boy offers sweets to a ten year old vulnerable girl. The contrast is too intense to be missed. Queen Supayalat is no ordinary woman. Thebaw is ineffectual and scholarly type of a person. But most unexpectedly ‘Supayalat, in defiance of the protocols of palace intrigue, fell headlong in love with her husband, the king. His ineffectual good nature seemed to inspire a maternal ferocity in her. In order to protect him from her family she stripped her mother of her powers and banished her to a corner of the palace, along with her sisters and co-wives. Then she set about ridding Thebaw of his rivals. She ordered the killing of every member of the Royal family who might ever be considered a threat to her husband. Seventy-nine princes were slaughtered on her orders, some of them newborn infants and some too old to walk. To prevent the spillage of royal blood she had had them wrapped in carpets and bludgeoned to death. The corpses were thrown into the nearest river' (38-39)'
But the enigma of human nature is such that this most cruel person goes on to live in exile, suffers captivity and humiliation for love, for her husband. 'what could love mean to this woman, this murderer, responsible for the slaughter of scores of her own relatives? And yet it was a fact that she had chosen captivity over freedom for the sake of her husband, condemned her own daughters to twenty years of exile' (152). It is not the duty of the novelist to solve all the puzzles of human nature; his work finishes with the candid presentation of them.
To come back to Dolly, she is steadfast in her loyalty to the royal family. She remains with them in the most critical circumstances. One by one all the maids and servants leave the royal family and go back to Burma but Dolly does not do so. This may partly be due to the fact that she has nowhere to go to. Yet the sincerity of her nature cannot be denied. Gradually from a child she becomes an attractive young girl. Her body and mind expand. She has nothing to look forward to. She cannot dream for herself. Her life is an appendage, a depending extension of the royal family. Sex comes as a handy rescue for this young girl to maintain her sanity. The novelist chooses to go in detail regarding Dolly's first exposure to the life of the body. Sawant is the local servant of the king. He is the chief servant. He is the natural choice for Dolly and she for him. But soon they are caught by the first Princess who herself is growing into a woman and is also in need of engagement of some sort. To cut a long tale short, the first princess snatches Sawant and her pregnancy is dramatically announced. By this time collector Dey and his wife have arrived on the scene. The collector is responsible for the well being of the royal family.
When Raj Kumar comes to take her, Dolly has run into a dead end. She is in an emotional chaos. She is not interested in Raj Kumar. By some sort of psychological transference, she identifies with the first princess and says that she is awaiting the baby's arrival. She feels the baby to be her own. But Uma knows better, 'the birth of this child will drive you out of your mind [...]' (163). Dolly's meeting with Raj Kumar is of great value in understanding the kind of a person she is. She is so clear in her perceptions. When Uma coaxes her to marry Raj Kumar and says that he loves her, Dolly's reply is remarkably correct, 'He's in love with what he remembers. That isn't me' (161). She goes on to tell Raj Kumar about her past relationship with Sawant. Finally, Raj Kumar and Dolly are married.
What is the charm of Dolly's personality? What makes her  click? Uma herself confesses it to Dolly what she owes to her. Dolly is the personification of the spirit of endurance and acceptance. Her very weakness is her source of strength. Dolly yields. She gives in. And that is why she is so much in demand, sought after by Uma, Raj Kumar, Princesses, King, Queen, Sawant, just everyone. She reminds me of servant characters from the novels of Pearl S. Buck. There also, understanding and acceptance of life  place a servant on a greater pedestal than the angry wife.
Uma is another pillar of this novel. The power of Ghosh's narration is such that the moment Uma enters the novel, the reader knows that she has come to stay. The Collector and Uma go to the house of the King and Queen. The meeting is awkward and stiff. But Uma makes her mark. The Queen Supayalat is impressed by her. 'Self-possession was a quality she'd always admired. There was something attractive about this woman, Uma Dey; the liveliness of her manner was a welcome contrast to her husband's arrogance' (108).
Uma develops a close friendship with Dolly. Their friendship lasts a whole lifetime. But for all her sophistication, liveliness and charm, there are problems in Uma's life that she has not been able to sort out. The bond between her and her husband is weak. The Collector has been educated abroad. He does not fit into Indian scheme of things. The author makes an indirect comment on the state of Indian marriages when he says, 'the wifely virtues she could offer him he had no use for: Cambridge had taught him to want more, to make sure that nothing was held in abeyance, to bargain for a woman's soul with the coin of kindness and patience. The thought of this terrified her. This was subjection beyond decency, beyond her imagining. She could not bring herself to think of it. Anything would be better than to submit' (153).
And this exactly how it is with majority of Indian marriages. The couple lives together for decades without really knowing each other, without actually sharing innermost thoughts and without genuinely loving each other. Marriage becomes a matter of habit, a taken for granted ritual of life. The Collector wants mental connection with Uma. Her resources prove to be inadequate on this account. She does not love her husband. She does not trust him. She may be having 'wife virtues' namely timely supply of needs, patience, passivity etc. but a bond with the husband is something she dreads. The Collector, on the other hand is a different type of a man. We can say he is intellectually emancipated. He selected Uma after seeing her at a puja when she was sixteen. He wanted a flexible girl who is not too settled in her ideas and behavior. His family opposed Uma. 'But he persisted, insisting that he didn't want a conventional marriage. He'd be working with Europeans: it wouldn't do to have a conservative, housebound wife. He needed a girl who would be willing to step out into society; someone young, who wouldn't be resistant to learning modern ways' (158).


But things turn out to be different. 'Disappointment' is the word that settles too soon in their relationship. Uma is leading a mechanical, lonely life playing the part of an elegant hostess in all the social gathering of the Collector. It is Dolly who releases her from this chain of boredom and dull schedule. She connects well with Dolly. Her husband does not occupy her psychological space. Things are bound to fall apart. Once Dolly leaves, the Collector is perceptive enough to say to Uma when she approaches him, 'You have come to tell me that you want to go home' (I72).Uma has decided to leave the Collector. She has decided that she cannot go on like that. The dialogue that follows is touching and tragic. There can be nothing more sad in this world than talk of broken dreams. The Collector does exactly the same, 'I used to dream about the kind of marriage I wanted [...]. To live with a woman as an equal, in spirit and intellect: this seemed to me the most wonderful thing life could offer. To discover together the world of literature, art: what could be richer, more fulfilling? But what I dreamt is not yet possible, not here, in India, not for us' (173).
Uma leaves and the Collector goes to row out into the sea, never to return. He feels that there is no need to turn back home as no one would be waiting for him and he would find it hard to sleep. And thus goes a precious life, a talented, sensitive human life. The Collector commits suicide. He proves to be even more vulnerable than Uma.
And this is just the beginning of a series of tragic deaths in this novel. One thing that disturbs me in the novel is that there is hardly any poetic justice. The dead ones are left just like that. For example, with the Collector's death Uma’s life takes an upward swing. She becomes a globetrotter, a freedom fighter and a sort of celebrity in her own right. Except for a passing remark that she mourned her husband's death for fifty years, there is hardly any real 'feel' of her sorrow. A tear somewhere, an ache in the heart, just anything to tell the reader that she is missing her husband or that she is repenting for her cruel treatment of the Collector would have been more satisfying. I read the whole novel to find something that would honor the Collector's memory but nothing came. Instead the novel distastefully ends in, 'But that morning when I (Raj Kumar's grand daughter) ran into Uma's room, I found, to my surprise, that Raj Kumar was in her bed. They were fast asleep, their bodies covered by a thin, cotton sheet. They looked peaceful and very tired, as though they were resting after some great exertion' (545).
The lines tell that Uma's image 'as a woman of icy self containment, a widow who had mourned her dead husband' for more than half a century' was false. The reader is at a loss as to what to make of it. These lines even take away the edge from what Raj Kumar once told Uma earlier in their lives when they were young and sensible, 'Have you ever built anything? Given a single person a job? Improved anyone's life in any way? No. All you ever do is stand back' as though you were above all of us and you criticize and criticize. Your husband was as fine a man as any I've ever met and you hounded him to his death with your self-righteousness (248).'
The truth of these lines is self-evident. Even with these bitterly true words Uma does not go into any kind of self questioning. Well, all that I can say is that this amounts to a flaw to draw a character who is a celebrated international socialite and intellectual and yet who never goes into any kind of introspection. To me, Uma's characterization looks unreal. Even to the crudest women, widowhood drives into bouts of loneliness and depression. The endless vacuum of life pervades their personality. How can an educated, sensitive, patriotic, modern lady escape an inevitable thought process? Uma’s character is unrealistically icy.
To move over to other areas in this novel we may talk about the next generation. The children of Raj Kumar and Dolly, Saya John's grand children and Uma's nephew and nieces are no less interesting than their parents and aunts. Dinu, Dolly's younger son, is by far the most substantial figure in this group. He possesses a unique keenness. He is sharp. When Dinu is first taken seriously in this narrative, we again at once know that he is the hero of the later part of the novel. Dinu is instinctively thoughtful. He is not an extrovert. He is not very social even. Photography is his profession. When Dinu is an adolescent, Dolly encourages his interest in photography because she felt that she ought to encourage ‘any activity that would draw him out of himself' (215). The natural inference that follows is that Dinu loves to remain within himself.
By the time the next generation arrives, the reader is into a web of relationships. The older generation is familiar. On that prior knowledge, the reader bases her/his opinions on the younger people. The importance of relationships is really so huge in life. Without relationships, life would be meaningless. Uma alone is a detached observer of the scene. She feels that in the faces of these adolescents, she could see inscribed the history of her friendships and the lives of her friends-the stories and trajectories that had brought Elsa's life into conjunction with Matthew's, Dolly's with Raj Kumar’s, Malacca with New York, Burma with India (225).
Dinu's behavior as an adolescent says a lot about his personality in general. He is an expert at speaking bitter truths. He is not eloquent. Uma also realizes his infatuation for Saya John's grand daughter Alison. Uma also notices the difference in their temperament. While Dinu is a boy of shadows, Alison is described as craving for spotlight. But the infatuation is there; it lasts till Alison's tragic death in the world war.
We are reminded of Tridib's love for ruins in ‘The Shadow Lines’ when Alison is also shown hooked by ruins. The older the ruin, the better! The author also delineates the psychology behind arranged marriages in India,[...] it was a way of shaping the future to the past, of cementing one's ties to one's memories and to one's friends' (230). Dinu's character is further delineated while his relationship with Alison is described. He cannot work unless he is fully dressed. He is not a casual type of a person. His keenness is also transferred to his perceptions. For example, as soon as he meets Ilongo, the son Raj Kumar had outside marriage, who is Dinu's half brother, Dinu immediately realizes that between himself and Ilongo there existed some sort of connection-a link that was known to Ilongo but of which he himself was unaware(359). This is no small achievement to realize connection with another person without any prior knowledge.
As a person of serious attitudes, Dinu's fall in love is also a very intentional and possessive business. We cannot say that he is totally successful here. His attraction for Alison is absolute. But once Arjun, Uma's nephew who is serving in Indian army, enters the scene, the equilibrium is lost. The liveliness of Alison matches with Arjun's power and for a short span of time Dinu loses Alison to Arjun. He is jealous of Arjun and his loud, impressive ways. He tries to come to terms with the situation. He knows that Alison cannot be trusted with Arjun. But he just can not do anything about it. He has only his inner resources. He decides not to fall a prey to self-pity. Alison' on the other hand, comes to the conclusion that between Dinu and Arjun there hardly exists any comparison. Her analysis provides a beautiful picture of these two men. This is a master stroke of characterization, 'Arjun-you're not in charge of what you do , you're a toy, a manufactured thing, a weapon in someone else's hands. Your mind doesn't inhabit your body ["']'She saw that despite the largeness and authority of his presence' he was a man without resources, a man whose awareness of himself was very slight and very fragile; She saw that Dinu was much stronger and more resourceful […] (376).' The inexplicable thing that we call depth and weight of personality is at the same time abstract and yet so real. At times it appears that it is the only thing that matters ultimately-an individual's ability of self-examination and introspection. Dinu is a person with this extraordinary quality of character. His involvement in his work of photography is complete. Once Alison wants to accompany him to his outdoor sites but Dinu is cold in his response. He actually loses himself completely in his work. Dinu and Alison are soon parted forever because of the war. The relationship that might have bloomed and lasted a lifetime is ruptured by the tumult of war. Alison dies. By the end of the novel, Dinu reappears. He is old and mellow. Photography is his profession. He has been living a quiet married life with a well-known Burmese writer. But the readers of this novel remember Dinu of young age who is sharp-edged in his intellectual capacities as well as behavior.
Apart from characters, at the level of pure ideas also, this novel is very rich. There are relevant ideas on the process of civilization, wars and their futility, the concept of boundaries, colonization, journey, hybridism, root-less-ness, childhood and the process of growing etc. Out of these I wish to concentrate on two topics. The concepts of journey, home, movement, new places and root-less-ness are more or less related. We may have some discussion on this. The second point of discussion at the level of ideas is colonization. Ghosh's concern about colonization is too great to be ignored.

The novel begins in a web of journey, chance, uncertainty and orphan hood. These are related. The roadside food stall (dhaba) is a well-recognized symbol of journey. The roadside food stall is also a place of current news, cheap food, cheap sex and temporary connections. The opening scene sets the mood of the novel. It is a novel about many places, war and displacement, exile and root-less-ness. It also depicts human helplessness in such a scenario. All that a human being can do is try to adjust, compromise, live and above everything else form relationships. This forming of new bonds, mixing of races and castes is something that does not stop. After all, this is human life. The Collector at one point of the novel is intrigued when he comes to know of the pregnancy of Supayalat's first daughter. He is disgusted. He is at a loss. His sense of class and decency is deeply violated, 'was this love then: this coupling in the darkness, a princess of Burma and a Marathi coachman; this heedless mingling of sweat?' (152).  This saga of human weaknesses gives birth to the concept of ‘hybridity’. No race is pure; nor is any caste pure. There is no pure royal blood or anything like that. Life is mixing DNA combinations and permutations. Saya Iohn is a fine example of this breed of ‘hybridity’. His clothes are Western. He speaks English, Hindustani and Burmese. His face looks like that of Chinese. Saya himself makes fun of his amalgamated identity, '[...] They (Indian soldiers) asked me this very question: how is it that you who look Chinese and carry a Christian name, can speak our language? When I told them how this had come about, they would laugh and say, you are a Dhobi Ka Kutta - a washer man’s dog - Na Ghar Ka Na Ghat Ka - you don't belong anywhere, either by the water or on land, and I'd say, yes that is exactly what I am.' He laughed, with an infectious hilarity and Raj Kumar joined in' (10). This is laughter of mutual sharing. Raj Kumar is as much a washer man's dog as Saya John' There is no humiliation between the two. This is simple acceptance of fact.

Change, make-shift arrangements and temporary homes appear again and again in this novel. These things give this novel its contemporary flavor. By this sense of shifting only the novel comes close to the reader of the present times where movement and uncertainty have become the order of the day. The process of colonization and the state of the colonized are very relevant thought components of this novel. The very word used for Raj Kumar-Kaala-is objectionable to our generation, which is decolonized at least in the political sense of the word. What we witness in this text is the actual process of aggression, capture and colonization. How the Burmese people are robbed of all grace with guns and artillery. The British are only giving commands. The soldiers who are invading Burma are Indians. Instead of fighting their common enemy (the  British) -the Burmese and the Indians are fighting among themselves. The scene of ousting of the deposed Burmese king is ironically tragic, 'In victory the British had decided to be generous [...] the British Government wished to provide them with an escort of attendants and advisors [...] But now it was time to leave, the guard of honor was waiting (40-43)' Guard of honor for a captive, dethroned king! Ghosh even mentions Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Indian Emperor who was taken to Rangoon in exile. A parallel is drawn here. One thing, apart from the cruel colonization, must be said that these emperors were distanced from reality, from their own subjects and land to a shocking extent. When King Thebaw is taken out of his palace, it is for the first time he is seeing his land. Ghosh goes on ruthlessly describing the conditions of Indians in Burma who were taken there to work in the docks and mills, to pull rickshaws and empty the latrines (49). Another shock comes when we learn that those who wait on Queen Supayalat are supposed to do so on all their fours i.e., both hands and legs on floor. When an English midwife comes, she refuses to crawl. Supayalat fails to make her crawl; 'She was an English woman' (55).

Apart from these human scenes of colonization, Ghosh also deals with the larger question of Europe's greed. Everything becomes a resource to be exploited-woods, water, mines, people, just everyone and everything. '[...] Resources were being exploited with an energy and efficiency hitherto undreamed of’ (66). Forests are cut on a very mass scale without giving any thought to the hazards of environment that such an unthinking act would cause. Burma becomes the mine of wealth for the British. 'In a few decades the wealth will be gone-all the gems, the timber and the oil-and then they too will leave' (88).

Mental colonization is even worse. For example, Saya does not see the English as usurpers. For him, they are superior. From them, he has learnt the art of using everything for his own benefit. The Europeans for him stand for efficient exploitation. To him, it brings profit. He does not know anything beyond his immediate gain, nor does he want to know. Many decades later we see Arjun boasting of his connection with Westerners. In his mind, he has accepted that the Western style is better and therefore desirable. 'Dinu understood that it was through their association with Europeans that Arjun and his fellow-officers saw themselves as pioneers' (279). We also see Raj Kumar being convinced that without the British the Burmese economy would collapse (306). Many stances can be given where the author has shown the cruelty of colonization and its impact on the lives and mind of the colonized. 

Decolonization is not easy, perhaps it is not even possible. As Arjun says, 'We rebelled against an Empire that has shaped everything in our lives; colored everything in the world as we know it. It is a huge, indelible stain, which has tainted all of us. We cannot destroy it without destroying ourselves' (518).
We can easily see as to why Ghosh withdrew ‘The Glass Palace’ from Commonwealth Prize Short Listing. Commonwealth is a remnant of colonization. The spirit of this book is anti-colonial.

Ghosh, Amitav. 2000. ‘The Glass Palace’. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publishers and Permanent Black.  


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Views: 3567      Comments: 5

Comment very beautifully written really it helped me a lot to know the characters. thank u so much.

30-Aug-2014 13:03 PM

Comment very effective and helpful. i got enough help. thank you so much mam.

palash kanti paul
15-Jun-2014 08:40 AM

Comment Ma'am i must say that you have written this essay on glass palace indeed beautifully..your notes have really helped me to have a better understanding of the novel and the various aspects included in it especially those of the characters very well written i was lost when reading . Thank you very much.

04-Oct-2013 04:06 AM

Comment your notes on the glass palace was very useful for me in exams point of view..... thanku sooooooooo much!!!!!!!

02-Jul-2013 03:48 AM

Comment very good story. if the precies is very good, then full novel will be read worthy.

10-Jun-2012 05:15 AM

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