Faced with a novel of over 550 pages what do you do? That's right. You don't do anything. So I was constantly deferring the reading of The Glass Place until things changed. Who would want to know about Burma? And Mandalay, where was that?! It was the alien-ness of the location of the novel which put me off. With one week to go before college resumed I decided to have a go at it. Since Siam (modern day Thailand) featured in the novel, I tried to drum up some interest by setting off for the Thai food festival in town. I think I was put off by the lazy drawl of the first line, 'There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the the Irrawady, to the western wall of Mandalay's fort.' The writer presupposed an intimate understanding by the reader of the topography of the place he was describing and my general knowledge in that area left much to be desired.
Having read the novel, I feel like reading it again -- so that what seemed incoherent to me can now come together in majestic similitude like a huge canvas of history -- which it is. The vistas of South East Asia come alive in the descriptions in the Amitav Ghosh's novel, the pace at which he tells it being like the sampan negotiating the Burmese rivers in the late 19th century. The tale of the progeny of Rajkumar Raha and Dolly Sein is the stuff of this book. The one is Indian and the other Burmese -- she, a part of the royal entourage of Queen Supalayat, the haughty preferred consort of the deposed Thebaw, King of Burma. If one focuses on these two characters alone, among all the others milling around them, one realizes the massive scope of the novel and its intricate narrative hinging.
The novel opens with the momentum of the impish boy Rajkumar eager to find his way in the world. However this drive is not sustained throughout the novel and he dies alone --a shadow of his former self. In the last years of his life Dolly leaves him to renounce the world and become a nun at the monastery at Sagaing. Work as a teak wood merchant in Rangoon at their Kemendine House has riven Rajkumar apart from Dolly. Even their children Neel and Dinu fail to give them a reason to be together. Neel, dies when the teak logs roll over and crush him after the site is bombarded by Japanese fighter planes. So much like Nanu's death in Pundalik Naik's Acchev, Rajkumar and Manju (Neel's wife) grieve over their loss which is partly of their own making. In their greed to subdue the surroundings they fall prey to a terrible retribution. Manju drowns herself in the river, giving up on life -- and her baby Jaya:
By this time Manju's behaviour had become very erratic: Dolly and Rajkumar decided that she had to be taken home [to Lankasuka, Calcutta]. They elected to make one last effort to reach India.
An ox cart took them to the river - Manju, Dolly, Rajkumar and the baby. They found a boat that took them upriver, through Meiktila, past Mandalay to the tiny town of Mawlaik, on the Chindwin river. They were confronted by a stupefying spectacle: some thirty thousand refugees were squatting along the river- bank, waiting to move on towards the densely forested mountain-ranges that lay ahead. (page 468)
Arjun of the 1/1 Jats regiment, despite his rhetoric of being a British army officer -- one of the first Indian's to do so, and his dalliance with Alison -- has no real place in the scheme of things in the novel. He seems to be there to spout the metaphysical dilemmas of war and suffering. His killing of his batman Kishan Singh on flimsy grounds of honour is deeply disturbing. As is the description of the decapitation of the senile Saya John by the Japanese occupation forces as they retreat from Morningside House, Malaya. Alison's valiant fightback and suicide to avoid attack leaves one like Manju earlier railing at the forces of destiny. So much promise, and her life with Dinu, lie wasted.
Finally it is Dinu who sets up his photographer's studio and calls it the Glass Palace, who lives at the end to complete the circle of life to Jaya. Like Arjun of the Mahabharata who is always questioning the necessity and purpose of war, Jaya is the only one who seems to be victorious with the war behind her and a new life ahead. The closing pages give us a preview of the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Ki addressing a gathering in 1996 after being under house arrest for 6 years. This fast forward to the late 20th century jerks the reader into the present somewhat reluctantly. The Glass Palace at Mandalay, Burma 500 pages earlier metamorphoses into a site of lenses in Dinu's studio in Rangoon -- not very much further -- to filter the past.
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