Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace is an epic story that spans multiple generations and a huge portion of South Asia, particularly India and Burma, both major components of the British Empire. The novel’s main protagonist is 11-year-old Rajkumar, an Indian boy who fate delivers to Burma as the British begin their drive to seize that territory. As The Glass Palace progresses, the reader follows Rajkumar’s travels over the years, growing from boy to man and from destitute orphan to business tycoon, having profited off of the region’s teak industry. Ghosh’s novel is not intended merely to tell of Rajkumar’s life, nor that of Dolly or Ma Cho or any of the other characters whose lives intersect over the decades. Rather, it is intended as an indictment of European imperialism and, more to the point, of any form of domination by one group or individual over another. Ghosh is a humanist, more concerned with the value of the individual life than in the grand scheme of nations and alliances. The Glass Palace works as an epic tale because it incorporates historical events and trends, spans multiple generations over the course of a hundred years and takes place across that vast expanse of land that remains mired in factionalism and poverty long after the last British troops pulled out.
One of Ghosh’s most important points in his novel is the emphasis he places on the morally corrupting influence imperialism has on the occupier and the occupied alike. It was easy to condemn the British for the culturally devastating effects of its policies on those who succumbed to its domination. Less apparent was the implication for the Indian troops who served their British masters in the interests of western imperialism and at the expense of the myriad tribes that comprise modern-day Burma (or Myanmar). In one of the novel’s more compelling exchanges, Dolly, the servant to the now-displaced royal family and queen’s “lady in waiting,” discusses this phenomenon with Uma, the wife of the district administrator and tax collector for the region in which Dolly finds herself in exile. Citing a former Indian soldier who participated in Britain’s imperial advances, Uma tells Dolly:
“He said: 'You don't understand. We never thought that we were being used to conquer people. Not at all: we thought the opposite. We were told that we were freeing those people. That is what they said—that we were going to set those people free from their bad kings or their evil customs or some such thing. We believed it because they believed it too. It took us a long time to understand that in their eyes freedom exists wherever they rule.”
The Glass Palace is divided into seven parts, spanning the years from Britain’s 1885 invasion of Burma through the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia and up to the present. The Japanese invasion succeeded in removing one imperial power with another, considerably more brutal one. The destruction and suffering associated with Japan’s brutal occupation of Burma would mark a major transitional point for Ghosh’s novel. The novel’s final section, titled “The Glass Palace,” finds the story’s characters confronting the post-colonial challenges that prove every bit as morally and physically daunting as what came before. Again, Ghosh incorporates actual history into his story to provide his characters insights on the tragic events that continued to play out in Burma and in India. His characters age, marry, have children, and die. Ghosh the Humanist is primarily concerned with the effects of epic events on the individuals he invents.