To understand Rajkumar’s significance in The Glass Palace, it is important to look not only at his own character arc, but also those of the people who surround him. Ghosh’s novel is at its core a postcolonial narrative which seeks to examine how ordinary Burmese and Indian people confronted European (in this particular case, British) imperialism, their subsequent departure from traditional ways of life, and the colonial world order that they were thrust into. Throughout the novel, Rajkumar maintains extensive contact with different peoples, all of whom respond to this radical change of events in their own way. Through their decisions and experiences, one can better understand to what extent Rajkumar successfully contends with his new status as a colonial.
Rajkumar’s wife, Dolly, represents a colonized person who cannot ever fully let go of their past. Mostly a homebody, Dolly dreams of the day when she can find her son and live out her days in peace in Sagaing, a village that is close to her childhood. In her farewell letter to Rajkumar in chapter 40, she comments,
Rajkumar—in my heart I know that Dinu is still alive and that I shall find him. After that I shall go to Sagaing as I have so long wanted to do.
Dolly thus is presented as a melancholic and passive character, more a victim of her circumstances than anything else.
Uma Dey, a collector for the queen whom Dolly quickly befriends, also has close interactions with Rajkumar. After spending over twenty years in the United States, Uma becomes fiercely committed to the cause of Indian independence, joins several underground independence movements, supports the Burmese rebels in their fight against British Imperial troops, and attempts to bring knowledge of the Burmese rebellion to the general public. In one scene of the book, after reading in a local newspaper about the decapitation of sixteen Burmese rebels and the display of their heads at the British military headquarters, Uma becomes furious and tears the page out from the newspaper. Like Dolly, Uma cannot come to terms with British colonization of Burma. However, her response is much more violent, and she engages much more actively in political agitation in order to bring about change.
Rajkumar’s son, Neel, represents character traits quite the opposite of Uma’s in that he willingly joins the British colonial soldiers corps. Early on, Neel believes fighting with the British for the preservation of Burmese colonial integrity, and thus the safety and well-being of Britain’s Burmese subjects, to be one of the highest honors he can aspire to. Neel in this way actually supports the British colonial efforts in Burma, although Ghosh portrays him as quite naïve in his motivations. Later in the novel, Neel becomes convinced that as a soldier he is actually looked upon by his British brothers-in-arms as nothing more than a low-cultured animal to be used up and thrown away when his utility dries up.
In response to the question, Rajkumar is in some ways a reflection of all of these qualities. In many ways he lives in two worlds, with one hand in the burgeoning colonial economy and the other in traditional Burmese family life. Ghosh portrays Rajkumar above all as a pragmatist. Having learned the intricacies of the teak wood economy from his mentor, Saya John, Rajkumar is able to open his own teak wood business in Burma and make a fortune—enough to fully support himself, Dolly, and his two sons, Dinu and Neel. His relationships with his sons also reflect this pragmatism. Somewhat disdainful of Dinu’s perceived effeminacy, Rajkumar much prefers Neel, who is strong, confident, masculine, and well-suited to a life of independence and labor. In no way does Rajkumar have any misgivings about Neel’s decision to become a soldier, further representing Rajkumar’s willingness to buy into the colonial system.
However, Rajkumar’s relationship with his wife shows another side of his character. Having had affection for Dolly since his youth, Rajkumar cares for her as he would for a gentle bird. Even though their relationship grows more distant throughout the events of the novel, Rajkumar’s commitment to his wife is representative of a more traditional, family-centric way of life that defined his childhood and the values he learned directly from pre-colonial Burmese culture.
Ultimately, Ghosh wishes to show the reader the abject inequality of peoples living under colonial rule. Rajkumar, a man of business and practical thinking, did make a good life for himself under British rule. However, his good life was only permitted existence because of its contribution to British colonial efforts, not because of any philanthropy of the British colonizers, nor even because Rajkumar’s own industriousness and hard work were rewarded in the long run. After the Japanese bomb Rajkumar’s lumber yard during the Second World War, he loses everything, is forced into the life of a refugee, and lives out his days as an exile with Uma, a woman who years prior he had grown resentful of due to her political radicalism. Just as Rajkumar had been propelled to massive success as a result of colonization, that same colonial system, which precipitated the mid-century wars, took it all away from him in a single moment. Therefore, in my view, Rajkumar’s primary importance in The Glass Palace is that he serves as the ultimate symbol of colonial exploitation and the fickleness of a colonized person’s identity. Ghosh’s novel is a testament to the fact that, no matter what decisions the colonized make as a response to colonial disruption of their former ways of life, they are ultimately at the mercy of those very same colonial powers, whose decisions are as capricious as their consequences on their subjects’ lives.