What happens in at Uma's dinner party in The Glass Palace?
Uma is married to Collector Dey of Ratnagiri. She holds a dinner party at their home in order to welcome Rajkumar Raha as the Collector's personal guest. However, Rajkumar is the Collector's personal guest only because he cannot visit the Burmese royals (the real reason for Rajkumar's journey to India) on official terms; his visit is therefore classified as personal so as not to antagonize the British government.
For the dinner party, the Collector has entrusted all of the details to Uma. At a loss as to what to order for dinner, Uma decides to use the same menu that was served when the Director of Public Education had come to dinner the week before. The guests for dinner are Rajkumar, Mr. Wright (the Anglo Indian Superintendent of Police), Mr. and Mrs. Naidu, and Dolly.
Rajkumar is stunned to see Dolly at Uma's dinner party; he had not expected to see her there and had hoped to be better prepared for the torrential onslaught of emotion that would inevitably characterize any first meeting with Dolly. During the dinner, the Collector questions Rajkumar as to how he ended up in Burma. Rajkumar relates his personal story of being stranded in Mandalay while working on a boat. He tells the party of the British invasion of Burma.
During the dinner, Rajkumar does something unusual. When he is uncertain as to which utensil to use for the fish course, he snaps his finger. His bearer or servant, U Ba Kyaw, steps up to hand him the right utensil. His actions show a self-confident man who is as accustomed to the privileges of wealth as he was to the struggles of his previously poverty-stricken life.
Rajkumar expounds upon his tale to his spell-bound audience. He tells of how he followed a swarm of people into the Royal Palace. There, he caught a glimpse of Queen Supalayat and Dolly, a child attendant to the princess. He describes Dolly as 'beautiful beyond belief, beyond comprehension,' a 'thing of glass, inside which you could see everything of which your imagination was capable.' In relating his experience, Rajkumar is transported back to the magic of the moment when he first laid eyes on his beloved Dolly. However, Dolly cuts him short with the cruel accusation of perversely enjoying pleasure at the suffering of others.
Uma is distressed and alarmed at Dolly's uncharacteristic pettiness. She tries to stir Rajkumar out of his distress by reaching out to tap him on the wrist. What she hopes would be a surreptitious gesture leads to the inadvertent dropping of her dinner fork to the floor. The Collector makes what he thinks is a witty comment, but Uma is humiliated by what she considers his patronizing humor. Irritated by her husband's condescension, she purposely flips her newly replaced fork into the air. Rajkumar expertly catches it in stride.
In the midst of this charged tension, Mohanbhai, the Royal family's bearer, brings a message from the queen. The Collector excuses himself to attend the Queen. Rajkumar eventually manages to corner Dolly. He wants to reassure her that he meant no disrespect when he spoke of her earlier. Dolly, however, doesn't wish to revisit the past. She contends that she doesn't remember anything of their encounter and that she was not the child he saw at the palace. Rajkumar tries to argue that he had returned a box someone had snatched from her and that she had specifically told him her name.
He stresses that he has come with no expectations of who Dolly is at this point in time; he has merely come because he is free to form his own attachments, having none of his own. He has basically come to explore the possibilities of a relationship with Dolly. However, Dolly is too worked up about the possible coming announcement of the Princess' pregnancy and the prospect of being blamed for it after the Princesses' inevitable departure from Outram House. She is also a little self-conscious and intimidated at Rajkumar's obvious wealth.
Dolly is fiercely protective of her own place within the Burmese Royal Family; it is all she has known for twenty years. She is also apprehensive about exploring any possible future relationship with Rajkumar due to unknown factors she has no control of. She bids him farewell and states that she doesn't believe they will ever meet again.
Uma's dinner party underscores two important factors. First, Rajkumar meets Dolly again after twenty years. Their relationship becomes a story within a story in Amitav Ghosh's novel. Both have to reconcile each other's memories of the other from long ago and attempt to navigate a future relationship based on present circumstances and conclusions rather than reconstructions of the past. Dolly has to move beyond her fears before she can communicate effectively with Rajkumar about her needs. Although she is quite clearly contemptuous of what she terms the Indian obsession with 'castes and... arranged marriages,' she is just as suspicious of possibilities beyond the cloistered world she has always known.
Second, the Collector's condescension towards Uma during the dinner party (and her reaction to his characteristically civilized pomposity) highlights Uma's dissatisfaction with all that the life of a memsahib offers. This discontentment foreshadows Uma's later transformation into a political activist after the death of her husband.