This complex story weaves historical facts with a family saga spanning three generations, and examines the political and social issues of Burma, Malaya, and India during a tumultuous century.
The fourth novel by Amitav Ghosh opens on the eve of war in Mandalay, as the British prepare to capture the Burmese throne. An eleven-year-old Indian orphan named Rajkumar informs a crowd at a food stall that the booming sound they hear is a British cannon. The year is 1885, and a dispute between a British timber company and King Thebaw of Burma leads to battle. The Burmese army, defeated after only fourteen days by a force of ten thousand British and Indian soldiers, surrenders without informing the king.
Historically, the novel offers an intriguing glimpse into the minds of the royal family. King Thebaw, portrayed as a compassionate ruler though somewhat lacking as a military leader, owes much of his success to his wife, Queen Supayalat. It was the queen who arranged the execution of anyone in line for the throne, and after seventy-nine princes of various ages were killed, it appeared that the Konbuang dynasty would rule unchallenged, an assumption proved false by the British a mere seven years after Thebaw became king. The Glass Palace of the royal family ransacked, the humiliated King Thebaw and his family are escorted to a ship and ultimately sent to India.
During the looting of the royal palace, Rajkumar meets Dolly, one of the queen’s handmaidens. He sees her standing to the side as the queen tries unsuccessfully to save various royal treasures. Rajkumar presents Dolly with a jeweled box, learns her name, and falls in love. He watches Dolly leave with the royal family the next day, a loyal servant following them into exile. Twenty years will pass before he sees her again.
Rajkumar is no stranger to hardship. His Indian parents moved to Burma after a family quarrel and lived in the village of Akyab until a fever killed his father and siblings. His mother attempted to flee the sickness and left with Rajkumar on a sampan up the Irrawaddy River. She succumbed to the fever during their journey. Left alone, Rajkumar finds work at a food stall in the market of Mandalay. It is through Ma Cho, the woman for whom he works, that Rajkunar meets Saya John.
A contractor for the Burmese teak camps, John Martins (called Saya John) becomes a teacher and mentor to young Rajkumar. It is in the teak camps that Rajkumar learns to work with timber and through timber that he ultimately finds wealth and success. Although he speaks many languages, Rajkumar is almost illiterate—his accomplishments result from hard work and taking risks. As an orphan, he is driven to maintain contact with those people who matter to him; thus, Saya John becomes his business partner, and after he makes his fortune he seeks Dolly.
While Rajkumar is making his fortune, the Burmese royal family is slowly losing theirs. Exiled by the British, the royal family moves to India, first to Madras, then to Ratnagiri. They live in Outram House, a shabby bungalow inside a walled garden above the town. Mildewed walls, flaking plaster—it is a residence far removed from the glittering palace they left behind. It haunts the king that his reign ended the golden age of Burma. Throughout his exile he does not quite seem to grasp that the British will not let him return to Burma, that they will do everything in their power to make the world forget him. Because the queen has killed off any other potential claimants to the throne, if the British keep the king exiled, the opportunity for revolt is minimized.
The queen wears their poverty as a badge of honor; she is anxious for others to see how the British have treated them. “Yes, we who ruled the richest land in Asia are now reduced to this. . . . In our golden Burma, where no one ever went hungry and no one was too poor to write and read, all that will remain is destitution and ignorance, famine and despair.” She is not too far from the truth; Rajkumar had noted while beginning his work for Saya John, “Courtly Mandalay was now a bustling commercial hub; resources were being exploited with an energy and efficiency hitherto undreamt of.”
As one of the few remaining servants of the royal family, Dolly takes on greater responsibilities in Outram House. Through her service to the queen she meets Uma Dey, the wife of Collector Dey of Ratnagiri. The collector is an Indian holding a British post, and dealing with the Burmese queen he asks himself, “But what could they possibly know of love, of any of the finer sentiments, these bloodthirsty aristocrats, these semi-illiterates who had never read a book in all their lives, never looked with pleasure upon a painting?” He chooses not to see that this is the way in which many of the British view...
(The entire section is 1955 words.)