The Glass Palace

by Amitav Ghosh
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 198

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh is a family saga and a work of historical fiction. It tells the story of an orphan boy from Indian named Rajkumar who creates an empire in Burma, the present-day Myanmar. It also tells the story of the Burmese royal family who is forced into exile in India when the British invade Burma’s capital in 1885.

With the royal family gone, the Glass Palace is empty, and people come from everywhere to loot its valuable treasures. In the midst of the chaos, Rajkumar sees one of the queen’s servants, a young girl named Dolly. Instantly, he is captivated by her, and he quickly falls in love with her. He promises to make a fortune and someday marry her. To that end, he builds a business trading teakwood and eventually owns a lumber mill. When he has enough money to search for Dolly, he finds her and marries her, and then he continues to amass wealth. When Japan invades the country during WWII, however, Rajkumar loses everything. Meanwhile, the Burmese Royal family has settled in a small fishing village near Bombay and struggle to adjust to their new life of limited means.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1955

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 people in his country.

Uma Dey and Dolly become close friends, and Uma is responsible for Rajkumar and Dolly eventually meeting again and getting married. Introduced as the perfect wife of a government official, Uma determines that she is unhappy. She returns to Calcutta upon her husband’s death, and resents performing the rituals expected of an Indian widow (wearing white, shaving her head, eating no meat or fish). She decides to visit Dolly and Rajkumar in Rangoon and from there departs to Europe and America.

Saya John buys land in Malaya for his son, Matthew, who has married an American. They return to Malaya and begin running a rubber plantation named Morningside. Uma returns in 1929 from her travels and spends time with her friends’ families in Malaya. She meets her friends’ children and learns that Rajkumar has an illegitimate son living at Morningside. She swears to keep this secret but relations between her and Rajkumar are strained.

Uma has become politically active during her time in America, and upon her return to Malaya she is recognized (to the surprise of her friends) as a leader in the Indian Independence League. She believes that India is heading for disaster, with 60 percent of the government budget going towards the military when the emphasis globally is on education and literacy. Of greater concern to her is that the Indian military supports British campaigns and the work of the British in subjugating people of other countries. A former officer who joined the Indian Independence League explains it to her: “We were told we were freeing those people. . . . It took us a long time to understand that in their eyes freedom exists wherever they rule.”

Initially Uma believes in a rebellion of the people, a glorious uprising against the oppressors. After she sees the horrifying repercussions of the Burmese Saya San rebellion in 1930, however, she sees “that a popular insurrection, inspired by legend and myth, stood no chance of prevailing against a force such as the Empire—so skillful and ruthless in its overwhelming power; so expert in the management of opinion.” Uma embraces the ideals of Gandhi and joins his movement of peaceful protest.

As a postcolonial writer, Ghosh presents political and social turmoil in Burma, India, and Mandalay from a variety of perspectives. It is at this point in his novel that fortunes begin to change, and characters are driven more by political circumstance and outside influence than previously. Uma’s nephew Arjun joins the Indian military, where he trains to become an officer. As the first group of Indian officers leading Indian soldiers in the British military, “They had to prove, to themselves as well as to their superiors, that they were eligible to be rulers, to qualify as members of an elite; that they had vision enough to rise above the ties of their soil, to overcome the responses instilled in them by their upbringing.” Once again, British training works toward separating Indians from their culture and belief systems, enticing them to “greater achievements” and success as measured by Imperial Britain. As the world gets caught up in World War II, members of the Indian military begin to question their role in following the British and many leave to join an Indian National Army.

Rajkumar’s business begins to fail, and the family must leave Rangoon in 1942 after bombs start falling. His son Neel dies, and Dolly, Rajkumar, their daughter-in-law Manju, and granddaughter Jaya flee to India. They live with Uma, and one day Dolly leaves to seek their other son, Dinu. Morningside is caught up in the war as well, and Japanese soldiers kill friends trapped in Malaya.

When Jaya grows up she seeks her uncle Dinu, as the family never heard from him after he left for Morningside during the war. After much searching, she learns that he lives in Yangon (Rangoon) in Myanmar (Burma). She learns of life in Myanmar following the coup of General Ne Win. The military gained power and created censorship laws based on those of the previous imperial government, and keep themselves and their people imprisoned by imperial beliefs. The novel ends with another image of golden Mandalay, replaced by a city living under harsh rules and regulations. Dinu takes Jaya to hear a political activist under house arrest. The activist speaks from her balcony, laughing and filled with energy, and Dinu tells Jaya that this woman succeeds in inspiring those who hear her because she chooses not to let politics run her life. “To me this is the most terrible indignity of our condition. . . . [that politics] has taken over everything . . . there is no escape from it . . . and yet what could be more trivial in the end?” Dinu says that this activist has exposed the government and the military, and “the truth is that they’ve lost and they know this. . . . this is what makes them so desperate. . . . that it is just a matter of time before they are made to answer for all that they have done.” A fitting ending to a story that examines the many ways in which people are driven and marked by politics and social change.

The term “glass palace,” introduced early in the novel, refers initially to a hall in the royal residence in Mandalay. Dolly describes the walls of mirrors and the ornaments of gold and crystal to Uma, and confesses that this hall is one of her most vivid memories of Burma. When Rajkumar travels to Ratnagiri to woo Dolly, he tells of first seeing her in the palace. “She was like the palace itself, a thing of glass, inside which you could see everything of which your imagination was capable.” Dolly becomes Rajkumar’s muse through their years of separation, inspiring him to a level of success unexpected for an orphan. Their son Dinu, most comfortable viewing the world through the lens of a camera, names his studio in Yangon the Glass Palace. He explains that this was a favorite phrase of his mother’s.

The Glass Palace was named the Eurasia regional winner for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was a finalist for the overall award for best book. The novel, submitted without Ghosh’s knowledge, was removed from consideration for the overall award at the request of the author. The letter withdrawing his book from the competition respectfully declined this recognition, citing the author’s previously stated objections regarding the term “Commonwealth Literature.”

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic Monthly 287 (February, 2001): 127.

Booklist 97 (February 15, 2001): 786.

The Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2001, p. 20.

Library Journal 126 (February 1, 2001): 125.

New International List 329 (November, 2000): 31.

The New York Review of Books 48 (March 8, 2001): 28.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 11, 2001): 7.

Publishers Weekly 247 (November 13, 2001): 82.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 14, 2000, p. 21.

The Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2001, p. W10.

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