In The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh’s attitude toward history can be traced through the individuals who experienced it. Although Ghosh’s expansive narrative deals with the effects of Western colonialism, Ghosh’s epic arguably moves history away from general power dynamics, like England versus India, and makes it about the people who had to endure and make sense of the applicable historic events.
Chapter 1 starts with Rajkumar noting the sound of the “English cannon.” It’s near the end of the 1800s, and the British are invading Burma. By filtering this historical event through Rajkumar, Ghosh avoids a depersonalized history. Instead, history happens to someone specific with a particular story. History unfolds through Rajkumar’s success as a timber merchant and the family that he starts with Dolly.
Ghosh’s human-centric attitude toward history gives history a certain level of complexity. For example, Rajkumar’s success is certainly due to his own efforts, but it’s also because of the economic development brought about by colonization.
The individual-focused attitude toward history is further evinced in Arjun, who’s fighting in World War II as a member of the British Indian Army. Hardy, another member of the army, asks Arjun if he’d be interested in abandoning the British, joining forces with the Japanese, fighting the British with the Japanese, and freeing India. Arjun is doubtful about this scheme. “And what would be the point of exchanging the Britishers for the Japanese?” he asks. “As colonial masters go, the British aren’t that bad.”
Once again, Ghosh seems to demonstrate how tricky history can be when it’s viewed through individuals who have to live it. Ghosh’s attitude suggests that history is best understood not via generalized tropes or ideologies but by tracing the fortunes of distinct people.