The Glass Palace- A book review of no consequence


It has been a long while since I wrote a book review. Exactly two years to be precise. The reasons for not being consistent with reviewing the books I read don’t matter, the reason for writing a review after 2 years of drowning in books matter.

This book is phenomenal, period. I have never read Amitav Ghosh before, and I feel I lost out in a lifetime of reading by having never been introduced to him before. Just last week when I was traveling alone in the coffee labyrinths of Coorg, I found a battered first edition copy of one of Amitav Ghosh’s  earlier novels, “The Shadow Lines”. I devoured it without thinking, even though I was only halfway through “The Glass Palace”. Reading two of Amitav’s books from different periods of his writing life simultaneously provided an insight into the writer’s journey in style and research.

“The Shadow Lines” feels like an experimental work in memories, often vague in characters and elusive in its structure of plot. I liked it, but was not very involved in it. But “The Glass Palace” feels like a world apart from this earlier book. It is steeped in research, complex in plot yet simple in emotions.

“The Glass Palace” is a historical fiction revolving around the British colonial regime in Burma, and the entangled lives of the characters who find themselves torn between Burma, Malaya, and India. It starts with the exile of the Burmese king Thebaw and his fierce queen Supayalat from their glass palace in Mandalay to coastal Ratnagiri in West India. It then traces the fortune and legacy of Rajkumar, an Indian urchin, paralleled with the changes in Burma under the British. There is Uma, the english collector’s wife and her entwined life with Dolly, the orphaned servant who stays behind with the royal household into their exile. The book then deftly travels through two generations to end up with Jaya, Rajkumar and Dolly’s grand daughter, who tries to trace her family lineage to find an important missing link in the family tree.

All throughout the book, you stop at certain paragraphs to marvel at the tenacity of the writer who must have dedicated a significant part of himself to research. Researching the history of war, the lands, the trees, the plantations, the fauna, and the feeling of having inhabited that particular turmoiled period of history. There is the story of Arjun, a British Indian army officer and his transformation from a loyal mercenary to a rebel in Indian National army. What’s on offer is a fictionalised glimpse of life as an army officer, torn between your master and your nation, and the human mind.

I am not equipped with words or the faculty to review a book’s merit. All I can write about is the feeling and intellectual stimulation that a book offers in my mundane life. And this book has offered me the itch to write about a book again. I will read Amitav Ghosh’s ambitious trilogy on the opium wars, ‘The Ibis Trilogy’ next. And I know I will be rewarded.

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