Two centuries, three generations, three countries. An exiled King, his only companion in the quarters of Ratnagiri, a pair of binoculars. His queen, trying to keep up with new traditions of India, her maid, who treats them as her only world, where she lives and will perish. An orphan in Mandalay, who falls in love with the exiled queen’s maid. Men fighting a war for a country which they never knew, exiled villagers looking for a new place to set up their life after World War tattered it.
It’s not a book, it is a memoir which is a fine balance of mystery, fiction and something old borrowed from the days when Burma was looking for independence and India was trying to get away from the grasp of British Raj.
The story of The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh starts with Rajkumar, an 11-year-old boy who lives in Mandalay doing odd jobs. In the year 1885, when he first hears British cannons firing their wrath at The Glass Palace, where King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat reside, he becomes one of the many who witness their exile. He sees their last journey from Mandalay, accompanied by a handful of maids. But one of the maids will be his queen someday, that he swears when he lays eyes on Dolly. After years of hardships and finally success, Rajkumar travels to Ratnagiri to makes his long lost dream come true. He visits the exiled King and Queen and ends up marrying Dolly. The companionship sets a chain of events that range over three generations and three countries. A saga that is so deep that each character will take you back to the time when survival was important, fighting spirit was at its peak and hardships was a part and parcel of any regular person life.
Overall, the book turned out to be outstanding for us. Though it’s pretty lengthy, 552 pages which took us about 1 week to finish. And then we had a book hangover for about 2-3 days before we could start with a new book. The effect of the story is magical and you feel like travelling through it again, just to relive the moments among the characters, visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, take the last walk with King and Queen of Burma in Mandalay, walk through the rubber plantations. Cry with Dolly at the loss of her son Neel, sit with Arjun and wonder what is important; his fight with the British forces towards enemy or fight against Britishers for the independence of India? Dinu’s pictures that tell the tale of real Burma, Uma’s metamorphosis from a fragile Collector’s wife into a freedom fighter.
One of the best part about The Glass Palace is the extensive research that Ghosh has done. It took him about 5 years to finish the book. From the British occupancy of Burma to Aung San Suu Kyi giving a press conference at the quarters where she was confined, he has mentioned each and every important event that happened during those two centuries including the brief history of Indian National Army (INA) and the biblical exodus of refugees that fled from Burma. The background has been perfectly balanced out with an equally powerful imagination of fiction. Truly, it’s an amazing read. Any deletion of an event to reduce the size would have hampered the story and in turn, turned the book into a very different direction.
One of the things that we recommend before reading The Glass Palace is to be patient and don’t run away just by looking at the size of the book. Devour into this mesmerising tale and you will realise you have come across a masterpiece.