If you like a book that bowls you over with a plot or one that excites you with a witty protagonist walking across the pages, then Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, cannot satiate your appetite. However, if you wish to see a snippet of a life, quite like any other life, but yet novel in its conception; if you wish to read a story that explores a tapestry of generations closely woven together, then grab your pillow and read – for this book is meant to be yours.
Exploring a civilization little understood and mostly lost between the folds of time and history, Amitav Ghosh tells a lucid story of Burma and its evolution. Unlike any history book, he explores not only the physical transformation, but a cultural one through the eyes of various vibrant characters. Dolly and Rajkumar, two people as different as the sun and day find themselves entwined together through his narrative. Dolly, a maid at the palace for Burma’s King and Queen, travels to India after the fall of the empire and only breaks free of the shackles of her servanthood when Rajkumar arrives to wed her. Rajkumar travels through jobs and lifestyles as Burma travels from monarchy to the British Raj and then the glimmering hope fo a new world of freedom. Commoditization of the world, the first hint at the era of capitalism yet to dawn, begins to emerge in the lifestyle on the timber and rubber plantations that Rajkumar and his associates run.
Amitav Ghosh propels you head first into an illusion which seems so real and is so simple that it can be little other than life. With a powerfully sober narrative, he takes you back in time and makes you grow old – as you develop the wrinkles and your bones begin to creak, you joyously value each of that little facial filigree for it means you’ve learnt something more. You can feel the flavours of time and the solidarity of the seamless pages between your fingers as you explore further into the lives of evolving protagonists and even that of their predecessors and ancestors. It strengthens ties and elaborates on the differences between Indian and Burmese culture as it talks about the widening gap between people who were previously only separately by a physical border. Rajkumar, Dolly, their friend Uma and their neices and grandchildren crisscross across the borders, borrowing something from each region.
Each character is beautifully rounded, distinct in personality and peculiar like very human being is. Through their faces, he teaches you the importance of respect for the simple emotions that are often devalued in the face of the loud and gripping ones.
In your life you interact with a few hundred people. Some you meet in the bus and learn a peculiar habit from by just observing; some you live with and learn to love for everything you hate about them and then there are those you come and go and in between, change you forever. The characters of his book have done changed me in ways that I realize only now. The book continues to live inside me, affecting me subtly like all good books have. Perhaps, in this transformation lies the secret of his brilliance that makes you continue reading until you have exhausted every last word that he has penned.