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Biblio: July-August 2000, p. 4-6

--: FICTION :--

A palatial tome
The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh

Ravi Dayal & Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2000, 551 pp., Rs 425
ISBN 81-7530-0310

Reviewed by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

The existential angst of modernist fiction is replaced in the postcolonial novel by a phenomenon one might call 'exit-ential anxiety'. Diaspora here takes the place of doubt and homelessness becomes the principle trope, typifying a historical condition as well a state of mind. When Rushdie's narrator in The Ground Beneath her Feet dubs himself a 'photographer of exits' it is exactly this paradox to which he refers--of having to capture individuals and populations at the very moment that they are about move out of a frame.

Colonialism had movement built into its definition: troops on the march, drastic changes in administration, large-scale transfers of goods and reconfigurations of political boundaries. Any writer who seeks to present the soul of man under colonialism, as Amitav Ghosh does in his latest novel, is therefore condemned to record the existential dilemma--wherein the subject is necessarily partitioned, a bewildered immigrant never quite in focus nor contained within the frame.

* * *
It strikes me that many Ph.D. thesis are not half as diligently worked out as Ghosh's book, and the scholarship in them displayed to far less advantage than in The Glass Palace. The truth is that the contemporary novel--and Ghosh's talent--have both matured to a stage where they can absorb a very rich diet of historical detail without necessarily running the risk of a bilious reader
* * *

Ghosh's cast literally includes kings (Thebaw, Queen Supalayat, the Burmese princesses) and commoners (Dolly, Rajkumar, Saya John, Uma) but what unites them all is the inescapable narrative of colonial displacement. Buffeted about by the gale-winds of history, these protagonists are driven from Burma to India, Malaya, Singapore and back again, repeating each time a pattern of action that Ghosh presents in his first few pages:

"English soldiers were marching towards the city. Panic struck the market. People began to run and jostle. Rajkumar managed to push his way through the crowd... He could not see far: a cloud of dust hung over the road, drummed up by thousands of racing feet... Rajkumar was swept along in the direction of the river. As he ran, he became aware of a ripple in the ground beneath him, a kind of drumbeat in the earth, a rhythmic tremor that travelled up his spine through the soles of his feet. The people in front of him scattered and parted ...Suddenly he was in the front rank of the crowd, looking directly at two English soldiers mounted on horses."

If any single motif 'frames' the colonial picture, it is the presence of the "English soldiers" who bookend this particular passage. That these soldiers turn out more often that not to be Indian sepoys--and sometimes even Indian officers--compounds the confusing effect. Which are the invading forces, whose the commanding vision here?

As Ghosh tells us, "a cloud of dust" tends to hang over the colonial scenario. Whole cities are on the run and it is often impossible to "see far", given the panicky conditions. Under the circumstances, then, it is not surprising that Ghosh also uses, à la Rushdie, the metaphor of the camera to slow events down to a pace where it is actually possible to focus. The 'glass palace' of his title, it turns out, indicates both the magnificent hall of mirrors which forms the centre-piece of the Mandalay residence of Burmese kings and the name of a "small photo studio" where the book's action appropriately ends.

"'But you have an address for him, then?' Jaya said. 'Yes' Ilongo reached into his pocket and drew out a sheet of paper. 'He has a small-photo-studio. Does portraits, wedding-pictures, group photographs. That sort of thing. The address is for his studio: he lives right above it'. He held the paper out to her and she took it. The sheet was smudged and crumpled. She peered at it closely, deciphering the letter. The first words that met her eyes were: 'The Glass Palace Studio'."
Glass Palace at Vedams Books Glass Palace at Amazon.com

Fiction, at its best, provides us with 'addresses' for the lost actors in the historical chronicle. By dwelling on small details and bestowing on ordinary lives an attention that the historian's stricter annals cannot afford, a writer creates an interior history. Such an internalised record of emotions runs parallel to explicit factual accounts and fills them out. At this elusive juncture, so to speak, story meets history and makes it a little more comprehensible. A genre like the novel, especially, is suited to the task of bringing content back to those empty frames from which the colonial subject is always vanishing.

Like Ilongo, a novelist 'reaches into his pockets' and 'holds out' his 'smudged and crumpled sheet of paper' so that the reader can 'decipher' it in a manner that combines fact with affect, photographic accuracy with the uncertainties of memory. That is why I cannot think of a clutch of sentences which better describe Ghosh's own labours in this massive 547-page book than these: "He has a small-photo-studio. Does wedding-pictures, group photographs. That sort of thing." It would be quite accurate to say that wedding and group portraits form the bulk of the matter in The Glass Palace. Ghosh's technique is simply to borrow the war-journalist's tripod, lenses and so forth, and then swivel his viewfinder so that it alights on families living out heir lives in tumultuous times.

A noticeable feature of the family portraits in The Glass Palace is that they begin with the pivotal figure of Rajkumar, a young orphan of eleven. To my mind, Rajkumar's orphanhood implies that he has to create a family where none exists; he has to build lasting bonds of trust with strangers. Structurally, that is, the unfolding of this novel is associated with the enfolding of family and friends around the central character.

Were one foolhardy enough to attempt a 175-word summary of The Glass Palace--I couldn't manage it in less--it might go like this: Skilled in the art of survival in a difficult world, Rajkumar gradually succeeds in becoming, with the loyal help of his friends Doh Say, Saya John and others, a rich and respected member of the Indian community in Burma. Thereafter, he tracks down Dolly, devoted maid of Queen Supalayat, with whom he had fallen in love at first sight as a boy during the British takeover of Mandalay. Dolly now lives in the distant Indian city of Ratanagiri, where she has made a lifelong friend of Uma, the unruly wife of the Indian District Commissioner assigned to 'look after' King Thebaw and his family. Through Uma's good offices, Rajkumar finally gets to marry Dolly. All this happens by the end of Chapter Sixteen. The rest of the 48 chapters of The Glass Palace concern, during a period of history both harrowing and exciting, the interaction between three families: of Dolly and Rajkumar in Burma, of Uma and her brother in India and of Saya John--Rajkumar's mentor--and his son Matthew in Malaysia.

When we first meet Rajkumar he has a temporary job at Ma Cho's tea shop in Mandalay but just how temporary this position is depends on players much bigger than him: "The invasion proceeded so smoothly as to surprise even its planners. The imperial fleet crossed the border on 14 November, 1885... A few days later, without informing King Thebaw, the Burmese army surrendered. The war lasted just fourteen days." In Ghosh's novel, the repercussions of this 'fourteen day war' are tracked for over a century, for the book ends with a snapshot of Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996, the sixth year of her house arrest under the generals.

"Suddenly, there was a great uproar. 'There she is' Dinu said... A slim, fine-featured woman stepped up. Her head was just visible above the gate... She was wearing white flowers above her hair. She was beautiful almost beyond belief."

Now, 'beautiful' is an unexpected adjective in a modern novel; it has about it an air of anachronistic innocence. In a cynical world of makeovers and nose-jobs, it seems somehow to require unbearable courage to use this term unself-consciously, but Ghosh manages to do so without flinching. Dolly, too, is "of a loveliness beyond imagining." I cannot help but find it intriguing that the concept of 'beauty' occurs in conjunction with the phrases 'beyond belief' and 'beyond imagination' in Ghosh's text. What, I ask myself, is the symbolic value of this striking valorisation, almost Ivanhoe-ish, of feminine pulchritude in Ghosh's text? And again the answer has to do, I think, with tackling history within the boundaries of contemporary fiction.

Walter Scott's classic was based on a popular understanding of Europe's crusades and involved the most minimal investigation of original sources. Not so Ghosh's novel, which is very much in keeping with both the postcolonial spirit of today as well as his own anthropological training. The Glass Palace is a formidably researched presentation of one of the lesser known theatres of World War lI, yet no less horrific than Dunkirk or Stalingrad. As Ghosh puts it himself in his 'Author's Notes': "I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and revisiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; [and] I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand." It strikes me that many Ph.D. thesis are not half as diligently worked out as Ghosh's book, and the scholarship in them [++Page 5] displayed to far less advantage than in The Glass Palace.

The truth is that the contemporary novel--and Ghosh's talent--have both matured to a stage where they can absorb a rich diet of historical detail without necessarily running the risk of a bilious reader. However, some concession must be made to the free spirit of fiction even in a work as laden with the knowledge of history as Ghosh's. Sometimes authors achieve this through exuberant wordplay or fantasy--one need hardly mention Marquez or Rushdie's 'magic' approach to 'real' history. But Ghosh cannot be accused of stylistic excess or of pandering to a sheer love of language; he is one of the few authors I know who does not balk at using words like 'governance' in a novel!

Writers such as Ghosh have to seek some route other than the magic realist to the realms 'beyond belief' that every work of art subliminally demands. The Glass Palace deals with this literary compulsion, I suggest, by incorporating three 'ideal types' within its text, which counterbalance and redeem those brute facts of history that Ghosh is clearly committed to depicting in relentless detail. These are, very simply--the image of perfect but very human beauty in the figures of Dolly and Suu Kyi; the theme of new diasporic beginnings after great upheavals such as the one symbolised by the Burmese Royal family's resettlement in Ratnagiri in India or Saya John's son Matthew's creation of the wondrous 'Morningstar' plantation in faraway Malaysia; and finally, the enchantment of criss-crossing coincidences throughout the novel.

Beauty, coincidence and diasporic hope: the three redemptive graces in The Glass Palace. I have mentioned the first and last of these already, so it may now be time to move on to coincidence. The psychologist Carl Jung once called coincidence "the joker in nature's pack of cards" and one sees his point immediately. As he indicated, coincidences were "synchronous events" which broke the rules of causal determination and invited analysts to probe beyond the certainties of everyday reality. Extending these views of Jung's to Ghosh's novel, one could argue that coincidence represents what post-modernists would call an aporia or 'break' in the logic of narration.

Coincidence, in effect, allows for something like 'fate' or 'the hand of god' to slip into an otherwise down-to-earth historical exposition. Now The Glass Palace is not just a thoroughly researched novel, it is a carefully plotted one. This means that Ghosh goes out of his way to tie up loose ends. Stylistically, he is always measured, correct, objective--in the manner of the historian--but managerially he isn't altogether able to resist the temptation to play God--in mode of the novelist. By the time Ghosh reaches the middle of his novel, he has three generations and several families strewn across half the world and must meet the obligation to establish connections between them. He must get his 'group photographs'. Accordingly, Ghosh makes Neel, the elder son of Dolly and Rajkumar appear as if by magic in a Calcutta film-studio all the way from Burma at the exact moment when Manju. the daughter of Uma's brother, is caught in an embarrassing situation. Naturally, Neel rescues Manju and they fall conveniently in love. First coincidence: uniting the families of Dolly and Uma by marriage.

Another time, Manju's twin brother's army unit is stationed in the precise location in Malaysia that abuts the Morningside estate, thus encountering Saya John's niece Alison and Rajkumar's son Dinu in one unlikely stroke. Second coincidence: bringing one member from each of Ghosh's triad of families together. Still later, having painfully given up his allegiance to the British Army and having crossed over to the Indian National Army, the emaciated and almost broken Arjun finds himself face-to-face once again with Dinu, because Dinu just happens to have been asked to intercede with the INA "because of his Indian connections". It stretches one's credulity to believe that of all the exhausted soldiers of the INA, the one emerging from the jungle is Arjun and the one confronting him is his old rival in love and war, Dinu. But there you have it: coincidence, an unexpected regular in The Glass Palace. Coincidence, the irresistible old trickster of fiction, shamelessly asking for a willing suspension of disbelief from the reader--and getting it!

Only the most skilled of historical novelists can so endear his characters to his audience that they are prepared to 'forget history' from time to time and allow the internal dynamics of the text to dominate events. I made the point earlier that a writer's task is to memorialise psychological space, to correlate invisible inner events with outer experience. Ghosh's The Glass Palace rises to this challenge with zest and self-confidence. Despite the fact that the novel is unapologetically packed with one hundred years of dates and facts, Ghosh's triumph is that time seldom hangs heavy in the fictional space he has designed for it; and, on several occasions, the illusion of restoring an imaginative wholeness to the divided self of colonialism is very successfully maintained via an appeal to luminous concepts like beauty and hope.
Sketch of Amitav Ghosh
sketch of Amitav Ghosh.

In many ways, what is interesting about this millennial novel is how traditional it is in its teleology. Family sagas with a sweeping historical backdrop were always a failsafe item in the publishing world--from The Forsythe Saga to Gone with the Wind. The only radical change to have come about in the past decade or two is that 'the orient' is now increasingly represented not so much by a Paul Scott or a Pearl S. Buck as by best-selling writers like Jung Chang or Vikram Seth speaking in their 'own' voices. So where have all Scotts and Bucks gone, long time passing? My own hypothesis is that they comprise the new literary migrants who have moved to a principality adjoining the historical novel--namely, travel writing. Witness the regions now tenanted by Paul Theroux or William Dalrymple.

This is because travel-writing is logically the province of the 'outsider' and there is thus a certain legitimacy that a writer can claim when he traipses off to, say, Ladakh or Somalia and records his own (mis-)adventures there. In contrast, considerably less sympathy exists, in today's politically correct climate, for the fiction writer who 'appropriates' the perspective of the 'Third-worlder'. Concurrently, new areas of literary discourse like 'postcolonial studies' have ensured, for better or worse, that a certain modicum of world attention is directed towards formations such as the ubiquitous 'Indian Writers in English'.

And what has this to do with Ghosh? Well, my contention would be that a writer like Ghosh, who lives in 'the West' but writes about 'elsewhere' is almost forced today to occupy an inter-generic cusp: between travel writing, autobiography, informed journalism and fiction. Both Ghosh's In an Antique Land (part fiction; part sociological take on Egypt) and Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma (travelogue) illustrate this argument perfectly. So does his Countdown, on India's 'bomb' (informed journalism). Other Indian writers in English subject to the same urge and a similar geographical situation include both Vikram Seth (From Heaven Lake) and Salman Rushdie (The Jaguar Smile).

The postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak has argued in her provocatively named book Outside in the Teaching Machine that the significance of this East-West placement is, as of now, primarily strategic. In this position, an Indian writer in English mimics the partitioned subject of imperialism once more--both inside and outside the neo-colonial 'machine'--but this time round he holds textual power. He possesses the means to draw attention to the claims of civil society the world over. Ghosh's The Glass Palace furnishes us throughout with examples of such a 'contestatory' politics of the novel-as-colonial-autobiography/travelogue/fiction. Here's a conversational instance:

"One night, plucking up her courage, Uma remarked: 'One hears some awful things about Queen Supalayat'. 'What?' 'That she had a lot of people killed...in Mandalay'...Dolly was quiet for a moment and Uma began to worry that she had offended her. Then Dolly spoke up. 'You know, Uma,' she said in her softest voice. 'Every time I come to your house, I notice that picture you have hanging by your front door...' 'Of Queen Victoria, you mean?' 'Yes.' Uma was puzzled. 'What about it?' 'Don't you sometimes wonder how many people have been killed in Queen Victoria's name? It must be millions 1wouldn't you say? I think I'd be frightened to live with one of those pictures.' A few days later Uma put 'the picture down and sent it to the Cutchery, to be hung in the Collector's office."

Two queens, same difference, but Ghosh leaves us with no doubts about how the representational dice (pictures, literature) is loaded Uma's [++Page 6] gesture at the end of this passage is as much about political resistance as any tract about colonial hegemony, and I would count this a major strength. Spivak would probably say that Ghosh had used his 'strategic' placement to advantage here. Without being heavy-handed about the matter, he has demonstrated with elan how prejudicially the norms of 'civilized behaviour' apply under certain historical conditions. Dolly's much remarked upon 'beauty' is not just physical at this instant; it is a symbol of moral and intellectual insight. Indeed it is on account of textual moments like these that one is able to forgive Ghosh his occasional faux pas.

I will mention only one of these 'slips' here, both because I think it is telling and because Ghosh might want to correct it in the next edition of his book. The error--at least I think it is--marks a climactic moment during the wedding of Rajkumar and Dolly on page 169. "At the end of the civil ceremony, Uma and Rajkumar garlanded each other, smiling like children." Am I alone in thinking that it is exceedingly odd for Uma and Rajkumar to be the people garlanding each other at Dolly and Rajkumar's wedding, given the cultural significance of garlands (mala-badal) in the Indian context? But even more fascinating is the Freudian glimpse this slip provides into how the authorial mind anticipates itself, given the surprise ending of Ghosh's book, when the old war-dogs Uma and Rajkumar...ah well, one must read this slightly bizarre Ghosh finale for oneself. I did say The Glass Palace was a well-plotted novel, perhaps a little too well, in this case!

"Hell is other people", declared Jean Paul Satre, and there are those who suspect that his targets in this grimly existential remark were mainly literary critics and other philosophers. So perhaps it is time for me to exit, before I produce a nitpicking review nearly as lengthy as my object of enquiry, and considerably more tedious! Yet it remains to be said that, for the exit-ential writer of immigrant literature, hell is differently defined.

Post-coloniality's hell usually consists in the absence of others--those lives erased by wars or missed out in the 'grand narratives' of history. Therefore, one may presume that even a critic's tendencious as well as tedious!--remarks are welcomed by a postcolonial writer since they show that his discourse has visibly grown, commanding more print space, psychic space, political space. Ghosh is a wordy writer, seldom a scintillating one; his novelistic pace is set at a sedate amble rather than an exciting sprint. His new novel is, likewise, important not because it opens new stylistic or thematic doors, but because it reopens old ones so effectively. Burma at the present time is near inaccessible territory; but The Glass Palace holds up before a global community of readers a historically authentic 'golden' Burma as it was-- and could be again. That is its virtue--elephants, teak, pagodas and all. One may not quite want to go shikoing backwards out of Ghosh's literary presence as the Burmese were required to do with royalty, but one is definitely inclined to accord him a subaltern salute for the stately achievement of this novel. Always against the tide.

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