Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Glass Palace - Amitav Ghosh

It’s a monumental work that starts with magnificence and proceeds to become mundane.

Well, that’s my one-line judgment for those of you who do not have the patience to go through a rather lengthy book review… I would still ask you to read it. Only one paragraph is dedicated to storyline. The rest are my thoughts.

It’s quite a story; appearing at one time to be the story of a dynasty, and then of an empire, of the royal family, of lovers, then of a nation, of several nations, of world war, of a family, of individuals and of generations… intriguing the readers as well as making them impatient.

Storyline in a paragraph - The royal family living in he Glass Palace at Mandalay in Burma is taken into custody by the British and removed from the palace, first to Madras in India and then to the Outram House in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra where they spend the rest of their lives. Rajkumar, an ordinary Indian boy working in Burma falls in love with Dolly, a domestic help of the queen. Years later, when he has become a successful businessman, he travels to India to find Dolly. He marries her and both return to Burma. Uma, wife of the district collector posted in Ratnagiri becomes a friend of Dolly. After her husband dies, Uma becomes involved in the freedom struggle and travels to Europe and America. The story moves on to the next generation where the children are occupied with various businesses across India, Burma and Malaya, even as Japan and England go to war. The lives of people are thrown into chaos and turmoil. The Indian soldiers fighting in various countries for the British are mere employees doing a job for money, without any love or patriotic feeling for England……the story moves to yet another generation. The last few chapters return to a changed Burma, where people live in perpetual fear and mistrust…in the midst of all the ruination bequeathed to them by the ravaging foreigner who came to their land for the love of teak…

The initial setting of this story – Burma, King’s palace, fort, - and the time - marked by the historical event of English invasion – make it very interesting and charming.
The story of Teak – its felling, its death, its revenge and finally its subjugation has been dramatised & romanticised – vividly described as if it were a story of people. How teak caused invasions, felled dynasties and brought a new way of life into being… is very fascinating.

I had read somewhere that Economy dictates everything in life. The example of teak made me see how.
People, culture, lifestyle and society – all of them bore upon themselves the strong signature of their profession of felling teaks.
Teak turned a people and a nation into all kinds of specialists that were needed to fell teak…Oo-sis, elephant riders, teak camp leaders, fasteners of chain to the logs, clearers of streams in the event of snagged logs across the stream....and, the training of elephants to thrust their weight upon a target with the amazing precision of an arrow striking a point.

It brought out such skills and such adaptability in men! It created a new species of people. Life got all its meaning from this profession.
Life still gets all its meaning from the professions that people follow. Isn't it? And when you change your profession, life acquires a new meaning.

The story in the beginning is unputdownable and full of promise.

Language is quite simple and generally nice.

Imagery is effortless but effective. You can actually see those teak forests, 2 ton logs being swept by waters, the red sores over the hind-parts of an anthrax infected elephant, the bay and the promontory at Ratnagiri, the river, the gorge, the Peepul tree at the lip of the gorge…and many other pictures.

Rajkumar’s character sketching is noteworthy in that he is an unusual protagonist. Not quite loveable but you want him to win.
As for other characters, the landscapes which they inhabit are solitary and so are the characters themselves. The teak forests, the rubber plantations, the Outram House overlooking the Arabian Sea...
Yes. Almost all characters are solitary and aloof. Dont understand why the author chose to sketch them all that way.

It’s a monumental work written after a lot of research.
Actually, the book is one of those rare cases where every ingredient is excellent - imagery, portrait of landscapes, facts and history, but the story itself is not well told… the story is there, definitely, but not well told. Like I said in the beginning, it starts with magnificence and gradually become mundane.

For various reasons...

It’s a story of generations - but as the story moves from one generation to another, there seems to be a digression.

At certain points, storytelling fails. How Rajkumar managed to get the contract, how he managed to find out what the other competitors had quoted, how he figured out where the king and queen lived and how he managed to meet them, this is not explained. One has to simply assume that the boy was a very clever and able fellow who could do all he wanted.

Character sketching in general is inadequate.
Somewhere the story becomes unreal, artificial - reader does not get any insight into the working of thoughts and emotions in the minds and hearts of the characters - Rajkumar and Dolly - how they came together, for instance.
The bonding between characters – how they related to each other, how they got along, how they felt, is not brought forth.
That’s when the story loses the charm it had in the beginning and a kind of banality creeps in: when the reader is presented with one event after another occurring in time without the author pausing sufficiently to explain how people responded to those events and happenings in their lives; without the author dwelling upon the hearts and minds of various people in the story.
It is as if the author, after completing the story decided to do away with many paragraphs to make the book less bulky. I wouldn’t have minded the bulkiness if the book could give me a full appreciation of the story.

The book is full of interesting, absorbing facts. While it is good, it has its pitfall. There is just about enough fiction to prevent it from being called a documentary.
Usually, in fiction, the story forms the main theme of the work and other aspects such as language, imagery, character sketching, history and facts serve as embellishments. In this work the story serves as an embellishment whereas facts and historical events form the main thread… well almost! I wouldn’t call it a book of fiction, but a book of facts. And fiction is there to provide flesh for facts.

The author is omniscient and wants to present all his knowledge in one single book. He has too much to say and he insists on saying all of it- history, geography, teak, Army, British, world war, rubber plantation, freedom struggle, royal palace of Burma, monarchy…
A little more focus on one or few threads through the story would have been better.
The book suffers from the problem of plenty. The story tires in the end.

The last few chapters however, serve to redeem the book. They look back in retrospection and the tragedy in the end comes more as a relief and a break from monotony, than as pain.

My final word. Read this book.

Use of language…(this is for me)

There were ripples of activity in the darkness, like the fluttering of moths in the recesses of a musty cupboard (a good simile). People crept slowly out of their dwellings that surrounded the citadel.

This is how power is eclipsed in a moment of vivid realism, between the waning of one dynasty of governance and its replacement by the next; in an instant when the world springs free of its mooring of dreams and reveals itself to be girdled in the pathways of survival and self preservation.

His face was weathered with hard use and his lips were heavy and richly colored, very red against his dark skin. Along the line of his jaw there was a fold of flesh that hinted at jowls to come. He was far from good looking, but there was something arresting about him, a massiveness of construction, allied with an unlikely mobility of expression - as though life had been breathed into a wall of slate –
(a good analogy)

It occurred to her that if she’d had children of her own, they would have been of the same age, they would all have been friends - the canvas of a lifetime’s connections would have acquired the patina of another generation.

He had a strange sense of having stepped into a picture that had been created with the express purpose of tricking the eye. At times, the tunnels of foliage around him seemed still and empty, but moments later they appeared to be alive with movement. With every step, figures and shapes seemed to appear and disappear, as rows of trees fell into and out of alignment. Every gracefully arched tree held the promise of cover, yet there was no point that did not intersect with a perfect line of fire. … the sound of footsteps echoing down the long straight corridors that stretched away from him in every direction.
It was impossible to distinguish form from shadow, movement from stillness - the real and the illusory seemed to have merged without seam…

Suddenly the baby’s face turned a bright, dark red and she began to cry at the top of her voice. At that moment, the world held no more beautiful sound than this utterance of rage: this primeval sound of life proclaiming its determination to defend itself…

There was a restful numbness in her body: she wanted nothing more than to sit there as long as she could, relishing the absence of sensation. But as always, her tormentors were bearing down on her…”get up, Manju, get up”. - perfect expression of feeling…something all of us identify with.. A feeling all of us have felt at one point in time or another…

His friends were out of earshot although he could see them
A timid, undemonstrative person
He tipped his basket into the refuse heap
He offered her a respectful genuflection
Intrusive display of concern
She looked thin, limp, wilted - a candlewick on whom grief burnt like a flame.

There was no simplicity in the boy’s face, no innocence: his eyes were filled with worldliness, curiosity and hunger.

Like all books where stories are set in a historical period, this one gives facts that are interesting and amusing

Such is the footwork of the skilled aunging elephant that it can balance its weight on the lip of a waterfall, perch like a crane upon a small mid-stream boulder, turn in a space that would trip a mule…
Railway sleepers were made of teak… those days
The world’s richest gem mines lay in Burma and many fine stones had passed into the possession of the ruling family.
Many 1000’s kept vigil through the night. The steamer’s name was Thooriya, the sun. At daybreak, when the skies lightened over the hills, it was gone.
King Mindon was perhaps the wisest, most prudent ruler ever to sit on the throne of Burma. Thebaw was his son
Rangoon was founded by Thebaw’s ancestor Alaungpaya.
Maids did their shikoes before the queen
‘Its just a sari’ the queen said, ‘but she’s wearing it in the new style.’ she explained that an Indian official had made up a new way of wearing a sari , with the odds and ends borrowed from European costume - a petticoat, a blouse. She’d heard that women all over India were adopting the new style.

Near Aden was a narrow channel flowing between two immense cliffs - this waterway which formed the link between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea was known in Arabic as the Bab-al-Mandab, ‘the gateway of Lamentation’. Could there possible a better chosen name?
Europeans on the ship were friendlier once they were past the Suez Canal. Mrs Dutt hadsaid that it was always like this: there was something about the air of the Mediterranean that seemed to turn even the most haughty colonialists into affable democrats.

A partner in the plantation, he had been responsible for ensuring a steady supply of workers, most of them from the Madras presidency, in southern India.

The assassination of the Grand Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo…. They did not, like the rest of the world, have an inkling that the killing in Sarajevo would spark a world war…
Nor did they know that rubber would be a vital strategic material in this conflict: that in Germany the discarding of articles made of rubber would become an offense punishable by law; that submarines would be sent overseas to smuggle rubber; that the commodity would come to be valued more then ever before, increasing their wealth beyond their most extravagant dreams.

They have a saying - “Every rubber tree in Malaya was paid for with an Indian life”
‘Brihannala’, a Bengali name (rare), proved obdurately resistant to everyday use.

Unlike his father, how was not a believer of colonialism, unlike his father. His antipathy to British rule was surpassed only by his loathing of European fascism and Japanese militarism.
Colonialism’s difficulty was freedom’s opportunity

The name of our village is Kotana, near Kurukshetra, not far from Delhi. it’s a simple village, but there’s one thing we always say of Kotana…In every house in Kotana, you will find a piece of the world. In one, there’s a hookah from Egypt, in another, a box from China…

1942.….One afternoon, her elderly gatekeeper came to tell her that there were some destitute outside, asking for her. This was only too common at the time; Bengal was in the throes of a famine, one of the worst in history. The city was full of starving migrants from the countryside, people were stripping the parks of grass and leaves, sifting through the sewers for grains of rice.

A saying “nowhere do they have such a gift for laughter as they do in Burma”, yet it was evident that the laughter here had a special edge, honed upon fears that were never quite absent. It was a greedy kind of merriment, as though everyone wanted to have their fill while they could.

Weston reflecting on Trotsky “New and revolutionary art forms may awaken a epople or disturb their complacency or challenge old ideals with constructive prophecies of change…

In Myanmar nothing is simple. Every household has a registered list of members. Nobody else can spend the night there without permission….

"What marks the difference between classical and modern writing…in classical writing, everything happens outside - on streets, in public squares and battlefields, in palaces and gardens - in places that everyone can imagine.
As a writer, nothing is more difficult for me than this - going into a house, intruding, violating..."


Rishi said...

Me coming after a long time. Super Review. Actually I am fond of Ghosh and have read most of his work. Though I am yet to buy the "Sea of Poppies". From your interests which I know from your blog you should be reading next "The Hungry Tide". Then I know you will be eager to go one place now that you have been to Ladakh and that will be Sundarbans totally different.


Sowmya said...

Hi Rishi,

Welcome after a long time...
Thanks for the nice words :) I read another book review on the net for the same book. It was interesting. It is always fascinating to know how others' experience of the same thing differ from yours...

I need to discover more parameters based on which to evaluate a book. Long way to go... :)

Rishi said...


I again say you must read Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh with your interest of Nature and Literature this will be the perfect mix. Also nature need not be always good looking to be beautiful.


Anonymous said...

Truly appreciate your interest and sincerity in assessing books. Can't you do it in a crisp way, instead of quoting 'volumes' from the book itself? What you said is correct. Discovering new parameters to evaluate a book may help you save time and turn your views a bit more reader friendly.

Sowmya said...

The quoting of volumes is only the last part - so that those who arent interested can leave it...

And, I cannot be crisp. My book reviews are recordings that I would like to go back to in future. They better be complete and comprehensive, since I do not plan to read any book twice.

Thanks for the critical feedback though.