On the Fringe of History: “The Glass Palace” by Amitav Ghosh
Tracing history along the footprints of illustrious personages is as easy as writing ‘O’, but to delve deep into it peeping through the lives of the humble commoners has to be a walk through labyrinth. Working with cross purposes, all the time answering the questions of existence, and with no big past to protect nor a clear future to leap, these common folk have always received raw deals in the hands of historians. But where history flounders, fiction takes over. Here conviction matters, a credo that takes one to the realm of sweat and tears of the common folk, the makers of history. Truly, great fiction owes its origin to such a conviction. Or else, how can one narrate the devastating aftereffects of an air raid so movingly without recounting the tribulations of homeless commoners? How does one fathom the distress in the flight of refugees without showing the picture of a ravenous baby suckling the dry breast of its mother or a woman trying to barter the silk sari off her body just for a handful of food? How does one pen the trauma of a nation in turbulence without touching the lives of the common sufferers?
Amitav Ghosh’s magnum opus “The Glass Palace” [ISBN: 978-81-7223-419-5; Harper Collins; 2007; Paperback, Price INR 295.00] is not an historical account, for the author says that in the concluding chapter of the book. To quote him, " 'The Glass Palace' is thus unqualifiedly a novel and I can state without reservation that except for the King Thebaw, Queen Supalayat and their daughters, none of its principal characters bear any resemblance to real people, living or deceased."
With an assertion so categorical, the matter should settle here. But it does not, for there are painstaking details to give the feeling that what is being told is a real story, a genuine historical account of people that would not have otherwise got their passport to history: you have a Dolly growing into her adulthood enduring with equanimity a life in exile while serving the deposed king and the royal family; you have a Rajkumar making the best of the opportunities provided by colonial Burma; you have a Uma, the collector’s wife, metamorphosing herself from a demure womanhood to a politically prominent persona; you have an Arjun overcoming his ingrained inferiority complex internalizing the flamboyant formalities of army hierarchies; you have a Saya John living through the uncertainties that come his way all through…. And all the while the narratives sustain the stories with details that only go to add to the beauty of the plot, with poignancy that heighten the appeal of the book.
The book is of epic proportion where characters pass through all their life stages in their respective ways leaving behind on their trails traces of their struggle, romance, hope, success, failures, and it goes on and on for three generations. Rajkumar brings with him a story of rags to riches, marries her sweetheart Dolly after a long wait, acquires family, and gives his progeny enough. But enough is not enough; the progeny cannot rewrite the story of success, at least not so spectacularly as the patriarch has done. They in their turn acquire families and their families give birth to another and, in a way, all of them play second fiddle. Similar is the case with Saya John, a loner who lives chasing a dream of contended life of familial boisterousness just to be tragically denied that at the end. Altogether the range is quite extensive, but through the steady turn of events and incisive exploration of the characters, the author has greatly saved the work from appearing flat.
What makes the opus immensely readable is the setting, the rhythmic progress of the storyline along the historical time-line. A great mass of information and historical details have been seamlessly integrated into the storyline. The king in Burma is deposed and exiled to India; the colonial rule brings prosperity in the country through timber trade and oil drilling; the tide takes a turn and the colonial British rule is challenged by the Japanese; the country suffers under the occupation of the new colonial power; the Japanese are driven out but the country falls into the hands of military junta; a movement for democracy raises its head and the military quells it with its iron hand; and so on. There is a measured treatment of both the elements—the background gets enough focus yet it never overshadows the journey of the characters from point to point along the march of events in the background.
Just a couple of quibbles. Amitav Ghosh seems to have over-researched for the sake of keeping his references accurate. For example, he has mentioned way too many models of automobiles to appear as if he is narrating the entries in a vintage rally. The question comes to the minds of the readers: are these details necessary? Be it as it may, they’re not all too off-putting though. Rather it is quite informative to the readers while he says things like teak has evolved from species of mint or Europeans taught people in the sub-continent to harness elephants for timber gathering or even the elephant trainers hailed from a lesser known place called Koraput. Whether he is saying about Anthrax menace in the forests of central
My special quibble is about the way Amitav ends his opus. He does not hesitate to dilute the height of poignancy he has created just by lightening the end with a geriatric love scene. I don’t think it is at all necessary; at least not when he has already said everything he has to.
A. N. Nanda
Labels: Book Review