“The Glass Palace” is, for me, a beautiful title for a novel. I love the image it creates of fragility, beauty, brilliance, and utter vulnerability. For years I have reached for Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, and until a few days ago, the sweep of the history it promised daunted me. I know how meticulous and learned Ghosh is as a historian, a landscapist, and a documentalist from reading his Sea of Poppies, Hungry Tides, and In an Antique Land. Much of the action in The Glass Palace is set in Burma, a land about which I know very, very little. I wondered if I could enter Ghosh’s immense erudition, encumbered as I am by my bottomless ignorance.
Well, what do you know? Ghosh’s protagonist –who is only 11 years old, alone, a stranger in Mandalay—took me through the tragic history of Burma’s last monarch, King Thebaw, and gave me a visceral sense of that precarious moment when beauty is about to be destroyed and stillness is about to be shattered. The hostile roads, the terrified crowds, the hitherto unattainable palace interiors, the crunch of British boots on crystalline gems, and the impending ruin of the golden land imprinted themselves in unforgettable images in my mind, thanks to Rajkumar, the urchin through whose eyes I saw it all.
Ghosh’s novel is at its best when it draws character portraits, speaks of love, loss, and pain, and puts you in places where you can touch the tendrils on vines and smell the sap on a tree. The man’s genius for evoking atmosphere is only a part of his gift. His extensive historical documentation underpins the story he tells, letting you experience through the lives of fictional characters the impact of events that changed an entire culture.
When I was reading the middle parts of the novel, I felt that my total engagement with its narrative flow and its plot was loosening. As Ghosh got more and more involved in describing social changes through technological curiosities and novelties, I got less and less interested in learning about the cars, the cameras, and the aircrafts that he documented with (for me) needless detail. It felt almost like he might have wanted to insert photos of those mechanical marvels, whose timelines conveyed what I thought was at best a tangential story.
The last sections of the novel galloped through times, places, and destinies. In one particular instance, Ghosh definitely wielded a pen that was clearly mightier than any sword. He quickly killed off characters, who were suddenly unessential to the storyline. In spite of that, this last section was profoundly affecting and I thought that is the mark of an accomplished story-teller, who can hold you in thrall even if he is madly upping the pace.
Reading this novel is highly rewarding, but I found it to be uneven in its literary quality after the first half. But so what? “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius is supposed to have said.
The Glass Palace shines and glitters, inviting in its allure. I have refrained from outlining the plot because the publisher’s blurbs do that very well. It offers riches to keep you riveted. There’s romance, there’s tragedy, there’s adventure, and there’s a whole world that can absorb you for days of binge-reading. For me, a book like that is always a sure bet.