Amitav Ghosh occupies a rather curious place in the landscape of contemporary English-language authors from the Indian subcontinent. At fifty-five years of age, he can’t be classed with the younger crop of writers who are snatching up Booker Prizes and Pulitzers. And unfortunately for Ghosh, his competition on the senior circuit is pretty stiff; despite Ghosh’s consistent production of polished and insightful work, the flashier Salman Rushdie seems to snatch up most public attention. Internationally, Ghosh has managed to establish himself in both critical and popular circles; his latest novel, The Glass Palace, has garnered literary prizes and (perhaps oddly) is a best-seller in Germany. Still, one feels he hasn’t quite made his mark in the U.S., his adopted country.
Certainly his subject matter is not always in line with contemporary American interests. The Glass Palace never leaves southern Asia, as Ghosh shuttles characters between India, Burma (now Myanmnar) and Malaysia. Ghosh further distances modern audiences by setting his work in what, to most, is an unfamiliar past; an anthropologist and historian by training, he takes us through one-hundred and eleven tumultuous years beginning in 1885.The narrative wraps around historical events: first Britain’s invasion of Burma, then Japan’s victory over Russia and the start of Europe’s decline, the first World War, the national independence movement of the 1920’s and 30’s, and the dramatic changes wrought by World War II. Ghosh caps the novel loosely by revisiting Myanmar in in 1996, the region currently in turmoil. In his style of historical fiction, heavily researched and richly atmospheric, Ghosh owes most to Nobel Laureate Sir V.S. Naipaul.
Despite its remove from modern America, The Glass Palace contributes something essential to the current debate about Indian cultural identity in the face of Western hegemony; it is a contribution which could not be made nearly as well by a twenty-something author. Ghosh lends his experience and insight to an examination of the nature of colonialism and the struggles that were inherent in winning independence. In doing so, he informs our understanding of the process of assimilation, so much debated today. Jhumpa Lahiri is acclaimed representing the complications of Indians and Indian cultural identity far from home; Ghosh, however, looks at a much more complex situation, that of a native people as they struggle to come to terms with the culture imposed by an invading government. Unlike the situation in Australia or the American colonies, in Asia the indigenous people remained a majority throughout occupation, and integration with the occupiers resulted in remarkable tensions. The thorny nature of the issue is exemplified by the attitude of Arjun, a Calcutta-born officer in the British Army who has dedicated his professional life to the service of the Raj. When Arjun speaks of himself and his military buddies as the “First True Indians” yet in the same breath describes their inclinations towards Western food and customs, one sees at once the conflict between the desire to adopt a new, supposedly progressive way of life and the need to understand oneself in terms of ones own traditions.
Ghosh places his discourse in the context of a family saga, spanning three generations and embracing more than a dozen characters. The spearhead of the action is Rajkumar, who, at the novel’s onset, is an impoverished eleven year-old orphan living in the streets of Mandalay, Burma’s capital city. Raised under the patronage of a Chinese businessman and never hesitant to help himself, Rajkumar grows into a wealthy man, eventually becoming patriarch of the sprawling brood who take up Ghosh’s narrative. Although Rajkumar is a compelling and central character, he is not the most interesting in the novel. He is too dismissive of politics to carry much weight. He is flippant about issues of culture and independence, and even as a boy he observes that the Indian soldiers who fight for the Queen are “‘just tools. Without minds of their own. They count for nothing.'”
This ambivalence brings him into conflict with the most political character in the novel, Uma. A widow-turned-independence fighter, Uma’s efforts to understand her own status and bright others to a similar understanding stand out as accomplishments in the book. It is Uma who confronts the issue of England’s contribution to India, as a ruler. When it is suggested that England has introduced reforms, courts, railways, and effectively modernized India, Uma points out that these benefits are all secondary to England’s major intention, which is to exploit India for commercial gain. Uma, and Ghosh along with her, argues from an abstracted point of view, placing priority on the theory behind government. If anything, the brutality of the foreign regime is downplayed in the novel, though it could easily be highlighted as an argument against colonialism. Executing this argument requires discipline on Ghosh’s part. He refrains from barraging readers with political philosophy, and rather lets the objects which trope through his novel – cars, photographs, umbrellas – slide into an argument against the sacrificing of freedom and culture. The two become linked, and so culture is freedom, and customs are defiance. Here are Gandhi’s teachings put forth cleanly and concisely.
If Ghosh’s grand success in this novel is pre-dating, and thus reconfiguring, the current debate about cultural identity, his shortcoming is in the halting execution of an elaborate plot. At times the novel takes on the feel of an overblown kiddie-coaster; what should be exhilarating twists in the plot feel contrived and terribly predictable.
The expansion of Rajkumar’s family proves particularly troubling. Much of the middle of the novel sees our patriarch-to-be building a network of friends whose progeny his own children can eventually fall in love with in highly unlikely fashion. The Glass Palace suffers through its love stories, offering visions of romance which are far too much like those found in romance novels; a scruffy-but-resourceful orphan woos “the most beautiful girl in the world;” the most beautiful girl in the world engages in a torrid affair with the coachman of the mansion where she works. The love lives of the second-generation Rajkumars suffer particularly from this sensation of staleness, and also from an arbitrary quality which makes Ghosh seem at once thoughtless and overly scheming. His character’s choices of loves don’t seem to follow from real emotion; rather, they are made entirely in the name of plot expediency. Two thirds of the way through the novel, everyone is married to one another and the various families are united. Even when the smoothness of this story arc is thoroughly disrupted by the harrowing events of the latter portion of the novel, Ghosh’s use of World War II to obliterate his carefully assembled relationships seems just as arbitrary and convenient as his match making. On the whole, the dips and rise are less impressive than one might imagine.
In reading The Glass Palace, one feels privileged to see the politics of empire-building treated in such a sensitive and lyrical way. Ghosh does a wonderful job of tying his characters to moments in history. Where he struggles is in tying his characters to one-another. As readers we have to make a conscious effort not to let our doubts about Ghosh’s plotting impinge on his authority as a chronicler of history. If we allow him this, we can emerge much richer from having read his work.