Excerpted from The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. . Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q&A with Amitav Ghosh
Q: How does the current political situation in Burma inform this novel? The novel concludes with a scene in front of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house in contemporary Burma. Why did you choose to end the novel there?
A: For me, the scene in front of Aung San Suu Kyi's house was both the beginning and the end of the book. The beginning, because I happened to attend one of Aung San Suu Kyi's gateside meetings almost immediately after I arrived in Rangoon, on my first visit to Burma. The meeting made a very powerful impression on me, and my memories of it remain intensely vivid to this day. The end, because it was in a way, the culmination of a long history that I was already familiar with, at second hand.
Q: Your characters seem to float between boundaries of both geography and class. Uma travels effortlessly through Asia, Europe and the U.S., while Rajkumar, who is born poor, winds up stunningly rich. Would this sort of fluidity have been possible? How fluid were these boundaries in turn of the century British Asia?
A: To take Uma first-- class was often the key to mobility in the British Empire. Uma was of the class of people who were able to travel relatively easily and her husband's death left her with the financial means to explore the world. In the late 19th century there were many Indian women who went abroad to study, in much the same way that Uma did (the first Indian woman doctor graduated from a British university in the 1880s). The experience of journeying abroad frequently served to radicalize Indians, men and women alike (this is true to this day). Among the Indian women radicals abroad, perhaps the best known is the Parsee nationalist, Mme Bhikaiji Cama (who becomes Uma's mentor in The Glass Palace). Uma's career, as described in The Glass Palace is thus founded on many well-known historical precedents. The same is true of Rajkumar. Rags to riches stories were very common among Indians in Burma. Many of the Indian business magnates of pre-war Rangoon had arrived in that city with little more than a tin suitcase and a few annas in their pockets. Indeed, Burma held a great attraction for ambitious young Indians (and Chinese) precisely because it offered more opportunities than the sub-continent with all its social rigidities.
Q: In The Glass Palace, the intimate family histories of the characters are inextricably linked to larger events in world history. Do you think events in world history usually have such profound effects on personal histories? How does your own personal family history inform this novel?
A: It is often war that creates a collision between history and individual lives. In circumstances of war, as in such situations as revolution, mass evacuations, forced population movements and so on, nobody has the choice of stepping away from history. The 20th century visited many such calamities on Asia and The Glass Palace attempts to chronicle the impact that these events had on families and individuals. My family's history has undoubtedly played a large part in opening my eyes to these events for my family was divided not only by the Partition of India and Pakistan, but also by the Japanese conquest of Burma in 1942.
Q: How does your background as an historian, journalist, and anthropologist inform your work? Is this entirely a work of fiction?
A: For me, the value of the novel, as a form, is that it is able to incorporate elements of every aspect of life - history, natural history, rhetoric, politics, beliefs, religion, family, love, sexuality. As I see it the novel is a meta-form that transcends the boundaries that circumscribe other kinds of writing, rendering meaningless the usual workaday distinctions between historian, journalist, anthropologist etc.
Q: How does photography function in your work? Why is photography such an appropriate symbol with which to discuss colonialism?
A: My interest in photography goes back a long way. The part that it plays in The Glass Palace is probably attributable to the influence of the late Raghubir Singh who was a very dear friend. He opened my eyes to many of the less obvious aspects of photography.
Q: In The Hindu, Meenakshi Mukherjee calls the novel "the most scathing critique of British colonialism I have ever come across in fiction." Can you comment on this?
A: If this is true, then it would have to be said, surely, that colonialism has had a pretty easy ride.
© Michelle Caswell, Asia Source. All rights reserved.
1. In an interview, Amitav Ghosh said of his work, The Glass Palace, “one can examine the truths of individuals in history definitely more completely in fiction than one can in history.” Discuss this statement as it pertains to the novel. Which truths do his characters reveal?
2. Look closely at the characters whom Ghosh envisions in the most detail, Rajkumar, Dolly, Uma, Arjun, to name a few. They become extraordinary in our minds of the reader, as we travel with them through a century of social upheaval and political turmoil. But according to the social structure, they are all, or once were, relatively ordinary individuals. What is the effect of focusing a novel of such grand, epic sweep, on members of common society? How does this very subtle choice affect the story’s shape? What does it tell us about history, and how we have always been taught to remember it?
3. Memory could almost be considered a character unto itself in Ghosh’s novel. For instance, Rajkumar’s life is utterly driven and shaped by his one, striking, boyhood memory of Dolly in the plundered Glass Palace during the invasion of Burma. How does memory play into the lives of Ghosh’s other characters? Can you think of examples where memory compelled a character to action, or impeded him from recognizing a particular truth? To what extent does Ghosh suggest the existence of collective memory?
4. Ghosh raises several debates over the course of the novel, one central to the political subtext being that of Imperialism vs. Fascism. Why does society not look upon Imperial soldiers with the same scorn it holds for those soldiers committing atrocities under fascist regimes? Should these Imperial mercenaries be considered willing and conscious henchmen, or were they merely following orders? What stance does Ghosh take on this issue, if any? What other debates were you able to extract from the book? What techniques does Ghosh use to bring these issues and their various arguments to light?
5. Ghosh constructs several unique, remarkable, and strong female characters: Dolly, Uma, Queen Supayalat, even the First Princess, who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Each of these women tells us something different and important about the time and place in which she was living. What strengths do these women express, and at what points are they identified and illuminated in the novel? In examining the range and evolution of Ghosh’s female characters, what could we conclude about the relationship between feminine domesticity and empire? Where and how do the two intersect? What role do women play under colonialism, and how do Ghosh’s characters either reflect or reject it?
6. Uma is a particularly interesting character, as she illuminates one of the ideas central to Ghosh's novel. When we first encounter her, she is constantly worried about being the proper memsahib, following traditional domestic etiquette, and living up to the standards of her husband, the Collector. She soon realized, however, that her husband’s dream was not in accordance with the rules of Indian custom, he longed “to live with a woman as an equal in spirit and intellect,” and she could never, according to custom, fulfill those expectations. We see a monumental change in her disposition when she returns to India from New York. How has she transformed, and by what force? What does Uma’s character tell us about the nature of history and the power of social forces as factors in everyday life?
7. Over the course of the novel, the division between conquerors and conquered becomes increasingly hard to distinguish. The inevitable ethical dilemma faced by Indian soldiers in the British army comes to the foreground of the novel, as one member of the INA challenges Indian soldiers in the British army, “Do you really wish to sacrifice your lives for an Empire that has kept your country in slavery for two hundred years?” Can you think of any other episodes in which Ghosh highlights this argument? How does this debate affect the course and scope of the story?
8. In several episodes, Ghosh asks the question, both of his readers and of his characters; can submission to an oppressor, in certain instances, be a sign of strength, rather than weakness? For example, at the very outset of the novel, Rajkumar is heartbroken when he sees Dolly marching out of Burma in the royal procession, offering the sweets he gave her as a token of his affection to one of the British guards. Was this a sign of strength on Dolly’s part? How does this foreshadow other events in the novel? What do such episodes tell us about the effect of colonialism, both on the individual and the collective?
9. In The Glass Palace Ghosh examines the individual, psychological dilemmas posed by colonialism. At one point, an Indian officer in the British army during World War II exclaims, “What are we? We’ve learned to dance the tango and we know how to eat roast beef with a knife and fork. The truth is that except for the color of our skin, most people in India wouldn’t even recognize us as Indians.” This quest for and recognition of personal identity, both lost and found, figures prominently in the novel. Where do we see this pursuit played out? How does Ghosh reconcile the notions of personal identity and national identity? Is one derivative of the other?
10. Exile and return are themes that lie at the core of The Glass Palace. We see King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat living out their exiles in Ratnagiri, we also experience Dolly’s flight from and return to Burma. Even Rajkumar appears in a constant state of escape and return, from his early abandonment at age 11. What other stories of exile and return play out over the course of the book? How do these individual cycles contribute to the overall structure of the novel?
11. At various points in the book, Ghosh invokes the art of photography. We are encounter photographers throughout the novel, and find ourselves in a photography shop at the story’s close. Where else does photography enter the story, and how does it serve as a thematic thread? How does Ghosh weave the theme of photography into the overarching ideas about history and memory that permeate his novel? How does the photographer’s art relate to Ghosh’s conception of the human heart and mind?
12. The style of The Glass Palace is elliptical, and at times, uneven. Ghosh dedicates an entire paragraph to describing the camera with which Mrs. Khambatta photographed Dolly and Rajkumar’s wedding, yet the actual ceremony takes place, elliptically, when Ghosh writes, “At the end of the civil ceremony, in the Collector’s ‘camp office’, Dolly and Rajkumar garlanded each other, smiling like children.” Other such major life events occur in only sentences, the births of children, the deaths of loved ones, wars, and other national catastrophes. Do you think this was an intentional literary choice on Ghosh’s part? What effect does it have on the book as a whole, on your perception of the characters and their stories?
13. As much defeat as there is present in The Glass Palace, there are also extraordinary tales of survival and hope. Can you think of some examples by which devastating defeat is countered by enormous hope? What claims does Ghosh make about the human spirit in this novel?