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  • The Glass Palace
  • Written by Amitav Ghosh
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  • Written by Amitav Ghosh
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A Novel

Written by Amitav GhoshAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amitav Ghosh

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On Sale: April 01, 2001
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-50687-1
Published by : Random House Trade Paperbacks Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885, this masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh tells the story of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who goes on to create an empire in the Burmese teak forest. When soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen, whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her. The struggles that have made Burma, India, and Malaya the places they are today are illuminated in this wonderful novel by the writer Chitra Divakaruni calls “a master storyteller.”

Excerpt

PART I
Mandalay


Chapter 1
There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay's fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven — not an authority to be relied upon.

The noise was unfamiliar and unsettling, a distant booming followed by low, stuttering growls. At times it was like the snapping of dry twigs, sudden and unexpected. And then, abruptly, it would change to a deep rumble, shaking the food-stall and rattling its steaming pot of soup. The stall had only two benches, and they were both packed with people, sitting pressed up against each other. It was cold, the start of central Burma's brief but chilly winter, and the sun had not risen high enough yet to burn off the damp mist that had drifted in at dawn from the river. When the first booms reached the stall there was a silence, followed by a flurry of questions and whispered answers. People looked around in bewilderment: What is it? Ba le? What can it be? And then Rajkumar's sharp, excited voice cut through the buzz of speculation. "English cannon," he said in his fluent but heavily accented Burmese. "They're shooting somewhere up the river. Heading in this direction."

Frowns appeared on some customers' faces as they noted that it was the serving-boy who had spoken and that he was a kalaa from across the sea — an Indian, with teeth as white as his eyes and skin the color of polished hardwood. He was standing in the center of the stall, holding a pile of chipped ceramic bowls. He was grinning a little sheepishly, as though embarrassed to parade his precocious knowingness.

His name meant Prince, but he was anything but princely in appearance, with his oil-splashed vest, his untidily knotted longyi and his bare feet with their thick slippers of callused skin. When people asked how old he was he said fifteen, or sometimes eighteen or nineteen, for it gave him a sense of strength and power to be able to exaggerate so wildly, to pass himself off as grown and strong, in body and judgment, when he was, in fact, not much more than a child. But he could have said he was twenty and people would still have believed him, for he was a big, burly boy, taller and broader in the shoulder than many men. And because he was very dark it was hard to tell that his chin was as smooth as the palms of his hands, innocent of all but the faintest trace of fuzz.

It was chance alone that was responsible for Rajkumar's presence in Mandalay that November morning. His boat — the sampan on which he worked as a helper and errand-boy — had been found to need repairs after sailing up the Irrawaddy from the Bay of Bengal. The boatowner had taken fright on being told that the work might take as long as a month, possibly even longer. He couldn't afford to feed his crew that long, he'd decided: some of them would have to find other jobs. Rajkumar was told to walk to the city, a couple of miles inland. At a bazaar, opposite the west wall of the fort, he was to ask for a woman called Ma Cho. She was half-Indian and she ran a small food-stall; she might have some work for him.

And so it happened that at the age of eleven, walking into the city of Mandalay, Rajkumar saw, for the first time, a straight road. By the sides of the road there were bamboo-walled shacks and palm-thatched shanties, pats of dung and piles of refuse. But the straight course of the road's journey was unsmudged by the clutter that flanked it: it was like a causeway cutting across a choppy sea. Its lines led the eye right through the city, past the bright red walls of the fort to the distant pagodas of Mandalay Hill, shining like a string of white bells upon the slope.

For his age, Rajkumar was well travelled. The boat he worked on was a coastal craft that generally kept to open waters, plying the long length of shore that joined Burma to Bengal. Rajkumar had been to Chittagong and Bassein and any number of towns and villages in between. But in all his travels he had never come across thoroughfares like those in Mandalay. He was accustomed to lanes and alleys that curled endlessly around themselves so that you could never see beyond the next curve. Here was something new: a road that followed a straight, unvarying course, bringing the horizon right into the middle of habitation.

When the fort's full immensity revealed itself, Rajkumar came to a halt in the middle of the road. The citadel was a miracle to behold, with its mile-long walls and its immense moat. The crenellated ramparts were almost three storeys high, but of a soaring lightness, red in color, and topped by ornamented gateways with seven-tiered roofs. Long straight roads radiated outwards from the walls, forming a neat geometrical grid. So intriguing was the ordered pattern of these streets that Rajkumar wandered far afield, exploring. It was almost dark by the time he remembered why he'd been sent to the city. He made his way back to the fort's western wall and asked for Ma Cho.

"Ma Cho?"

"She has a stall where she sells food — baya-gyaw and other things. She's half Indian."

"Ah, Ma Cho." It made sense that this ragged-looking Indian boy was looking for Ma Cho: she often had Indian strays working at her stall. "There she is, the thin one."

Ma Cho was small and harried-looking, with spirals of wiry hair hanging over her forehead, like a fringed awning. She was in her mid-thirties, more Burmese than Indian in appearance. She was busy frying vegetables, squinting at the smoking oil from the shelter of an upthrust arm. She glared at Rajkumar suspiciously. "What do you want?"

He had just begun to explain about the boat and the repairs and wanting a job for a few weeks when she interrupted him. She began to shout at the top of her voice, with her eyes closed: "What do you think — I have jobs under my armpits, to pluck out and hand to you? Last week a boy ran away with two of my pots. Who's to tell me you won't do the same?"And so on.

Rajkumar understood that this outburst was not aimed directly at him: that it had more to do with the dust, the splattering oil, and the price of vegetables than with his own presence or with anything he had said. He lowered his eyes and stood there stoically, kicking the dust until she was done.

She paused, panting, and looked him over. "Who are your parents?" she said at last, wiping her streaming forehead on the sleeve of her sweat-stained aingyi.

"I don't have any. They died."
Amitav Ghosh|Author Q&A

About Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh - The Glass Palace
Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and spent his childhood in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and northern India. He studied in Delhi and Egypt and at Oxford and taught at various Indian and American universities. Author of a travel book and three acclaimed novels, Ghosh has also written for Granta, The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Observer. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

Author Q&A

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.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“An absorbing story of a world in transition, brought to life through characters who love and suffer with equal intensity.”
—J. M. Coetzee

“There is no denying Ghosh’s command of culture and history....[He] proves a writer of supreme skill and intelligence.”
—The Atlantic Monthly

“I will never forget the young and old Rajkumar, Dolly, the Princesses, the forests of teak, the wealth that made families and wars. A wonderful novel. An incredible story.”
—Grace Paley

“A rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland— a literary territory that is as resonant now, in our globalized culture, as it was when the sun never set on the British Empire.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A novelist of dazzling ingenuity.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

Awards

WINNER 2001 Frankfurt eBook Award
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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?


  • The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
  • February 12, 2002
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $16.00
  • 9780375758775

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