Where has Amitav Ghosh been all my life? To my chagrin, I discover that he’s been writing since the early 1990’s, garnering praise, winning literary prizes, all right under my nose but heretofore undetected by me. I hate when that happens. But lucky for me other people are paying attention. My aunt Elaine gave me Ghosh’s 2000 book The Glass Palace when I was visiting her a few weeks ago and I loved it.
The Glass Palace is the story of Rajkumar, an Indian man whose life spans a turbulent time in India and Burma, from the fall of the last Burmese king Thibaw in Mandalay, through the height of British colonialism and then World War II and Indian independence, up through the end of the 20th century. Rajkumar arrives in Burma as a young sailor on a merchant ship, and stays to make his fortune in the timber industry. He marries Dolly, a servant girl, and together they raise sons with whom the story continues.
Like The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, this is another tale of an average person who witnesses historic events. However, unlike Harrison Shepherd of The Lacuna, Rajkumar is more than just an observer, and the whole tone of this book is much more urgent and forceful. With Rajkumar we visit the timber encampments where teak is harvested by elephants, we see the vast rubber plantations where the British colonials make fortunes and the Burmese workers toil like slaves, we survive the Japanese invasion of Burma and become refugees who return to India. With Dolly we live in exile with the deposed Burmese king and queen, and befriend Uma who becomes a force for change in post-colonial India. One of the most compelling subplots is the story of Uma’s nephew Arjun and his batman Kishan Singh, soldiers in a British regiment that defects during the war. This strand examines the complex relationships between Indian soldiers and their British commanders, as Arjun and his compatriots are forced to think about who and what, exactly, they are fighting for.
In a blog post from earlier this month I referred to “my current fascination with epic drama.” I just seem to be in the mood for books with lots of characters, history, and action. Explosions! Revolutions! Runaway trains! (only kidding about the trains). I can’t wait to read more by Ghosh, who has just released River of Smoke, the second book in a trilogy about 19th century Canton and the opium wars. Here is a link to his website which gives you a good idea of what his books are about.
(Book 13, 2012)