The Glass Palace

The Glass Palace

4.2 24
by Amitav Ghosh

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Brilliant and impassioned, The Glass Palace is a masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh, the gifted novelist Peter Matthiessen has called an exceptional writer. This superb story of love and war begins with the shattering of the kingdom of Burma and the igniting of a great and passionate love, and it goes on to tell the story of a people, a fortune, and a family and…  See more details below


Brilliant and impassioned, The Glass Palace is a masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh, the gifted novelist Peter Matthiessen has called an exceptional writer. This superb story of love and war begins with the shattering of the kingdom of Burma and the igniting of a great and passionate love, and it goes on to tell the story of a people, a fortune, and a family and its fate.

The Glass Palace tells of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who creates an empire in the Burmese teak forest. During the British invasion of 1885, when soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, the woman whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her.

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The Barnes & Noble Review
When you heave your final sigh and turn the last page of Amitav Ghosh's new novel, The Glass Palace, you feel as if you've travelled for 100 years on foot, through the most distant and lush lands on the globe. The Glass Palace is as close as a person tucked cozily into an armchair on a rainy day can get to the rubber plantations of Malaysia, the teak forests of Burma, and the bustling city streets of Rangoon and Singapore, bearing witness to the demise of the Burmese monarchy and the rise and fall of the British empire.

A stately and vibrantly detailed family saga set in south-central Asia against the tumultuous backdrop of the 20th century, The Glass Palace is the story of Rajkumar, an Indian shop boy orphaned in Mandalay, who, on the eve of the 1885 British invasion, falls in love with Dolly, a beautiful handmaiden to the Queen of Burma. The conquering British send Burma's King Thebaw and his loyal court, including the young handmaiden, into exile in remote India. Rajkumar, left behind in Burma, is adept at working the new colonial system, and he manages to build a thriving lumber business in the growing teak trade.

Elegantly dressed in English clothes, Rajkumar sets off to India to find Dolly, the only woman he has ever loved. The long years in exile have devastated the royal family, leaving Dolly as their only servant. Through the wiles of the colonial administrator's wife, Uma Dey, Rajkumar wins an audience with Dolly and convinces her to return to Burma and marry him. She agrees, and shortly after her departure everything falls apart. The royal family is embroiled in scandal, the administrator commits suicide, and Uma, grieving more over the absence of her dear friend Dolly than over her husband's death, eschews the traditional life of an Indian widow and goes abroad, where she becomes a revered leader of India's burgeoning independence movement. And this is only the beginning. The story of Uma, Dolly, Rajkumar and their children, nieces, and nephews -- and their children's children, nieces, and nephews -- takes us from the rubber boom of the industrial age to the front lines of World War II, from India's struggle for independence to Burma's fall and its transformation into Myanmar under a military dictatorship.

"In the five years it took me to write The Glass Palace," recounts Ghosh, "I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand." Inspired by the legends of his own ancestry, Ghosh's massive research makes for a wealth of detail. The Glass Palace is at once a gargantuan history, a family saga, and an adventure story. It is so richly and compassionately rendered you come to feel you are somehow part of its vast extended family whose story finds its humble origins in two orphans standing innocently on the threshold of the 20th century.

Minna Proctor is a writer and translator. She lives in New York.

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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."

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What People are saying about this

Melvin Jules Bukiet
Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace is like the royal Burmese castle its title refers to: exotically expansive, yet filled with intricately-rendered nooks and niches. A century of traumatic subcontinental history provides the architectural background to the intimate details of Ghosh's characters' lives. He conveys all of this with serenity and moral strength in the face of overwhelming turmoil. His book is a singular achievement.
Jonathan Levi
Ghosh writes with the microscope of Charles Dickens and the cinemascope of David Lean.
Chitra Divakaruni
A powerful novel with an epic sweep, filled with tender, convincing detail. Ghosh is a master storyteller.

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The Glass Palace 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful book. So full filling. In reading you become absorbed in rhe charactors lifes that you find yourself living them as the story unfolds.
MingLiSS8 More than 1 year ago
One of the best novels ever written about the Burmans. Indepth knowledge and brilliant characterization of the actual lives of the 19th century royal family and the severing of their power by the English Empire. Engrossing read that moves at a steady pace.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The interleaving of the lives of the protagonists with the political events of the time is done seamlessly. The story flows smoothly and covers the span of two world wars through the eyes of RajKumar, his family, friends etc. The emotional and moral conflicts of Dolly, Uma, Arjun etc are depicted with honesty and kindness. With his words and imagery, the author is able to transport the reader to the Glass Palace, Burma's teak forests and the Malaya plantations. A great overall reading experience.
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regina77004 More than 1 year ago
Opening in Burma in 1885 during the reign of the last monarch, King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat, we are introduced to Rajkumar an orphan from Indian who has fled to Burma as a means of survivial, and Dolly who is living at the Palace and caring for the young princesses. The Birttish Empire has set its sites on the resources of Burma and overthrows the King and Queen, sending them into exile. As the royal family is being taken out of Burma Rajkumar is smitten with young Dolly and slips her some food for her trip. Rajkumar is taken in by Saya John and mentored in the ways of business. Rajkumar takes to heart the lessons of Saya John and succeeds in a rags to riches story that was not uncommon in Burmese history in the early 20th centrury. During Dolly's 20-year exile Dolly is cut off from her native land, catches a glimpse of love that is snatched away, and eventually befirends Uma the wife of one of their "caregivers". Rajkumar seeks Dolly out after twenty-three years in exile. With the help of Uma he convinces her to marry him and return to Burma. Afterwards, the lives of these families (Rajkumar, Dolly, Uma, and Saya John) are inextricably tied together. Through multiple generations we see the history of Burma, and India to some degree, unfold through 1996. During this time Burma goes from a "Golden Land" to a subject within the Brittish Empire, to an occupied Japanese territory, to an independent democracy, to the Burma (Myanmar) we saw in the 2008 cyclone aftermath. The book relates Burma's cultrue, religions (Hindu, Christianity, Hindu, and Muslim to a lesser degree), relations with India, and socio-economic issues. The book is also a social commentary with a message that is timeless. Some of my favorite passages: " The Queen greeted them with her proud, thin-lipped smile. Yes, look around you, look at how we live. Yes, we who ruled the richest land in Asia are now reduced to this. This is what they have done to us, this is what they will do to all of Burma. They took our kingdom, promising roads and railways and ports, but mark my words, this is how it will end. In a few decades the wealth will be gone-all the gems, the timer and the oil-and then they will eave. In our golden Burma, where no one ever went hungry and one was too poor to write an dread, all that will remain is destitution and ignorance, famine and despair. We were the first to be imprisoned in the name of their progress; millions more will follow." (pg 76); "that while misrule an dtyranny must be resisted, so too must politics itself...that it cannot be allowed to cannibalize all of life, all of existence. To me this is the most terrible indiginity of our conidtion - nut just in Burma but in many other places too...that politics has invaded everything, spared nothing...religion, art, has taken over everything...there is no escape from it...and yet what could be more trivial in the end?" (pg 467); It is very humbling to read about the rich history of places like Burma and see its current condition. My one caution: for much of the book there is a fairy tale quality to the story. Either nothing bad happens when you just know what the result of a situation should be or if a tragedy occurs it is glossed over and Ghoush moves on. This can frustrating to some readers. Go into knowing this is purposefully done and contrasts with events later in the book. The only negative I have is that I nevnev
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Just a great read. Loved all the characters and historical background. Ghosh did a wonderful job researching and putting this novel together.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A well researched and beautifully told saga that was hard to put down. Thank Heavens for storytellers like Ghosh with the ability to make important history lessons so entertaining. I look forward to another masterpiece from this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Few books can bring tears to my eyes and make me mad the book ended at the same time! Great book
Guest More than 1 year ago
Writing a semi-fiction, rather, a piece of literature whose many characters and incidences are by no means fictitious, is an arduous task, but Ghosh manages to accomplish it with a rare aplomb. Technically Ghosh is superb, painting a vivid picture of the period and the different cultures (Burmese and Bengali in particular) and their evolution. He maintains a delicate balance between the evolution of the historical, 'non-fictitious', characters and events and those which are the produce of his imaginations. I can't help admiring Ghosh for his ability to create characters who seem so so real that makes me feel as if I have personal acquintance with them, and this feat he manages to achieve in all his books, The Circle of Reasons, The Shadow Lines (my eternal favourite) and also Calcutta Chromosomes. I had picked up this book with apprehension that he won't be able to live up to the promise that he has created himself through his previous works, but by the time I reached halfway I realised that my apprehensions were grossly misplaced. Each character is subtly crafted out in detail and their evolution couldn't be more natural. It's definitely a very good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Its a great book which enables todays young readers to explore India / Asia during times of war and British rule. At times the book is a bit slow but its thought provoking and I loved it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Glass Palace is a riveting novel set in late 1800¿s during British invasion. Amitav Ghosh most definitely proves himself to be among the most impressive Indian writers of the modern generation. The story is of a young Rajkumar who befriends a young lady, Dolly, in the court of the Burmese Queen. Dolly influences Rajkumar¿s life in the numerous ways. Ghosh¿s, The Glass Palace echoes themes of war and rebellions and empire and exile, but more so he has intricately placed shadows of the separations, loves, migrations and reunions!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was brilliant. From the first word to the last i was willingly swept away into another world. There was never a moment that i was tempted to skip sections (like i do with some other books.) If you only read one novel in your life, make it this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I borrowed Glass Palace from a library 2 days back and after being unable to put it down, finished it last night. For 2 days, I was transported back to the burning 19th-early 20th century. The book, through its rich characters, enabled me not only to appreciate the Indian struggles better, but helped me see Burma in a whole new light. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just an ok novel on the lines of the so-called ' Great American sagas spanning Generations, inevitably the period 1914 to the 2nd World War'. The only difference being, that in this novel the main protagonists are Indians. The novel begins fortuitously enough with description of the city of Mandalay and its beautiful palaces, but loses steam in the middle, one can skip pages with utmost immunity. The end is emotional and quite likable, but all in all a mediocre effort from a writer of Ghost's stature. Can be missed without feeling guilty.