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The Glass Palace    by Amitav Ghosh order for
Glass Palace
by Amitav Ghosh
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2000 (2000)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Glass Palace is a story that spans several generations, starting in 1887 when the British force the Burmese Court into exile in India, and ending in 1996 with an accolade to the modern leader of opposition in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi. If the tale centers on anyone it is the Indian Rajkumar, first seen as an enterprising eleven year old orphan, working at a food-stall in Mandalay.

Rajkumar's imagination is caught by the nearby fort of Mandalay with the Glass Palace of the kings of Burma in its interior, and in particular by the reputed beauty of the orphans adopted by the ruthless Queen to be handmaidens. When the British invade, he follows a mob of looters into the palace and is entranced by the young attendant, Dolly.

With help from the Chinese Saya John, Rajkumar succeeds in business, first supplying teak logging camps, then bringing indentured Indian laborers to Burma, and finally setting up his own timberyard in Rangoon. He follows his dream to find Dolly at the Burmese court's place of shoddy exile in Ratnagiri, and manages to return with her as his wife.

The story follows Rajkumar and Dolly's children, as well as Saya John's descendants on their Malay rubber plantation and another Indian family connected to Uma (the wife of the Collector, a troubled Indian official set in authority over the exiled Court). But all these people, each with their hopes and dreams, are only actors to showcase the world events around them, and these are what make the book so fascinating.

As the tale unfolds, it shows the damage done to Burma by European exploitation of its resources. In the Queen's words ... 'In our golden Burma where no one ever went hungry and no one was too poor to write and read, all that will remain is destitution and ignorance, famine and despair.' Though that might have idealized the past, it was a fairly accurate prediction of the country's future.

The story also gives an Asian perspective on the Japanese overrun of the Malay peninsula and Singapore, and on the difficulty faced by many Indian soldiers, torn between regimental loyalty and the desire to support their country's independence movement. Light is shed on many aspects of the history of the region that are little known to Western readers. Though Rajkumar is not always an appealing protagonist, he is a survivor and stays with the reader to the story's end, which the author brings to a satisfying conclusion back in Burma, now Myanmar.

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