The Ruins of War and Colonialism in Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Glass Palace’

The Glass Palace (novel, 2000) by Amitav Ghosh, offers a detailed critique on the effects of war and colonialism. Spanning across three countries and three generations, the book delves into the personal lives of Ghosh’s characters, intermingled with a sense of love along with the journey of life. This aura is much too often broken and interrupted by the horrors brought in by colonization and the consequent dislocation that it leads to.

Starting off with an introduction to an eleven-year-old orphaned Indian boy, Rajkumar, the story proceeds in Mandalay, Burma (now Myanmar), describing the circumstances that brought him here along with the sense of belonging he develops to the place. Rajkumar is introduced to Saya John, who becomes a father-figure in Rajkumar’s life. Later, the English rampage the city, but the soldiers are mainly Indians who have come on the orders of their colonial masters. Thus begins the general sense of chaos, ruin, and fleet that constitutes a major part of the book. With the invasion of the British, the residents of the city seek refuge in the Glass Palace, where King Thebaw and his family used to rule and reside. What follows is the family’s exile to Ratnagiri (a port town in India), Rajkumar’s marriage to Dolly, a servant in the King’s household, followed by the birth of their sons Neel and Dinu and the intermingling of the families of Rajkumar, Saya John, and Uma in the three nations of Burma, Malaya, and India respectively. Set amidst the two world wars and British colonialism, the novel moves in a direction of establishing and then tearing relationships apart through death and dislocation, thus describing the ruthlessness and arbitrariness that war brings along.

Throughout this novel, rich and abundant in details that spanned the history of the world in those several decades, the themes of war seem to constantly surface, bringing to light the reality of the otherwise fictitious characters. Most of the characters seem to become symbols of larger elements. Rajkumar, for instance, comes to represent and symbolize an entire migrated community and their ways of functioning in an alien land. The unfortunate yet inevitable deaths and separation of the characters represent the horrors of war- that no one can remain at a safe and aloof distance from it; that each individual is the victim of a force brought about by greed.

Divided into seven parts, each section deals with an important aspect. The first part is called “Mandalay,” depicting the Anglo-Burmese War of 1885. It focuses on the crude greed that drives all individuals alike; this greed is shown to transcend one’s status, race, caste, group, or nation. Furthermore, the plunder shown throughout this part serves as an exposure of the raw greed of the colonizers, which led them to loot and control their colonies in the brutal manner that they did. The second part, called “Ratnagiri,” shows colonial subjugation and imperial dominance. With the merge of Burma with India as a single colonial subject, the attitudes to surrender oneself and the contrasting attitudes to resist are presented. The third section, “The Money Tree,” shows how Rajkumar prospers through timber business. The fourth section, called “The Wedding,” deals with the second generation. Rajkumar’s son Neel marries Manju, and people like Arjun and Dinu show fascination for the British. The fifth section, “Morning Side” depicts the consequence of the Second World War in Malaya. The penultimate section, “The Front,” depicts how characters suffer due to the outbreak of the Second World War. The last section of the novel titled “The Glass Palace,” deals with the Indian National Movement at its peak and India’s final achievement of independence.

In the opening scene, Ghosh describes how the marching soldiers looked like to the Burmese crowd- “There was no rancour on the soldiers’ faces, no emotion at all. None of them so much as glanced at the crowd.” This reflects the inhumanity that developed within the minds of the people as a result of war. This is reiterated by Saya John when he says,
“…their willingness to kill for their masters, to follow any command, no matter what it entailed? And yet, in the hospital, these sepoys would give me gifts, tokens of their gratitude. I would look into their eyes and see also a kind of innocence, a simplicity. These men, who would think nothing of setting fire to whole villages if their officers ordered, they too had a certain kind of innocence. An innocent evil. I could think of nothing more dangerous.”
This sense of being mentally controlled is also reflected in the Collector, who was “haunted by the fear of being thought lacking by his British colleagues,” as well as in the character of Arjun, who remained loyal to his duty towards the British for a major part of his short life. Dinu, similarly, fails to realize that the British, much like Hitler and Mussolini, are ruling through racialism, aggression and conquest. He, like several other Indians who received a primarily one-sided Western education, does not question the immorality of the British. This was, truly, the aim with which Western education was introduced in India, as clearly stated by Macaulay (who was responsible for the same).

Edward Said, one of the founders of the academic field of postcolonial studies, writes, ‘No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental.’ This theme resonates throughout the novel, throughout, in fact, the course of colonial history. War and colonialism brought about a sense of hybridity among races of the world- reflecting, in a way, the fact that no race is pure; yet, this purity of race was highly emphasized upon by the colonizers. In this novel, similarly, readers find that all the relationships made throughout the three generations go beyond the narrow-mindedness of maintaining a pure race. The opposite, in fact, is where the basis of the novel lies on- a homogenized global culture arising out of heterogeneity, yet targeted by the ‘superior White’ race.

The novel also focuses on the journey of life and the process of growing. One watches all the characters grow in their opinions. Arjun, a soldier himself, is later disillusioned about the British, finds an anti-colonial consciousness and seeks to join the movement towards India’s independence. Thus follows a ‘decolonization of the mind’ (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1986) of Arjun as well as his fellow soldiers. Similarly, Uma, while initially prone to an almost aggressive sense of nation and community, later develops the non-violent view. She admits to the need of attaining reform of the Indian society along with its independence.

Thus, this novel is essentially an amalgamation of war, dislocation, love and death, exile, and helplessness. It reflects on the point of view of the colonized, and in doing so, never leaves South Asia. Ghosh, speaking about his novels, said, “My fiction has always been about places that are states in the process of coming unmade or communities coming unmade or remaking themselves in many ways.” While focusing on the modus operandi of colonization in Burma, the focus in India is on how colonialism unified the country in an anti-colonial embrace, and how it evolved an anti-colonial psyche in Malaya. The three nations have a shared history of being born out of an anti-imperialist struggle, and being torn, shaped, and reformed by the consequences brought about by the wars fought in those decades. The Glass Palace questions the very essence of war by being ruthless in its description of war’s reality, and refuses to cater to a notion that euphemizes the adversity it brings about. Indeed, the question posed by Ghosh can be summed up by a line from the novel itself-

“Was this how a mutiny was sparked? In a moment of heedlessness, so that one became a stranger to the person one had been a moment before? Or was it the other way around? That this was when one recognized the stranger that one had always been to oneself; that all one’s loyalties and beliefs had been misplaced?” 

Rashika Desai
This piece is part of The Creative Process’ 17 Spring Edition, The Arts of War. Read more articles in the issue here, and the editorial note here.