Friday, September 16, 2016

Review: The Glass Palace

Visiting Kochi this August I found it much too hot to explore and settled for access to a library.

Dithering about what to choose I first selected Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace.

I came across my first Amitav Ghosh on the shelves of a relative.

The cover proclaims IAAL "History in the guise of a traveller's tale," and the multi-generic book moves back and forth between Ghosh's experience living in small villages and towns in the Nile Delta and his reconstruction of a Jewish trader and his slave's lives in the eleventh century from documents from the Cairo Geniza.

It was the first time I read a piece of nonfiction that didn’t read dry and didactic.

I’ve also skimmed through The Imam and the Indian.
AMITAV GHOSH'S eighth book, The Imam and the Indian follows upon four novels and three books of non-fiction. This is worth saying because readers familiar with his oeuvre will find in these 18 prose pieces written over 20 years, clues to, prefigurations of and echoes from his book-length narratives.
The Imam And The Indian, Prose Pieces
Once I returned to my room with The Glass House, I was lost to this world as Ghosh’s story drew me into the tangled past of beautiful Myanmar.

From the word go we are flung into the web of deceit the Europeans used to dethrone existing rulers in the region, strands of which, as we progress through the book, emmesh the destinies of royal and commoner. However, although, here more strongly than in what I’ve read of his earlier, Ghosh expresses angst. In fact, it was for this book that he made a stand.

For the first time I learned something of Myanmar’s history and that the then King was exiled to somewhere near where I now live.

He was cheated, by the British, out of home and hearth.

Full of all the exotic jungle ambience which I was once wont to seek in a Maugham, Amitav’s tale brings me this experience through the lens of my own culture and, to a certain extent, through that of the others who were also disinherited, in more than one sense, by the exclusive narratives of Europeans.

Spanning not only Myanmar and India but also Malaysia and parts of the Western world, the story moves through time and evolves with the various offspring of key characters. People, elephants, rubber plantations and wars play intricate roles to bring to life a drama of which most of us have been unaware.

While one can fault the author at times for this or that, and I would, perhaps, hem and haw at the way his Indian soldier speaks, this book would be a herculean task for any writer. In any case, dialogue is ever a challenge.

Now, while this ought to make a nice present for anyone planning a trip to Myanmar, it is also, in a sense, a little past its time in terms of both content and style.

As I said, it strongly evoked the jungle tales of Maugham and other voices from bygone times, though told from other perspectives.

The average reader would not bother about such things and can have a pretty entertaining time, what with some random steamy scenes, quite a few points of high adventure and angsty journeys, love and loss and violence and a somewhat touristy intro to Malaysian cuisine.

In the final analysis, I’d say we all need to read this book, as Indians who ought to know more about our neighbouring nations or, more broadly, as peoples of this world who ought to open their ears to other voices.

Living in Pune, I thank this book for showing me how close I live to a place of hidden historical interest: the residence in exile of the last King of the Glass Palace.
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