Amitav Ghosh, “The Glass Palace” (2000) – I haven’t looked far enough to say anything too definitive about it, but from where I sit, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh runs somewhere near the lead of the pack of contemporary literary writers in terms of talent and relevance. I’ve only read his historical fiction, but my understanding is he has also written nonfiction about climate change, which could be interesting and would certainly be a credit to his relevance, given how lackadaisical the literary response to climate change has been thus far. His historical fiction is quite good. The Ibex Trilogy, dealing with the period surrounding the Opium Wars, topped my best-of-fiction-reading list a few years ago. A lot of writers (well, a lot of publishers on behalf of a lot of writers) claim to tackle the interconnectedness that goes under the name “globalization,” but Ghosh actually does it, with verve, historical understanding, and a lack of pretense.
Among other things, Ghosh’s historical vision helps show us a basic fact about “globalization” that it seems younger people grasp more intuitively than those of us who remember the nineteen-nineties: that there’s nothing all that new about it. Global patterns of trade, migration, war, imperialism, communication, etc. have been critical to how life is lived at the very least since the circumnavigation of the globe five centuries ago, if not well before, depending on your definition of “global.” So, in the Ibex trilogy, we see globalization, nineteenth-century style, at the hands of capitalists and the British Empire destroying whole populations to make money off the opium trade. In “The Glass Palace,” we get a broader sweep of South Asian history, from the British invasion of Burma in the 1880s to World War II to a coda near the time Ghosh was writing.
That broad sweep means you don’t get the sort of finely-grained character work that characterizes much of literary fiction, but Ghosh gets his points across about most of his characters. We begin with Rajkumar, a Bengali boy who flees plague and washes up in Burma. He works and builds a fortune in the teak wood trade, a tough business involving elephants and transporting two-ton logs down rapid jungle rivers. He’s fixated on Dolly, a servant to the Burmese royal family, which was deposed when the British decided they wanted that teak trade all for themselves and added Burma to the empire. The British exile the royal family to a small town in India, but after Raj makes his fortune, he dresses up all nice, heads to India, and courts Dolly. At first she’s like “this is weird” but various characters interfere and she winds up returning to Burma with him, just as Raj expands into the rubber business, where there’s some real damn money.
Reviewers focus a lot on the Raj-Dolly relationship, and I think that’s because we get to know them before the deluge of other characters come in. Various relatives and children marry people and while most of them “make sense” there’s still a lot to keep track of as they make their way through Asia’s late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Raj makes a shit ton of money in rubber and establishes sons and in-laws in plantations in Malaya. Burma and Malaya both had an odd ethnicized division of labor, encouraged by the British playing their usual divide-and-conquer games. Indians, like most of the characters in the book, do most of the interfacing with imperial-backed capitalism. This means both that a few Indians like Raj make a lot of money, and many Indians toil in the plantations. “Natives” — Burmans, Malays, the assorted smaller ethnic groups those two used to lord it over before the a British came along — basically sit on the sidelines of capitalism. I get the impression this is because the British liked them doing their “traditional” thing and thought they were ill-suited for industrial labor (and plantations might be outdoors, but they involve producing commodities on industrial scale, with industrial labor discipline).
This inevitably leads the characters into the politics of the era in Asia. In typical depressing human fashion, the Burmans blame their downfall not on the British, who orchestrated it, but on the Indians, who the British employed as instruments in it. Meanwhile, more and more Indians are wondering why they play the roles the British scripted for them, and what an independent future might look like. These questions cause tensions and blow-ups in the extended clan. Raj just wants to make money, chill with Dolly, and secure his sons in business, and doesn’t take kindly when Dolly’s friend Uma starts asking tough questions about imperialism (and Raj’s questionable lord-of-the-manor pleasures). Uma charts a path across the Indian independence movement, from the militant (indeed, soldier-based, on the idea that they needed to convert the British-controlled Indian Army to make progress) Ghadar to the nonviolent Congress. Raj’s… nephew? I think? Arjun, meanwhile, joins that Indian Army in the thirties, as part of the first set of Indian commissioned officers. He’s proud at first, and takes well to British-style regimental life (bacon, beef, and all!).
But one cool thing about Ghosh- he doesn’t stint from portraying the ways things completely outside of anyone’s control direct people’s lives. Sometimes that uncontrollable love or whatever, so far, so literary, but more often, it’s economic and political forces. Two things spell doom for this rich clan’s various arrangements: the price of rubber, and Japanese imperialism. They’re almost entirely off-scene, but their power directs the action of the second half of the book. When rubber prices collapse during the Depression, the family’s fortunes tumble with them, and all those lovingly-described classic cars with maker names I never heard of seem like white elephants, even as they roll along on plantation rubber. Meanwhile, the Japanese smash the pretenses of British rule in Asia, seizing “impregnable” Singapore et al. Ghosh, and most of his characters, are under no illusions about the nature of Japanese conquest — one character shoots herself rather than be taken alive, and the Indians who abandon the British army for militancy become rapidly alienated with their Japanese patrons — but I couldn’t help but enjoy the British get theirs. Of course, again, it’s mostly Indians who suffer- even bluff Arjun has to think about what an Indian nation without an outside overlord might look like. He doesn’t know. Do any of us?
This is a pretty great book. That’s not to say it’s flawless. One flaw is personal for me- stories of “I was in love since childhood and made that love mine” weird me right the fuck out. I’m not talking high school sweethearts getting married, I’m talking like “we were destined to be together since pre-pubescence.” Admittedly, Raj and Dolly are roughly the same age, and Raj doesn’t consummate the relationship until they’re in their twenties, but still. Like I said, the characters sometimes get hard to keep track of, and I think it would’ve been better if Ghosh had ended the story with WWII, and not had a coda that hailed Aung San Suu Kyi as savior of Burma. Admittedly, it was 2000, and old Aung looked a lot better then, before she got into office and showed her clay feet, in the Rohingya crisis and elsewhere (not that I support the generals locking her up again). A work doesn’t need to be flawless to be great though, or worth reading for anyone interested in what literature can look like right now. ****’