We’re hooked on the Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh.
We love the way he seamlessly weaves bizarre (but largely true) history, colourful and enormously engaging characters, exotic countries, elaborate customs and endlessly fascinating linguistics together to create an intricately woven fabric that shimmers and glistens and changes even as your eye takes it in.
Once again we follow Ghosh’s endearing characters and the generations that follow, this time through Burma, India and Malaya. We learn at first hand of the exile of the last king of Burma and the royal family.
We read too of the effect that World War II had on these regions and the people. (We also learn a fair bit about the temperament of, and very alarming diseases peculiar to elephants, which is fascinating).
The lead character is Rajkumar – a bright and enterprising young Indian orphan who sails the Bay of Bengal and who, through storm and lull and the irresistible force of circumstance, finds himself in Mandalay. Destitute, he is pointed towards Ma Cho, a kindly but acerbic street side restaurantier, who gives him a job as a waiter in her stall.
It is there that the young Rajkumar hears the cannons of the English invaders and sees the giant, beef eating, red coated white men march into Mandalay to disposess and exile the King.
Ma Cho’s sometime lover is the excellent Saya John – who helps Rajkumar and becomes like a father to him, supporting and counseling him throughout his life.
The Glass Palace, the Imperial Palace of the Burmese Kings, overshadows them all – a moated place of awe and mystery, a metaphor for the permanence we rely on in life and the instability we inevitably encounter.
Here lived the King, Thibaw – an aesthete, ineffectual but kindly.
His wife , Queen Supayalat – the power behind the throne, a Byzantine, proud, unbending, strong and scheming consort who loves Thibaw and to protect him (and herself) has arranged for the bloody assassination of all possible threats to his throne, including several dozen close relatives.
The Royal Princesses – usually referred to by their order of birth, are Hteiksu: Myatpayagi, Myatpayalat, and Myatpaya.
One of the Princesses nursemaid is Dolly, who starts the novel as a timid young orphan in service to the Royal family and becomes their lady-in-waiting. Rajkumar glimpses Dolly during the sack of the Glass Palace and in that instant their lives change forever.
The District Collector – Beni Prasad Dey – a man out of time and place, educated in England, an honourable man but ultimately a tragic figure.
His wife Uma Dey, who starts off as a traditional wife but grows within the novel, (in part as a homage to The Collector) and becomes a political activist, a philanthropist and protector of the downtrodden.
This novel is about these dynasties and families- their interweaving, their crossed paths and fates ~ Rajkumar’s, The Royal Family’s, Saya John’s and The Collector’s.
In a snakes and ladders fashion the Royal Family tumble from the top to the bottom, Merchants and Tradesmen climb to the top. Empires fall and dictatorships and police states rise and morph into strange and increasingly uncertain conglomerations.
Manners and attitudes, beliefs and habits, systems and structures continually crumble and dissolve into a pool from which new life, new structures and new beliefs crawl and reassemble, but begin to break down again even as they do so.
Bad things happen to good people. Small acts of kindness have extraordinary consequences. Good intentions can have shocking implications. But ultimately, a scrap of integrity and a smidgeon of Black humour can see both tiny individuals, and society at large, survive and prosper.
The journey takes us from one Glass Palace which is the embodiment of privileged feudal totalitarianism to another which represents hope and freedom.
This is an optimistic book and one with a good heart. We think you’ll like it.