ETHNIC NATIONALITIES COUNCIL (Union of Burma)
|‘The Glass Palace’ as a Mirror of Myanmar|
|By Laksiri Fernando|
|Monday, 27 February 2012 16:14|
Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace is a magnificent historical novel that begins with the demise of the Konbaung dynasty in ‘Burma’ (1885) and ends with the emergence of a democracy movement in ‘Myanmar’ symbolised by Aung San Suu Kyi (1988). First published in 2000, the novel has a renewed significance today given the revitalisation of the democracy movement in the country.
There is of course a substantive story, other than the political saga. It is about paradoxical human characteristics like ambition, modesty, craving, generosity, intrigue, innocence, impatience and perseverance – all excellently and colourfully depicted through suitable narratives and different characters. After all, it is all about life’s ‘impermanence,’ many of the endeavours and personal relationships ending up in immense tragedies.
The circumstances under which the tragedies unfold are mainly the British colonisation of India, Burma and Malaya - which dislocates the traditional cultures and introduces ‘modernity’ - and then the Second World War during which Japan invades the region with equal political ambition and ferocity.
The Glass Palace is a 552 pages story separated into seven parts.
An orphan from Bengal, Rajkumar Raha, ends up in Mandalay (Myanmar, former Burma) at the age of eleven in a desperate effort of survival. A Chinese businessman from Singapore, Saya John, working in Burma, instils ambition in his mind and they become friends and later business partners. Saya John is a father figure to Rajkumar. Both are considered kalaa in Burma, a derogatory term for foreigners.
The initial setting of the story is the Third Anglo-Burmese war in 1885 in which the King Thibaw is disgracefully disposed. The cause of war according to the story is Teak!
“The English are preparing to send a fleet up the Irrawaddy. There is going to be a war,” Matthew says. “They want all the teak in Burma. The King won’t let them have it so they’re going to do away with him.” Matthew is Saya’s son.
“Rajkumar gave a shout of laughter. ‘A war over wood? Who’s ever heard of such a thing?”
The King and Queen Supalayat were exiled in Ratnagiri (India) until their death in squalid conditions. The palace maids leave one by one because of the continued royal arrogance, except Dolly, a central character of the story. The family of four princesses eventually disintegrates step by step in India, some leaving back to Burma much later. This is a true and a sad story.
There are two sources to the enigmatic title of the novel: The Glass Palace. One is within the story itself, which I would comment on later. Second is external, the Glass Place Chronicles, which is supposed to be a history of the Burmese dynasty with fact and fiction. Likewise, Ghosh’s novel is also a combination of ‘fact and fiction,’ nicely woven into a compelling story.
A lifelong friendship develops between Dolly and Uma Dey, the wife of the Collector in Ratnagiri, Prasad Dey, a British civil servant of Indian origin. That is the only relationship that lasts. After twenty years, Rajkumar comes in search of Dolly to Ratnagiri with a marriage proposal. Uma is the go between, convincing Dolly, who was otherwise not interested in marriage. However, after marriage, she becomes a committed wife and a mother.
It may appear Rajkumar also to be a ‘committed lover’ or a husband. But that is not exactly the case. He is a ‘human trafficker’ from India to Malaya, particularly to Saya John’s new rubber plantation, ‘the money trees.’ He in fact fathers a boy, simply called Ilongo, to a woman taken from India to Malaya. Dolly displeasingly tolerates and in fact supports Ilongo’s upbringing.
Uma, displeased with her husband’s rather monotonous bureaucratic life wanted to go back to her parents in Bengal. Her husband, Prasad, having remorse, rather kills himself by adventuring a boat in rough seas. An ‘Indian widow,’ Uma searches escape through travel and then radical politics.
Dolly’s escape route is different. It is closer to the Burmese soul. She has two sons, thus obligations. First one, Neel, is exactly like Rajkumar and the second, Dinu, is closer to her heart. It is only at the end, she decides to go to Sagaing, the famous Buddhist nunnery, where she always wanted to go.
Lankasuka in Bengal is another scene of the story, the ancestral home of Uma, where she lives as a widow, doing politics, finally joining Mahatma Gandhi. She has a nephew, Arjun, who joins the army, and two nieces, Manju and Bela. Manju almost by fate meets Neel Raha and accompanies him to Rangoon after marriage. They live in Kemendine, the house of Rahas and this is where the main tragedy unfolds. Bela opts to live as a spinster after having a sex encounter with his brother’s batman on her sister’s wedding night.
The second setting of the story is the Second World War and the Japanese invasion of Burma and Malaya in 1942. Rajkumar, after facing a business decline, decides to ‘hoard ’ Teak after disposing all other possessions, except the Kemendine house, in a bid to regain his old glory. Neel is his faithful accomplice. They remain in Rangoon without heeding to ‘good advice’ for them to leave for India before an invasion.
At the verge of a major business deal, and in fact when the timber was being loaded, the Japanese raids Rangoon. Neel is killed in the commotion by elephant trampling. Manju becomes a widow with a small daughter, Jaya. They all become refugees and flee to Bengal with immense hardships, crossing the rivers and mountains. Manju already mentally deranged, commits suicide on their way.
When Rajkumar and Dolly reach Lankasuka, Uma’s house, with Jaya, they were first taken as ‘some destitutes.’ “One afternoon, her elderly gatekeeper came to tell [Uma] that there were some destitutes outside asking for her. This was only too common at that time; Bengal was in the throes of a famine, one of the worst in history.”
By this time Dinu was in Malaya at Morningside estate of Saya John and family in Sungei Pattani. He came to inquire about their situation. Saya was suffering from dementia and it aggravated when his son, Matthew and his American wife, Elsa, died in a motor accident leaving their only daughter Alison rather rudderless. Dinu almost instantly attracted to Alison and in fact wanted to marry her.
It was at the same time that Arjun is stationed in Malaya. A flamboyant character, Arjun seduces Alison just before going to the war front. He betrays Dinu’s friendship. Dinu is nevertheless ready to forgive and forget. The Japanese also invade Malaya and in an effort to flee to Singapore, both Alison and Saya get killed by the Japanese. Perhaps that is what Alison wanted, under the circumstances of her guilt towards Dinu.
Tragedy befalls on Arjun when he decides to defect from the British army in support of the Japanese, and more in support of the Indian independence, influenced by a friend, Hardy. True to whatever he decides, he refuses to side with the British, or be neutral, even after the Indian independence is promised and the Japanese had pushed away. Hardy makes the timely change, but Arjun fights to the end.
He fights finally in rural Burma (near Huay Zedi), perhaps brought there for author’s convenience for Dinu to meet! By this time, Dinu is back in Burma. Dinu retorts, “You must see that you don’t have a hope.
At this, Arjun laughed.
“Did we ever have a hope? He said. ‘We rebelled against an Empire that has shaped everything in our lives; coloured everything in the world as we know it. It is a huge, indelible stain which has tainted all of us. We cannot destroy it without destroying ourselves. And that, I suppose, is where I am…”
Arjun later executes his own former batman and a companion, Kishan Singh, under pressure from others when Kishan tried to escape. Then the others escape! Arjun was tracked down by the British with the assistance of a deserter, one of his own men. He refuses to surrender. “It was clear that he did not want to live.”
Mirror of Myanmar
What is this mirror about Myanmar? a reader might ask. The story of the Royals in part one and two of the novel, titled respectively as Mandalay and Ratnagiri, mirror the story of the declining Burma. Burma before colonialism was considered a ‘golden land’ where no one was hungry. But under the British, it changed, polarising the society into different classes, the rich and the poor, and poverty and dislocation creeping in.
It is not only because of the British that the political edifice crumbled. The old order could not face the new challenges, cloistered in falls pride, fear, intrigue and deception. The last King Thibaw was a weakling, perhaps not interested in power. To keep him in power, the Queen had to order the execution of dozens of potential challengers within the same royal family.
The British could not create, or not interested in creating, an intermediary class like what Macaulay talked about for India: “A class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellect.” Instead they used many Indians to govern Burma, especially in the army and the police. Burma in fact was governed as a part of the administration of Bengal until 1935. The Burmese were doubly humiliated.
Presumably a harmonious ethnic mosaic of over a hundred of subgroups before, Burma became succumbed to anti-Indian hatred. Then it spilled over into other ethnic relations.
Before The Wedding, the part three on The Money Tree mirrors the growing Burmese nationalism inspired by a new messianic variety of Buddhism. Dolly was asked “It is true that you worked in the Mandalay palace…Prepare yourself: there is soon to be another coronation. A prince has been found who will liberate Burma.” This was the Saya San rebellion in 1930 reminiscent of 1848 in Ceylon or 1857 in India.
Modern nationalism emerged side by side, led by the educated Burmese. The ‘Thirty Comrades’ were the most prominent, led by Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, by the time when the war erupted. This does not mean that The Glass Place mirrors the Burmese story completely or correctly. As a novel, it is not necessary to be so either.
As it is neatly argued by Pankaj Mishra (“There’ll Always Be an England in India”), The Glass Palace depicts the impact of colonialism on the middle class, particularly in India, Arjun as the main representative in the novel. Perhaps Uma is more representative of the more enlightened sections of this class with clear understanding and sympathy for the variety of Burmese nationalism. Rajkumar undoubtedly is the most lost representative.
There is obviously a major weakness in The Glass Palace when it came to the post-colonial period of the Burmese story. Perhaps the part seven was a later addition or a kind of an after-thought, after the events of the great democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The author, Ghosh, obviously could not jump to the ‘current’ circumstances of the democracy movement without tracing the events of independence, the assassination of Aung San, continued unrest and rebellion, the army take over in 1962 and the simmering student unrest below all these.
The entire period is sketched with a quick brush. The author himself admits, “The seed of this book was brought to India long before my own lifetime by my father and my uncle.” “But neither my father nor my uncle would have recognized the crop.” This is an indication perhaps the story was planned to be end on The [War] Front. The book in essence is a novel, but a historical one. The speed of the last part and the chapters is very evident in many instances. Look at the following in chapter forty-eight.
Relating the deaths of Uma and Rajkumar, Jaya says the following.
“Yes, I remember it very well. My great-aunt Uma had died before you see. They were almost ninety, both of them…”
Then says: “Rajkumar died of a heart attack, a month later.”
Symbol of Glass Palace
There is a particular perspective or viewpoint governing Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. Apart from The Glass Palace Chronicles of the Myanmar’s history, the name derives
Dinu now called U Tun Pe, names his photo studio in Yangon, after the war, The Glass Palace. As he explained to Jaya, his only brother’s daughter in 1996, “It was a favourite phrase of my mother’s…Just some things she used to say…”
There was a hall called the Glass Palace in the Mandalay palace. Dolly particularly liked it. That is all she could remember. The walls were lined with ‘mirrors.’ “Everything there was crystal and gold. You could see yourself everywhere if you lay on the floor,” Dolly told Uma much later.
Dolly always had this conception of reflecting on oneself like in a ‘glass palace.’ When Dolly met Uma, before the war, in then Rangoon, she told the following.
“It’s hard to know where to start, Uma. You’ll remember that I wrote to you about Dinu’s illness? After it was over, I found that something had changed in me. I couldn’t go back to the life I’d led before.”
“Then I heard about an old friend – we used to call her Evelyn. I heard she was in Sagaing, near Mandalay, and that she had become the head of a thi-la-shin-kyaung – what do you call it? – a Buddhist nunnery. I went to see her, and I knew at once that that was where I want to be – that this could be my life.”
After the war and after a while, she in fact went to that ‘glass palace’ with her favourite son Dinu.
“They walked the last few miles to Sagaing and took a ferry across the Irrawaddy. To their intense relief Sagaing was unchanged. The hills were tranquil and beautiful, dotted with thousands of pagodas. Dolly began to walk fast and then Evelyn led her in. The next day, when Dinu went to see her, her head was shaved and she was wearing a saffron robe. She looked radiant.”
Dinu’s ‘glass palace’ was slightly different. It was linked to photography and politics. In the past, he was a left-wing student. He was strongly against Fascism and saw an immense danger. He considered the army or the military with hostility from the beginning. Therefore, his resistance to the army rule in Myanmar after 1962 was natural. He was impressed by the aesthetic theories of Stieglitz, Cunningham and Weston. Edward Weston was of his particular interest.
Dinu, when he was depressed, adored his dark room. “He’d always been able to count on the ambiance of the dark room for reassurance; its dim red glow had been an unfailing source of comfort.”
He was also amazed by the magic of photography and printing. “When you print by contact…when you lay the negative on the paper and watch them come of life…the darkness of the one becomes the light of the other.” It meant life to Dinu.
Dinu continued this venture after the war and even after he was jailed in 1989. He lost his wife, Daw Thin Thin Aye in jail for tuberculosis. She was a radical writer involved in the democracy movement. She used to say: “To use the past to justify the present is bad enough – but it’s just as bad to use the present to justify the past.” When Jaya, his only niece from Neel, went in search of him in 1996 in Yangon, Dinu was having his glass palace day.
“Is it a class? She asked. A lecture course?
No! He laughed. They just come…every week…some are new, some have been here before. Some are students, some are artists, some have aspirations to become photographers…”
This is apparently the ongoing mirror of Myanmar today. The people are reflecting, especially the young. There are many forms of awakening and many forms of reflecting. Dinu quoted Weston. “Weston reflecting on Trotsky…that new and revolutionary art forms may awaken a people or disturb their complacency or challenge old ideals with constructive prophesies.”
If there is any meaning for the symbol that Amitav Ghosh has selected for his novel, The Glass Palace - that is the meaning - the revisualization.
Laksiri Fernando is the author of Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, 2000.
The Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) was originally established as the “Ethnic Nationalities Solidarity and Cooperation Committee” (ENSCC) in August 2001.