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The road to Mandalay
The road to Mandalay
Amitav Ghosh's new novel is a tour-de-force, a sweeping epic about a
By IRA PANDE
The OUTLOOK Magazine (New Delhi)
July 17, 2000
BURMA, the forgotten (or forbidden) land, has a new chronicler. Using
the Glass Palace, the derelict seat of the last King of Burma, Amitav
Ghosh spins an enchanting web that absorbs the reader so completely that
the 550-odd pages of this book can be read over a long weekend. Spanning
centuries and generations, straddling three countries, India, Burma and
Malaysia, this saga could have exhausted the skills of a lesser writer.
In the hands of Ghosh, a historian by training, an adventurous traveller
and a sensitive writer of fiction, it becomes a confluence of all three.
With remarkable sleight of hand, he juggles history, fiction and travel
writing to produce a story so absorbing that it can be read variously as
a history of Burma over the last two centuries, an enduring romance
between two families, a travelogue about a for gotten Buddhist
The Glass Palace reminds one of a spider's web--a still centre from
where shimmering strands radiate in various directions along structured
paths that trace the same space over and over again in ever-widening
circles. In its architecture, the beginning and end have no meaning,
what matters is the delicate but tensile strength of the strands that
cling to your mind as cobwebs cling to your skin.
Avoiding the media res beginning, much favoured by writers of family
sagas, Ghosh's book uses a dramatic moment to introduce one of its
central caracters, orphen Rajkumar Raha. Guns boom over Mandalay as the
last King is overthrown and the confused flight of the Royal Family is
described by little Rajkumar with the artless fidelity of a child
reporting a spectacle. As the royal entourage is herded unceremoniously
from the Glass Palace, images are etched forever on his mind.
First among these is the face of Dolly, one of the maids accompanying
the princesses. Thus, one strand of history is woven dexterously with
the beginning of another history--the saga of Rajkumar's life. The plot
bobs along on the turbulent events of the succeeding years and the first
phase ends with the complete impoverishment of the King of Burma in
faraway Ratnagiri. Ironically, this is the same arc that makes Rajkumar,
the destitute orphan, so rich from trading in teak the another "king" is
born. Rajkumar travels from Burma to Ratnagiri, marries Dolly and bears
her triumphantly back to the land of her birth. Exile and return are
thus at once a tragedy and a romance.
Throughout, Ghosh uses one end to signal another beginning so that
nothing changes and yet everything does. Life, Death, success and
failure come in cycles and Ghosh uses the conceit of a pair of
binoculars early on to sensitise the reader to this perspective. Thebaw,
the Burmese king, watches over the Ratnagiri harbour with his
binoculars, "predicting" the return of sailing vessels, and warning the
townspeople of impending disasters. What makes the tragedy of human life
bearable is a graceful acceptance of the inevitability of pain and
suffering. The King dwells on the word Karuna, " the immanence of all
living things in each other, for the attraction of life for its
likeness". The connotations of this are clear to Dolly, but almost
incomprehensible to Rajkumar, who cannot detach himself from pain and
suffering in the way she, or the Burmese king, can.
Ghosh distributes the major protagonists over Burma, India and Malaysia,
then knits them together. The strand he uses here, unlike the motif of
love that irradiates the first section, is history. Against the giant
screen that he erects over the stage of South Asia, he enacts a shadow
play with characters who bring alive the region's colonial history.
The spoils of the trade in teak, rubber and slaves along with the lush
tropical forests take the plot up to the point when the first would war
breaks out and everyone, and every country, is sucked into a macabre
dance of death.
The violence of the war years bring sweeping changes in the lives of
characters and countries alike. Ghosh brings alive the ideology of the
INA, dwelling as only a historian can, on the irony of two sets of
Indian soldiers locked in a battle on opposing sides in alien territory.
By far the most moving account is of the Long March from Burma to India.
Refugees displaced by war and hatred stumble along the sticky mud of the
Irrawaddy. Ghosh's prose mimics photography in describing individual
horror; he uses the character of Dinu, a dedicated photographer, to
imprint his word pictures on the text.
The last movement of this long story brings the book up to the gates of
Aung San Suu Kyi's house and the final spotlight falls on "a slim,
fine-featured women?beautiful beyond belief". In 1996, as Suu Kyi
addresses the thousands who gather at her gates each weekend, there are
two whose search through life has led them there. For among the rapt
crowd of listeners are Rajkumar;s son Dinu, the last link with the
original cast of characters, and Bela (a historian, like Ghosh), his
niece from the India branch of the family.
Hope, reconciliation, a affirmation and faith--Suu Kyi's presence leads
the wheel to turn yet again. A perfect arc brings the book to a perfect
'Coming under Burmese fire was surreal'
The OUTLOOK Magazine (New Delhi)
July 17, 2000
Anthropologist by craft and story and story-teller by persuasion--Amitav
Ghosh is widely acknowledged as one of the most gifted and durable
writer-chroniclers of his generation. His most recent novel, The Glass
Palace, covers tow centuries of Burmese history and took him five years
to write. He spent some of that time being shot at by the Burmese army.
Ghosh speaks with Nilanjana S. Roy in a rare burst of
-Did Dancing in Cambodia? provide the spark for The Glass Palace?
It's more accurate to say that Dancing in Cambodia? was background for
The Glass Palace. I had intended to write about the Indian diaspora in
Burma: there's even a slight family connection. My pishemoshai (paternal
uncle) and his family had been settled in Burma for several generations.
As a young man, my father had visited them in Burma.
-You have reputation for thorough research; The Glass Palace is said to
have taken five years in the making.
I spent just about a month in Burma, and a lot of time in Malaysia and
India. Writing and researching took five years; the longest I've spent
on any of my books. Burma is essentially now two countries: the part
under military rule and the interior, which is home to resistance
movements. It's a truly, truly sinister country, because of the military
regime. I was constantly followed and would have been watched all the
time had I not found a very good taxi driver. He helped me elude a great
deal of the surveillance.
-Was your meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi very hard to organise?
It wasn't at all easy even thought I eventually met with Aung San Suu
Kyi twice, in 1996-1997. It was almost impossible to send word to her: I
finally managed to link up with a diplomat from a friendly country. It
was very strange. You walk in through this huge, metal gate, where
you're video-taped by the army people. The house is old-fashioned, like
the ones in Shillong, and it's right next to the lake. Close up, Aung
San Suu Kyi is even more beautiful than you might expect! We talked for
-Were you ever in actual danger?
Writing this book did take me into harm's way, something that happens
very rarely in a writer's life. I spent a lot of time with the
Karenni--insurgents who were under attack form the Burmese army. I
marched along with these revolutionaries armed with Kalashnikovs. Coming
under fire from the Burmese army was surreal. We were shelled: the
Burmese army uses 21mm guns and some pretty heavy artillery.
It took me back to Cambodia, to the time I found myself looking down the
barrel of a gun held by a Khmer Rough soldier who was dead drunk. I
thought, well, here it is, but he eventually moved off. My wife asks me
now how I could put myself in danger armed, in either Burma or Cambodia.
-Are you going to write about all this?
May be I will! It was quite an experience, trekking for days through
dense tropical jungle as a target. I never got hit, though.
-A key event in The Glass Palace is the Long March, when Indians fled
Burma fearing Japanese occupation. It's barely been written about?
It's not been written about al all! There's a single article by a
historian, that too an Englishman, Hugh Tinker. On the Indian side,
there's nothing except unpublished memoirs by survivors. In English,
there are two novels to my knowledge: H.E. Bates' The Jacaranda Tree,
and a fairly bad novel called The Golden Stair. It's strange--there were
over half a million people on the Long March, over 400,000 of them
Indian, and there is such a silence about it.
-An obliteration of history?
It illustrates the degree to which we're truly oblivious about our own
history. I had to hunt for survivors in Bengal; I eventually interviewed
about 10 or 12. It wasn't easy fining them, something like the Long
March shortens your lifespan by 20 years. Doing the interviews was
extremely painful. It was just the absolute knowledge of what they went
through on the March, and the realisation that the whole exercise was
meaningless! There was no need for the Indians in Burma to flee when the
Japanese approached--many Indians did stay back. It makes you realise
the degree to which Indians felt themselves to be the sheep of the
British; the delusions that governed their lives.
-Did you manage to maintain a regular writing schedule?
I usually work to a regular rhythm, but because of the upheaval that
accompanied this book, I didn't stick to schedule. To talk to INA
survivors, for instance, I literally drove around in Malaysia from
village to village, stopping and asking whether there were any INA
-Does a sense of political engagement accompany your sense of history?
That's a question writers get asked a lot these days; personally, I
don't believe it is necessary. I barely ever read the papers, I'm
divorced from politics! Countdown emerged as a human, not a political,
response to the Pokhran blasts. I didn't need the distraction; I was
getting to the end of The Glass Place. But a point came where I felt I
really did have to say something, as a writer and as human being. A lot
of the people I had to meet in order to write Countdown were horrible,
as was the subject itself. There was nothing edifying, nothing pleasant
about it, but I grit my teeth. I wish I hadn't had to do it, but I had
to. It was a personal duty: any writer worth his salt has to tackle
morality, particularly the morality of history.
-You've always stayed away from the media circus that's accompanied
Indian Writing in English (IWE)?
It's a liking of privacy and besides, my publisher Ravi Dayal is very
old-fashioned-- he's not been plugged into the media publicity circuit
in India. I fell that suits me, and it suits Ravi. As far as the media
and IWE is concerned, I've kind of always felt that I've been outside
the machine. Then again, most of the media response to IWE is purely in
the house of fiction, and I've been both in and out of that house.
-Does living in two countries--the US and India--add a measure of
distance to your writing?
It wouldn't have been possible to write The Glass Palace and Dancing in
Cambodia if I was living in India--the lack of resources would have been
a problem, as would have been the lack of distance. Nayantara Sahgal is
right when she says Indian authors who live elsewhere miss the
everydayness of Indian reality. To write a book like The Glass Palace,
you must have distance. A book like this can't be written exclusively
for an Indian or a Burmese audience.
-The Khmer Rough shot at you in Cambodia, the Burmese army shelled you
in Burma. What risks to life and limb are you planning to take on with
your next project?
I can't really talk about it, but yes, it might place me at some slight
risk. I can tell you this: in some ways, what I plan to do now worries
my wife even more!