Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh; drawing by David Levine

Although the British formally left India more than half a century ago, their presence still sits at the center of that culture like a picture of Miss Havisham’s lost fiancé. It has been tempting—too tempting, perhaps—to place all the Indian writers recently so conspicuous in the West on a spectrum represented at its poles by Salman Rushdie on the left, trying to get back at the Empire by turning its very language and literature into sentences as crowded and noisy as the streets of an Indian city, and, on the right, V.S. Naipaul, perfecting a style more Augustan and austere than even that of his historical masters, and writing with a self-conscious concern for clarity, and for making fastidious discriminations, in an international world ever more without a center.

The distinction is a political one, of course, as well as a generational one (Rushdie’s great good fortune, aesthetically and personally, having been to come into the world just as the British were leaving India), but on neither side have any Indian writers been able to find a resolution of their competing literary legacies as sonorous or affirmative as that, say, of Derek Walcott. Midnight’s grandchildren look a little like children in the wake of a messy divorce, having to choose between an imperial father who’s gone off to lick his wounds and an indigenous mother who, though supportive, seems a little lost.

In recent years, as the American Empire makes its presence more urgently felt in India, and as the West itself begins to be colonized by young Indians in their thirties, the old divisions have at last begun to fade. Many of the most accomplished “Indian writers” now in view (some of them from Sri Lanka or Pakistan, some of them never having even lived in India) refuse to be placed within the old colonial frame. Arundhati Roy, in her God of Small Things, addresses the age-old Indian theme of caste in a style that seems driven by a Lawrentian fury and a cinematic sense of structure, with very little of classic English literature behind it; Abraham Verghese, born to Indian parents in Ethiopia, trains his compassionate diasporan eye on the shifting migrant cultures that overlap in the American South; and Pankaj Mishra, in his impressively lucid and unshowy first novel, The Romantics, turns a style of Naipaulian transparency and rigor on the latest passengers to India, circling around an Indian student who’s never been outside his homeland. In his last novel, An Equal Music, Vikram Seth does not even mention India, and someone who’d never seen his face or name would never guess that he had anything to do with the subcontinent.

Amitav Ghosh, though only forty-four, is already an elder statesman in this field, having published his first novel, The Circle of Reason, in 1986, well before the current vogue for Indian writing began. And he fits into it interestingly because, right after that book, he visibly moved from the phantasmagoric myth-making that in the wake of Midnight’s Children held so many young Indians in its thrall to a prose of clean restraint. Born to Burmese parents in Calcutta, as his new book tells us, and growing up in a diplomatic family that moved from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh to northern India, he attended universities in Delhi, Oxford, and Egypt (and has lived for several years now in New York, where he teaches anthropology at Columbia).

What this means in practice is that Ghosh has one foot in the comfortable upper-middle-class Bengali world we know from Satyajit Ray movies and, more recently, the novels of Amit Chaudhuri, and the other among the displaced peoples of the world, whose sufferings and split identities he has chronicled in reportorial works distinguished for their social conscience and compassion. His books tell us not to hew to any of the old categories: the last one, The Calcutta Chromosome (subtitled “A Novel of Fevers, Delirium, and Discovery”), cut back and forth between networking exiles at their computer terminals in a Manhattan of the near future, a group of friends in Calcutta in 1995, and an Englishman’s researches into malaria in the jungles of Bengal in the late nineteenth century. The one immediately before it, In an Antique Land (1993), perhaps his most graceful and suggestive work, explored the themes of homelessness and the dissolution of borders by bringing together his own experiences as an anthropologist in a tiny Egyptian village in 1980 and the letters he found describing a group of cosmopolitan traders moving between India and the Middle East in the twelfth century.

It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, that his latest book, far and away his most ambitious, is of the kind that could be called a “sweeping multigenerational epic.” Strikingly formal in tone and procedure—public in both manner and, it seems, intention—it follows the lives of a group of Indians and Burmese from 1885, when the British invaded Mandalay and sent the Burmese King Thebaw into an Indian exile, to the streets of Burma today, and the very different struggle for independence currently haunting that country. Though the form of the novel is highly traditional, the one theme giving the huge saga a sense of shape and direction is its insistent, highly contemporary attack on empire and the lost souls left behind it. It’s as if a revisionist wolf were dressed in imperialist clothing.


The Glass Palace begins in Mandalay, in 1885, with Rajkumar, an eleven-year-old orphan from India whose resourcefulness and rootlessness give him something of the air of a Kim in reverse. During the chaos of the British invasion, he happens to spot a royal maid, Dolly, in the glass palace in Mandalay, “beautiful beyond belief, beyond comprehension,” and comes away bewitched. When the Burmese court moves to a languorous exile in the western Indian town of Ratnagiri—a forgotten historical episode that Ghosh recalls with characteristic warmth—Rajkumar follows to claim Dolly. He asks for her hand in marriage, she says no, and four pages later they are wed.

The slightly startling abruptness with which Ghosh pairs off two of his characters is a sign that, in this book at least, he’s less interested in them than in the grand historical forces at play around them. He treats almost everyone with evident affection, and yet it is the affection of a writer with his mind on larger things; rarely does he linger on people and their complexities as he did so searchingly in, for example, his 1988 novel, Shadow Lines. This historical novel is often more history lesson than novel, and its people appear like distant relatives at a family get-together whom everyone smiles at but no one really knows.

In the narrative that follows, we go back with Rajkumar and Dolly to Rangoon, where he, though scarcely literate, sets up a booming business in timber, and we see one of their sons, Neel, become a film producer and the other, Dinu, a photographer. At the same time, we follow Dolly’s best friend Uma, who, when her civil servant husband dies, takes off for Europe and then, in flight from its “ruthless hypocrisies,” to New York, where she joins a group of Indians who agitate for independence under the tutelage of Irish activists (another obscure corner of history that Ghosh vividly illuminates). The book has many widows, virtual and actual, but Uma, independent-minded to the end, is the strongest of them all. While Rajkumar tries to turn even war into an occasion for profit, she returns to India to spread the word of Burma’s suffering and to join Gandhi in his nonviolent fight for freedom.

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Ghosh refers to a “near-obsessive urge to render the backgrounds of my characters’ lives as closely as I could,” and it is this urge that is often most evident throughout the book. He has consulted “hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks” and we get, for example, fascinatingly detailed accounts of how teak camps worked in the Bur-mese jungle or how rubber plantation tappers began their day in Malaya. At times the research almost swallows up the story; we are treated to a brief excursus on the delights of Nyonya food (and then another 126 pages later), and we learn (twice) that the current way of wearing a sari, with blouse and petticoat, was in fact the invention of an Indian official during the Raj. At one point Ghosh suddenly begins classifying cars (“There goes a brand-new 1908 Hutton,” “It’s an Oldsmobile Defender…, mint new, this year’s model, a genuine 1914,” “a new 1938 Delage D8 Drophead,”), and we realize, perhaps with alarm, that this is a device comparable to the flapping of calendar pages in old movies, to show where we are in time.

The real heart of the book, though, and its dramatic centerpiece, lies in the classic imperial setting of World War II, in Burma and Malaya; here everything that is powerful in Ghosh’s somewhat aerial perspective, and everything that is shaky, comes to the fore. He takes us into the Southeast Asian theater of war by cutting back and forth between a shy romance on a rubber plantation in Malaya’s highlands—a microcosm of empire—and another involving the Indian soldiers who are fighting for the British as the Japanese approach. In the love scenes, the widescreen approach leads to some curious effects. As Dinu, the photographer, lies with his beloved, he watches “the horizontal planes of her forehead, her eyebrows and her mouth perfectly balanced by the verticals of her black, straight hair and the translucent filaments that hung suspended from her lips.” The man sees life through camera angles, to be sure, but still it seems odd that the closer the bodies get, the more abstract the language becomes.


Yet even as he seems somewhat ill at ease here with intimacy, and so squanders the emotional force of the scene, Ghosh conveys the larger picture with particular vividness. We see Christmas trees in the department stores of Rangoon whose branches are “whitened with a frosting of Cuticura talcum powder,” and as the Japanese move through Malaya, we follow great crowds of people running for evacuation trains only to find that all the cars are reserved for Europeans. “The road’s embankment was dotted with parked vehicles. Families could be seen to be sleeping in their cars, snatching a little rest before daylight. At intervals one-and-a-half-ton military trucks came barreling down the highway, heading south.” Filmmakers must be relishing the prospect of working with such scenes.

Typical of everything that is most affecting in The Glass Palace are the passages evoking the panicked exodus of tens of thousands of people, nearly all of them Indian, as the Japanese took over Burma in 1942. Even those lucky enough to have made it to Calcutta, more than a thousand miles away, arrived in an already impoverished city in the throes of one of the worst famines in its history. “People were stripping the parks of grass and leaves, sifting through the sewers for grains of rice.” In some ways the two themes that have animated Ghosh’s writing from the beginning—his interest in the lives of middle-class Indian families and his concern for the world’s afflicted—come together stirringly as the very people who once thrived in Burma (including, he suggests, his ancestors) suddenly turn into dispossessed refugees themselves, struggling across rivers and mountains, wheeling the elderly in carts and often dying along the way. The worlds of his fiction and of his reportage memorably converge.

The scene that Ghosh enters most intensely, though, and that seems to nag at him with unusual force, is the one involving Uma’s easygoing nephew, Arjun, who prides himself on becoming one of the first Indian officers in the British army, even as the Indians around him begin asking ever more impatiently why they’re risking their lives to protect the very people who are holding them down. As the novel (and the war) goes on, more and more of them begin slipping away to join the Indian National Army, the unfortunate group that joined the Japanese only to find that its Eastern masters were no more solicitous of its members’ interests than its Western ones had been. (“Asian unity” has always been a notion most persuasive on paper.) Over and over we return to the intense discussions among the soldiers, as Ghosh argues, with great sympathy, that the Indians who might be reflexively written off as “collaborators” were in fact confused idealists, ready to do anything to fight for freedom from British oppression. He also tells us, intriguingly, in his author’s note, that his father was one of the “‘loyal’ Indians” who fought with the British throughout, often against the Indian defectors.

These characters, torn between two kinds of oppression—traitors if they support the British, traitors if they turn toward the Japanese—take Ghosh back to what has always seemed to be his central concern, the consequences of displacement, and his exhaustive research here excavates the many ironies of a British system ready to go through the motions of offering Indians power yet not really willing to change deep down. Indian soldiers were discouraged from carrying umbrellas, he tells us, because they were a traditional sign of sovereignty. Dinner jackets were customarily worn at the mess on Thursdays, “this being the day of the week when the news of Queen Victoria’s death had been received in India.”

Ghosh treats all but a few of his characters with tenderness, yet it soon becomes clear that the ones he regards as the most treacherous are the ones who collaborated with the British, aping the very people who looked down on them, and in this book at least, nearly always destroyed by the empire they served. (Two of them are actually portrayed, in separate incidents, as near-rapists.) At one point Arjun, who has grown more and more troubled by his service to the British army, abruptly kills his most loyal attendant to save him from the plight of becoming an Indian with divided loyalties.

In Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient, this same issue is disposed of, more or less, in two quick paragraphs; here it is what gives life to the narrative, and though Ghosh allows some of his characters (always men, and, to some extent, complicit with the Raj) to speak up for empire, he seldom gives them the last word. Near the end of his life the former Anglophile Arjun acknowledges that the empire “is a huge, indelible stain which has tainted all of us. We cannot destroy it without destroying ourselves.” One of his companions declares that “in a way, the better the master, the worse the condition of the slave, because it makes him forget what he is.” Ghosh’s claim is that the empire so thoroughly stripped India of its roots that even today the educated Indian cannot begin to find a sense of “loyalty, commonalty, faith.” Such creatures of mixed affiliation, he writes with unusual violence, are “deformed,…grotesque, misshapen.”*

Even Burma in this scheme becomes a case study of colonial wrongdoing. India, as Ghosh acknowledges, was rife with divisions and injustices well before the British arrived on the scene; but Burma, he tells us, was peaceful, united under its king, and blessed with universal literacy, equal rights for women, and freedom from the blight of caste before the British invaded. The sad story of how the once “golden land” became a basket case run by eccentric dictators here becomes a tale of imperial perfidy.

I’m not convinced, I must admit, that the decline of Burma, the decisions of some Asians to side with the Japanese during the war, and the confusions of the Indian middle class can all be laid at empire’s doorstep. When I think of my parents and the many others I know who grew up in India during the Raj, I’m not sure that Ghosh, born nine years after the British left, can justifiably claim so sweepingly that for “the Indian public…imperialism and Fascism were twin evils, one being a derivative of the other.” The Indians I know tend to say that they longed for independence, while remaining grateful for some of the good things the British brought, not least the language of Shakespeare and Milton. And in Burma many good Buddhists would surely argue that no system is stronger than we allow it to be in our minds, and that it makes more sense to tend to a wound than to look for someone to blame.

It isn’t fair, of course, to judge a novel by its political argument, but in this case it is the political that promises to elevate the story into something more than a colorful historical drama. At one point, Uma, using the word constantly attached to empire and its subjects here, says that the Raj is a form of “absolute evil” hardly different from Nazism or fascism. “You say that Nazism will rule through violence and conquest, that it will institutionalize racialism, that it will commit unspeakable atrocities…. Is the Empire not guilty of all of this?” When Dinu points out that she’s attacking the English in the language they gave her, she says, “Many great Jewish writers write in German.” As Ghosh himself suggests, one sign of the power of empire is that it defines even those who rebel against it.

Reading such excoriations, I found myself thinking back to A Passage to India, whose first exchange of dialogue involves Indians discussing “whether or no it is possible to be friendly with an Englishman.” Forster acknowledges, as Ghosh might, that Dr. Aziz “generalized from his disappointments—it is difficult for members of a subject race to do otherwise. Granted the exceptions, he agreed that all Englishwomen are haughty and venal.” And later the Englishman closest to Forster in his sympathies, Fielding, cannot bring himself, even when provoked, to give voice to the line that “England holds India for her good.” Yet the point of Forster’s novel, famously, is that generalities divide us as much as the institutions they vilify, and that the only solution to mutual suspicion is to put sympathy before judgment and the person before the group. In this case at least, the one who sounds like a Buddhist sage is the English liberal.

Ghosh is much too serious and responsible a writer to take easy potshots at what he regards as the source of much Asian evil, and his sympathies, movingly, are always with the oppressed. Besides, his interest here is less in the lives of individual Englishmen than in the tortured and divided creatures they left behind them. All he is doing, he might say with justice, is rounding out a picture dominated by British accounts, history in this case having been written mainly by the departing losers. Yet even as he argues, passionately, in writing of the Indian soldiers, that a person’s patriotism can be judged only by his compatriots, he seems reluctant to extend the same principle to the British.

Returning from her travels, Uma, whose sentiments always seem closest to Ghosh’s, says, “That’s the thing about politics—once you get involved in it, it pushes everything else out of your life.” Much of The Glass Palace reads as if it had been written after just such a political conversion. Yet at its conclusion, when the stage is given over to the contemporary figurehead of Burmese independence Aung San Suu Kyi (“beautiful almost beyond belief…,it was impossible to behold this woman and not be half in love”), the book suddenly turns against politics. Dinu argues that “while misrule and tyranny must be resisted, so too must politics itself…, it cannot be allowed to cannibalize all of life, all of existence.” Of course he is saying this by way of affirming his support for a woman whose political power comes from a force beyond politics, and of lamenting the ways in which Burma’s cruel leaders have consigned its people to a prison in which nothing is unpolitical. Yet in the light of everything that’s preceded the outburst, it sounds as if Ghosh is not so much against politics as against the politics of those he doesn’t like.

The Glass Palace performs an invaluable service in showing us how the events of the last century, and especially the war, looked to many people in Burma and India, whose voices have seldom been heard before in the West; but its narrative is obscured occasionally by an abundance of detail, occasionally by political argument. Ten pages before the end, the only character who is a writer advances its only literary reflection. “In classical writing,” she says, “everything happens outside—on streets, in public squares and battlefields, in palaces and gardens—in places that everyone can imagine.” Her own writing, she goes on (speaking, perhaps, for Ghosh as he nears the end of his epic task), is of the modern kind, difficult, and even terrifying, because it involves crossing the threshold into private life. I don’t know how this distinction applies to Shakespeare or Chaucer or Ovid or Sappho or Jane Austen, but it does tell us that, in his characters’ own terms, Ghosh has written a classical novel in which the chief enemies are the very classicists who gave his book its old-fashioned manner—and the settings we recognize from a hundred old British movies.

This Issue

March 8, 2001