From the brilliant mind of Amitav Ghosh, here comes The Glass Palace, a novel of family relationship, love, loyalty, war, and nationalism.
Rajkumar, an eleven year old Indian, is stranded in Irrawady river of Mandalay, Burma. He is found along with sampan at which he works as a helper and errand boy all along the way back in Bengal Bay. At his age, Rajkumar is a well-traveller. The boat brings him to visit a number of towns and villages lay in between Burma and Bengal. Rajkumar joins the boat after he loses his family because of deadly fever that claims so many lives in villages and cities of the coast.
Once arriving in Mandalay, Rajkumar is told to seek for Ma Cho, a middle age woman who owns a small food stall. On a daily basis, Rajkumar carries bowls of soup and noodles to her customers. On his spare time, he washes utentils. Nearby the stall, Rajkumar sees a fort, a forbidden crossing place for a layman like him. One day Ma Cho tells him that behind the fort lies a city of itself. Gardens, long roads, and canals. That is the place where noblemen, high ranking officials, and Royal Family stay. Hundreds of servants, most of whom are orphan girls, devote their lives for King Thebaw, the last king of Burma kingdom and his cruel wife Queen Supayalat. Hundreds of hundreds rooms with gilded pillars and polished floors are inside the compound with a vast central hall that is like a great shaft of light, with shining crystal walls and mirrored ceilings. People call it The Glass Palace. Rajkumar promises to himself that he must find some ways to go in.
Ma Cho has a secret lover called Saya John, a Chinese look man who loses his wife. His only son, Matthew, lives with his wife’s family in Singapore. Occasionally, Saya John drops by at the stall. Rajkumar and Saya John become good friends. The quiet mode in the Mandalay turns out to be very chaotic when the British soldiers are about to attack the Palace over a dispute on timber. The heart of the matter is that the Kingdom imposes a fine to a British timber company after the latter breaches regulation so as can avoid paying duties. The company reports the case to the British Governor in Rangoon. One of the senior ministers of the Kingdom advises the Queen not to prolong the case hence they could occupy the Palace. To this, the Queen strongly opposes. The war is thus inevitable.
The Royal family is forced to leave the magnificent kingdom along with precious belongings they have. Their servants come along with them, too. On the day when they are leaving the Palace, people eventually can catch glimpses on their rulers, who have inhabited the site. That is also the moment when Rajkumar has a chance to go inside the compound. There, his eyes set upon a beautiful girl who is as young as his age namely Dolly.
For twenty years, the Royal Family lives in Ratnagiri, India, under tight supervision from the British Government. Dozens of servants leave the Royal Family as it runs out of valuable things to pay them. Dolly becomes the only servant who is faithful to the family during the long time of exile. As one by one goes away, Dolly takes care of everything, from nursuring to cleaning up the place where they stay. There she is. That is her life, her world. She has no desire to change her fate until she befriends with Uma, the wife of the Collector, a person whose duty is to take care affairs in relation with the Royal Family.
After Ma Cho is gone, Rajkumar has no one to turn to except Saya John. With him, he travels a lot again, from mountain to mountain, river to river, jungle to jungle, to deliver and arrange timber lodging. After he has enough saving plus help from Saya John, Rajkumar opens his own timber business with an Indian acquitance and his good friend Doh Say. As his business is growing, Rajkumar is brave enough to join a timber stock bid. He is now a rich person.
Uma finds a spark in her life once she is close to Dolly. Uma undergoes a boring life despite the fact she is the wife of a noble man. She learns her activity is in a close connection with regulations, dinners with other officials. Her husband is such an intelligent man, who can make his way through the Cambridge University, in the beginning of 19o0s. He is such a rare man at that time. He chooses Uma over so many girls because he thinks she is smart enough to quickly adjust his intellegent mind. When she is not in meetings or accompanies her husband, Uma sits under a tree and reads a book. That is the place which later turns to be the site where she and Dolly share a lot of things.
A thought comes across Uma’s mind about her newly best friend. She feels Dolly must not stay in Ratnagiri forever. Her best fellow must get married or live somewhere else. Hearing upon this, Dolly is displeased. She regards she has no other places to live other than the Royal complex in Ratnagiri.
Uma’s uncle send her a letter one day. He asks for her help to arrange a meeting with the Royal Family to a sucessful man called Rajkumar Raha. She runs to her husband and demands for his assistance. At first, the Collector denies because of strict procedures from the British Governance to visit the Kingdom in exile. But as Uma explains that she does this for Dolly, the Collector grants her wishes. He will create a dinner at which Dolly can come. Rajkumar will be his personal guest.
Everything seems so awkward once Rajkumar sees his long love Dolly that night. Neither joyful nor smiling, he cant get his eyes off from Dolly, who surprisingly does not recoqnize the man who gives her sweets and help her with the Royal belongings on the day of their exile. When they talk in private, Rajkumar boldly express his feelings on how he comes all the way just to find her. But Dolly refuses the long memory. She convinces Rajkumar that he must be mistaken since it happens long time ago. Rajkumar has his heart broken at the beginning. For some days, he stays in Ratnagiri and asks for help from Uma but to no avail. Dolly insists she does not want to leave the Royal family, especially in time when the First Princess is going to give birth to her first child. Fortunately, things are not too late. Dolly stops Rajkumar on the day when he is in a ship, ready to leave the woman of his dream. They later get married and occupy a house not far from Saya John’s in Burma.
After her successful personal marriage arrangement between Rajkumar and Dolly, Uma leaves her husband. She confesses she does not undergo their marriage as it should be. Soon after she goes back at her parents’ home in Calcutta, the Collector dies as his boat is drowned. Uma is now a rich widow who inherits his late husband’s wealth.
Uma travels a lot since then. She sails to European countries and meets so many good friends. Although she is a widow, Uma never bothers herself on old stigma that Indian widows are imprisoned in an endless chain of mournings over the loss of their husbands. She ends up living in New York and works as a copy editor. She is involved in meetings with other Indians. Even more, she is keen on politic. Throughout the years, Uma and Dolly share their stories via letters. Dolly now a mother of two boys : Neel and Dinu. Uma helps Saya John to find Matthew’s wherebouts. Matthew is in New York as well and has an American girlfriend. He later goes back to Saya John and lives in Malaya.
A significant turnaround occurs in Dolly’s life when she and Rajkumar brings their family to visit Doh Say. Dinu is having fever during their stay. One night, Dolly dreams about King Thebaw. She screams loud, waking her husband afterwards. Dolly learns she has to bring her son to the hospital. Thanks to her quick response, Dinu is saved. The doctor says Dinu is suffering from polio. Later, she discovers that the King dies the night when she dreams of him.
For months, Dolly stands beside her second son. She stays at the hospital while Rajkumar and Neel visit them periodically. Dinu grows to be timid, soft-spoken, introvert boy. During such hard time, Dolly thinks mostly about her and her son and a quiet peaceful life for them. Dolly herself become quiet, too. Rajkumar feels her wife pulls herself out from their world and creates her own. To her, Dinu is the only one worth her attention. Feeling pity of Dinu, Dolly buys him a camera, a device that later turns to become his sole world.
Rubber becomes the most darling natural resources when Matthew comes in Malaya. He and his father clears a forest that later houses a great array of rubber trees in Gunung Jerai. They clear up the land, employ so many people, and construct an office plus a residential site called Morningside.
After so many years living abroad, Uma decides to see Dolly. Together, they and Dinu visit the Matthew’s family. Upon their arrival at the Morningside, Dolly is astonished with the house that is full of polished wood. She is also amazed with scenery surrounding the place. Matthew and his workers are busy in clearing the forest. Timothy, Matthew’s first son, is interested to study in the U.S while his daughter Alison stays with them. Neel, Dinu, and Alison become good friends as if they are indeed relatives.
Burma is not peaceful when Uma comes to the Rajkumar house. Dolly of course shares the same opinion. Dolly says she thinks this is all because of widenin gap between Indian minority with Burmese majority. Dolly confesses she is sometimes afraid when she has to leave her house because she finds herself insecure. People are hoarse, she says. At first, Uma sets aside Dolly’s opinion until she has her own experience on how and Dolly meet strangers in the street and are almost caught in the chaos if Uma loses her temper. Thankfully, Dolly is calm in answering their questions. She askes for Uma to hide inside their car.
Uma and Rajkumar are involved in a battle of opinions on their way out of the airstrip at Mingaladon. Initially, Uma is tearful for witnessing how Indian soldiers are used by the British Empire to kill people who are actually their brothers. Rajkumar interupts her opinion by saying that those soldeirs protect people like him, an Indian citizen, after all. Their war of words go on then stops after Uma blames him for being part of the racial gap driven chaos as he transports many Indian men to work in his timberyard. Rajkumar is angry even more. He accuses Uma for speaking and giving critics things she doesnt actually know. He defends himself that he contributes to his worker’s lives and improves their well beings. To this, Uma really loses her temper when she says Rajkumar is no worse than a slaver and a rapist. Rajkumar stops saying and asks for his driver to send her off. The moment marks their years of silence.
When Uma reaches his brother’s house, she knows she has three wonderful nieces, two of them are twin : Arjun and Manju. While the youngest is Bela. The twin celebrate their good lookings. Arjun chooses to become a soldier, a professional one he claims. While Manju falls in love once she meets Neel on the day she is supposed to take chance on a film audition. They run into each other when Manju is about to leave the film studio. Neel is said to be a film businessman thanks to his father’s advice. He is actually interested to continue his father business in timber but is not allowed to do so. He is told to invest money in movie industry instead. Not long after they meet, both of them decide to get married in Calcutta.
Timber business does not run well at the moment when they wedd. Rajkumar is forced to sell some of his assets to keep his timberyard afloat. Amidst his financial matters, Rajkumar still wants the wedding of his closest son to be memorable. Manju departs for Rangoon after the wedding.
Arjun, on the other hand, moves on with his life in the camp. He is happy with what he does simply because he thinks nothing on nationalism. He puts forward his bright career. During the military training, he has a batman called Kishan Singh and a close pal Hardy. Unlike Arjun, Hardy, who comes from a military family, often questions on patriotisim. He thinks on why he should fight for the British Empire while in fact the European country colonizes India.
Being in the military academy, Arjun once says to Dinu, is like living in a cultural school. That is the place where he and other Indian troops are completely free. They can eat and drink what they like – pork, beef, beer, wine. They can mingle with British counterparts in the training camp. They, later, learn about Western culture.
Rajkumar catches pnenumonia and stays at the hospital, where Dinu once is treated for polio. Lying for months in his bed, Rajkumar recalls so many things that have occured in his life. He soon learns on what his wife urges that they should leave for India because of uncertain circumstances in Rangoon. He usually rejects her idea but now he can understand all of her thoughts. Radio is the only device by which he get to know what is happening around the world when British Empire declares war on Germany. As he is recovering from his illness, Rajkumar finds out a golden opportunity to awaken his business into profit again. He then askes for Neel to take the wheel of the timberyard. Doh Say becomes another figure to stand ready, too. Rajkumar sends Dinu to Morningside to negotiate the selling of his shares for cash so as will inject money for the awakening of his business. Dinu and Rajkumar see their relationship is tying closer when they join a movement to defend the country amidst the war.
Alison finds herself so lonely with his aging grandfather Saya John. Alison’s parents are drowned during a ship journey. She manages Morningside almost all alone. Ilango, Dinu’s stepbrother, helps her along the way. Instead of informing Alison on his father’s willingness to sell his stake, Dinu spends days at Morningside by taking pictures and accompanying Alison. Alison and Dinu are two people with different characteristic. Alison is more outspoken, energetic, extrovert person. She loves to be surrounded with people. As time goes by, however, the two become lover and decide to get married when both of them can survive from war and arrive in Rangoon.
The time has come. Arjun and Hardy eventually know where they will head for: Malaya. They will fight against Japanese troops. The war is spreading so fast that it is approaching Sungei Pattani, a place nearby Morningside. During their calm period in Malaya, Arjun learns Dinu is staying not far from his homebase. He decides to go to Morningside to help Dolly finding for his son’ whereabouts. Dinu never replies her letters for a long time hence she is worried. Its not difficult to search for Dinu. Just tell people about Morningside and everyone knows about the site and Alison.
On the night when Arjun comes in Morningside, Dinu feels a jealousy when Arjun and Alison interact. Dinu says to himself that they are perfect couple as both have similar characteristics. And it is true that Arjun is trying to seduce Alison. She almost falls for him but quickly realizes Dinu is worth more than Arjun.
The war turns out worse than Arjun imagines. He is once shooted at his hamstrings by the Japanese troops. Feeling so much pain in his body, Arjun begins to wonder on why he should fight for the British Empire.
Dinu, Alison, and Saya John manage to flee from Morningside as the situation is getting so chaotic. With the help of Ilango, they intend to take a ship especially to carry evacuees to Singapore. But they are all so upset when knowing the ship is for Westerners only. Dinu even loses his temper that he is beaten when he coarsely says to one of the officers, who is in fact Indian. He curses for the officer who merely does his job without involving his heart when knowing his brothers are in need of help.
After the futile efforts to escape, Dinu, Alison, and Saya John come back at the Morningside. Sleeping is no longer comfortable when the sounds of shootings and explosions can be heard. One night, Alison and Saya John determine to leave the house. Dinu does not come because he wants to take care of Morningside. All is dark when Alison is at her full speed with her grand father sits beside her. The car then stops. She later knows it is having some troubles, which she has no knowledge of. She decides to wait until morning to seek for aid. Amidst her short sleeping, Saya John wanders. Alison is so shocked to know his grandfather is missing. She searches for him along and gasps when she knows some Japanese troops are approaching Saya John. Alison emerges from her hiding when his Baba is trying to fight back them. But Saya John is too old to defend himself. Alison pulls her revolver and shoots the soldiers one by one. Some of them are shot but more are coming to kill her and Saya John. When one of the troops swing at his body, Saya John topples. Alison has no time to mourn the death of her grandfather. As more Japanese are about to attack her, Alison closes her eyes and raises the gun to her temple.
Arjun disovers Hardy and his other fellows in a small village serves as a perfect hideout from the Japanese troops. The inhabitants are very welcoming. Hardy and others make up their minds to betray the British Empire and fight for Japan instead. Arjun, who is initially puzzled with the move, joins them as well at the end.
The war is reaching Rangoon much quicker than Rajkumar expects. When he lines up to draw cash from bank, people are in hurry to leave the city as more and more explosions heard. At this point, Rajkumar no longer thinks about the timber business. He cares much on Neels’ condition as he is now in charge of the yard. But as he arrives at the yard, he finds Doh Say crying in front of an unrecoqnized body. Doh Say already urges Neel to leave the yard as elephants are running wildly in response to the bombings. But Neel insists to stay upon the place. As the animals’ movements are becoming so unbearable, Neel is trampled upon their giant feet.
Rajkumar is completely sad upon the death of his favorite son. Manju, on the other hand, feels much more depressed. She has no passion to live any longer and almost cuts herself. Jaya is still a baby who cries a lot. The time is getting so urgent for Rajkumar’s family. Doh Say advises them to leave for India. So the four of them, including Jaya, head for the country. But the travel is not as smooth as they hope. They have to cross jungle, muddy river. All along the way, Jaya cries. Dolly has to demand Manju to feed her daughter. Dolly and Rajkumar are still strong to pass through the hard times although they are now in their sixties. After days of struggle, they eventually come at the river full of rafts that will carry them to India. During the stay with her in laws, Manju learns Jaya is more like their daughter than her own. She believes Jaya is going to be okay as long as she is with their grandparents. She is gazing at the river and knows the time has arrived. She slips over from the raft to the river. The water is numbingly cold.
Bela is 18 years old when Rajkumar, Dolly, and Jaya reaches her house. She is a spinster and helps her aunt, Uma, with all of her political and social affairs. Uma herself is the supporter of Mahatma Gandi. After a while living in the house, Dolly decides to seek for Dinu. She does not ask for Rajkumar’s companion due to his health. She also feels he can not stay away from his grand daughter. She departs for Morningside all alone after writing a letter for his husband. He never sees her again since then.
Rajkumar spends his old days with Jaya, who gets married when she is just 17 years old to a doctor. She gives birth to a son. Her husband dies in an accident. Jaya determines to continue her study and becomes a professor. When she has chances to have a conference in Goa, she steals few days to recall the legacy of her family. She goes to Ratnagiri. She is amazed with how the Ratnagiri people still remember King Thebaw despite the fact he is not their king. It is revealed Queen Supayalat dies in her hometown in Burma while the princesses get married with laymen.
After returning to Calcutta, Jaya traces back the past by sorting old files from her aunt. One thing lingers on her mind is the whereabouts of Dinu. Bela suggests Jaya to find Ilango, who is now a prominent figure in Malaya after he succesfully brings Morningside out of hard times. He hands over her a picture of photo studio called The Glass Palace.
It takes no hard efforts for Jaya to find the studio. She climbs up the ladder connecting the studio to a residential place. There, she sees a crowd of enthusiastic people on photography. They are listening to Dinu, who is now an old man sitting in a chair with a cane nearby him. Once he completes his course, Jaya introduces herself that she is his brother’s daughter.
Dinu leaves Malaya after Alison’s death. He reaches home only to find her family is heading for India. Dolly meets him on her way to Rangoon. She always wants to live in Sagiang, a place full of pagodas. Dinu regularly visits her mother. A month before his last visit, Dolly dies peacefully. The caretakers of the pagoda sends him a letter but hard circumstances cause it fails to reach him quickly. In Rangoon, Dinu meets Doh Say and his son, Raymond. From them, Dinu knows about Neel and Manju’s death. Dinu joins Raymond and happen to meet Arjun and Kishan Singh before their deaths during the war.
Dinu sets up The Glass Palace through hard efforts in times when the Myanmar, the modern name of Burma, is very watchful with every movement from civil society. He gathers magazine, photos, all artistic items. Gradually, his studio attracts people attention. Old and young gather at his place to talk about art, photography, and other themes under tight supervision from the government. Dinu once marries with Doh Say’s relative Daw Thin Thin Aye, a bright writer and college lecturer. Despite their childnesses, they live happily. They try hard to pull themselves away from politic but this does not last for long. Daw Thin Thin Aye joins a series of meetings after being persuaded by her students. She and Dinu are imprisoned partly because of that. The government, on the other hand, suspects Dinu is in connection with Raymond, who is a traitor and is now at large. Daw Thin Thin Aye passes away after the arrest. Dinu is released from jail and lives by his own.
The year is 1996. Dinu takes Jaya to attend Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech out of her house gate in the capital. After the gathering, Dinu asks for Jaya the last days of his father. Quoting her son’s story, Jaya tells him that Rajkumar and Uma, who used to be long rivals, spend their last days as good friends. Both of them die in their 90s.