Fiction as History: Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace

Myanmar—does that ring a bell? You guess that, maybe, it’s the same as Burma. And maybe you’ve even heard of its most famous citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi. Or, maybe, you have no idea whatsoever what Myanmar is. And you couldn’t care less.

glass-palaceMyanmar is fascinating—rich in resources, diverse, exotic, unique, complex. Once a monarchy, invaded by the British, then terrorized by a military regime which closed it off to the outside world, it’s now reopened its doors. Rid of its military rulers, it recently voted in a prime minister (Aung Sann Suu Kyi) and welcomed back its once-exiled royalty.

I’m one of the millions who knew only two or three things about Myanmar: 1) It was Burma once upon a time; 2) It’s a small country in Asia; and 3) Its military government imprisoned and politically persecuted Aung San Suu Kyi. But after reading Amitav Ghosh’s book The Glass Palace, a novel, I’ve become much more curious about this country that’s home to many ethnic groups who speak different languages.

Nay W Hlaing_Mandalay Palace
Nay W Hlaing_Mandalay Palace

Sometimes the best way to get introduced to a strange place or to history is through fiction, so long as you’re aware of its limitations as a source of facts. Truth, though, could be more easily appreciated or even better grasped from fiction told in the context of real events. That is what Ghosh achieves in The Glass Palace. And that, I think, is what makes this novel not only interesting but also important to read for those who want to open up their awareness to a world beyond their own.

Indian writer Ghosh’s novel is a family epic; it’s also historical fiction rooted in events that happened when Myanmar was still called Burma. It follows the lives of Rajkumar, his children, and his grandchildren. Not Burmese by birth, he’s an orphaned Indian boy from the lower caste who grows up to become rich in Burma’s logging industry. He marries and has a family whose history Ghosh continues to follow. This history runs alongside great upheavals caused by British invasion. As such, the novel is also a fictionalized account of events in a turbulent period of Myanmar’s history, starting from the time the British exiled Burma’s last king, King Thibaw, to a remote, lightly populated town in India.

King Thibaws state barge leaving Mandalay Palace
King Thibaws state barge leaving Mandalay Palace

Invasion by a western country with superior financial, military and technological power seems to have been the fate of too many Asian countries. The reasons for colonizing Burma is familiar: Here’s an interesting account written in 1929 by E.A. Blair, a British expat in Burma. He calls British rule not only despotic, but also self-interested because Burma is rich in natural resources (forests and precious stones):

If we are honest, it is true that the British are robbing and pilfering Burma quite shamelessly.

British soldiers patrol Burmese town Bahe

The “Glass Palace” of the novel is a hall of “crystal and gold” at the center of the Royal Palace in Mandalay. Among other things, it symbolizes the wealth of the ruling class, and—with its crystal walls serving as mirrors—the eye of the public constantly focused on its royal rulers, even when they’re sheltered behind a fort of huge teakwood posts. While those walls could and do shelter its occupants, they can shatter; thus, the glass palace also signifies the ruler’s fragile hold on power.

“Glass Palace” is also the name Dinu, Rajkumar’s younger son, gives to his photo studio when the repressive military comes into power. This Glass Palace becomes a haven for people to connect with the outside world at a time when it had been essentially closed off to them. There, people could see great pictures by world-class photographers. Pictures they could see nowhere else in Myanmar. There, they could also dream of a future that’s likely to remain only a dream.

Chief Queen's Apartments, Mandalay Palace

At times, this fictionalized history reads like a fairy tale or a fantasy novel. Is it, perhaps the author’s intent to give the story a flavor of unreality? Whether it is or not, the characters live lives far removed from the experience of most people in the western world. You do feel like you’re watching these Burmese lives unfold through glass walls. And, yet, for the Burmese, those lives are their reality.

If you want to know more about Myanmar, try this documentary on Netflix streaming: They Call it Myanmar.

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