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Questions of Allegiance

THE GLASS PALACE A Novel By Amitav Ghosh; Random House: 476 pp., $25.95

February 11, 2001|MARINA BUDHOS | Marina Budhos is the author of two novels, "House of Waiting" and "The Professor of Light," and a nonfiction book, "Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers." She has been a Fulbright scholar to India

What an exciting time for Indian writing in English. Every month, it seems, another young Indian writer publishes a novel capturing the migratory pangs of the new Indian diaspora, an immigrant group that now ranges from dot-com engineers in Silicon Valley to taxi drivers in New York. In "The Glass Palace," Amitav Ghosh has staked a different claim: turning the clock backward to examine a lesser-known, earlier Indian diaspora, and in doing so exploring the foundation of modern Indian identity.

Ambitious, multigenerational, "The Glass Palace" is a saga akin to a 19th-century Russian novel. Opening with the British invasion of Burma in 1885, its early chapters focus on Rajkumar, a penniless boy who, through sheer intelligence and pluck, becomes a rich merchant in Burma and marries Dolly, a lady-in-waiting from the exiled Burmese royal court.

From Rajkumar, the novel expands to a vast array of characters in Burma, India and Malaya, all connected through the broader currents of history and the intimate links of friendship and marriage. Out of this large cast, the two most searing portraits are of Rajkumar, the unquestioning empire builder, and Arjun, the tormented warrior who tries desperately to break free of the empire that has molded him.

In the 19th century, Britain was expanding its commercial interests, especially in its colonies. India in particular had become not just a continent to exploit and rule, but a source of raw labor and military muscle that bolstered British dominance worldwide and kept the imperial machine humming. With the end of slavery in the empire in 1833, thousands of poor, willing Indian workers were recruited for work in Burma, Fiji, the Caribbean and Africa--on plantations, in docks, mills and railroads--while others were conscripted into the British army, turning India into what one character in "The Glass Palace" calls a "vast garrison."

In 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny, a failed rebellion of Indian soldiers, contributed to a jittery mistrust between English and Indians. By World War II, when Indian soldiers were forced to put the fight against Japan ahead of their own independence, this simmering tension culminated in a group of soldiers rebelling and forming their own Indian National Army.

This is the complicated backdrop for Ghosh's novel, which centers on the fascinating story of Indians in Burma. By the late 19th century, there was a sizable Indian community in Burma; many were recruited to fill the lowly positions; others, such as Rajkumar, came to prosper as merchants in the growing economy. In the 20th century, as India's independence movement gained strength, and England and Japan faced off in East Asia, these overseas Indians stood at a particularly agonizing crossroads, which tested their sense of national identity. Tragically, the idyll of Indian families in Burma ended in 1942, during the Japanese invasion, when thousands were forced to flee by foot through jungle and mountains back to India.

Rajkumar is the quintessential opportunist, in the best sense of the word. He makes his first money recruiting indentured workers in India, then builds up a teak export business in the hills of Burma. Through Rajkumar we can observe the wheels of British commerce transforming the subcontinent and its other colonies into a vast network of trading and exploitation. And though this book aims at a deep critique of empire, Ghosh does not have so narrow an agenda as to simply bash the imperial masters. After all, in the new colonial system, someone like Rajkumar is not stuck in his born station in life, but given a greater chance to succeed on his own initiative. Instead, through the novel's characters, Ghosh shows the subtle questions of allegiance that come to torment them all.

The first real stirrings of disquiet occur in the transitional figure of Beni Prasad Dey, the district collector responsible for the welfare of the king of Burma, who was exiled to Ratnagiri in India. The Collector, as he is known in "The Glass Palace," has achieved the ultimate status for an Indian, as an esteemed civil servant in the bureaucratic Raj. And yet the Collector is plagued by doubts, "haunted by the fear of being thought lacking by his British colleagues." On a deeper level, though, the Collector is confronted with the awkward position of being a willing servant to an alien power.

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