April 04, 2020
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The Road To Mandalay

Amitav Ghosh's new novel is a tour-de-force, a sweeping epic about a forgotten land

The Road To Mandalay
The Glass Palace
By Amitav Ghosh
Ravi Dayal and Permanent Black Pages: 574; Rs 495
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 forgotten Buddhist territory.

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 characters, orphan 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 that 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 world 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 woman...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, affirmation and faith - Suu Kyi's presence leads the wheel to turn yet again. A perfect arc brings the book to a perfect end.

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