The persistence of memory in love and war

Amitav Ghosh's sweeping historical novel, "The Glass Palace," begins with a young boy watching the British storm the Burmese royal fortress in 1885. Eleven-year-old Rajkumar, an impoverished orphan from India, sneaks into the forbidden palace and meets Dolly, a beautiful young court attendant. Amid the chaos of looting and violence, Dolly's face is permanently etched into Rajkumar's memory.

Soon after, Dolly follows the banished king and queen to India, while Rajkumar stays in Burma, making his fortune in the timber industry.

The young man is haunted by Dolly until years later, when he meets her again in India. "The Glass Palace" traces the story of their love during the tumultuous 20th century.

Ghosh, the author of three novels and the nonfiction travelogue "In an Antique Land" (Vintage, 1993), weaves an intricate story of desire whose scope and richness echo the fantastic tales of Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Ghosh grounds his latest work in the unassailable march of history and the unpredictable swings of fate, infusing his novel with a sense of the tragic.

History is more than a backdrop for the story of Dolly's and Rajkumar's lives; it is a powerful force that constantly threatens and dwarfs each individual in the novel.

All of Ghosh's characters struggle through an almost overwhelming number of turbulent events: British imperialism, depression, World War II, the Japanese invasion of Burma and Malaya, India's struggle for independence, and military rule in Myanmar.

As in his previous work, Ghosh interweaves several intricate plot lines that follow the lives of multiple characters.

But "The Glass Palace" is even more ambitious in the territory it attempts to cover: the story of three generations of three families in Burma, Malaya, and India.

Both Rajkumar and Dolly make close friends - a Malayan businessman and an Indian woman named Uma, respectively - whose own families become intertwined with the lives of Rajkumar and Dolly's descendants.

Eventually, the novel's multiple plot lines must come to an end - though when they do, the conclusion isn't as satisfying as the unfolding of the story. The author seems compelled to tie up all of the loose threads, resulting in an ending that feels forced.

Nevertheless, Ghosh, an anthropologist by training, masterfully uses cultural details to illuminate the psychological conflicts of colonialism. For example, Uma's nephew Arjun, an officer in the British Army, and his fellow Indian comrades force themselves to eat foreign foods like pork and beef that are taboo in their own culture. These meals are battles that test "not just their manhood, but also their fitness to enter the class of officers."

With the advent of World War II, Ghosh carefully illuminates how Arjun slowly and painfully becomes aware of what he has sacrificed in order to "become" British.

As many Indian troops mutiny and the Japanese invade Malaya, Ghosh describes Arjun's attempt to grasp the surrounding cataclysm in a wistful and haunting voice: "He tried to form the sentences in his head and found that he did not know the right words in Hindustani; did not even know the tone of voice in which such questions could be asked. These were things he did not know how to say, in any language."

With this novel, the author demonstrates that he can balance the sweep of history with the depth and complexity of the individual.

Ghosh spins his tale with harrowing precision and insight, leaving the reader with a lingering disquiet about how the forces of history can irrevocably alter the lives of ordinary men and women.

Heather Hewett is a freelance writer in New York City.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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