There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay's fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven - not an authority to be relied upon.Starting with the subsequent exile of the Burmese royal family to Ratnagiri, Ghosh runs through a century of events and many generations of characters in a book that alternates between the closely pictured personal lives of its characters and wide ranging social and political issues engulfing the sub-continent. He does a great job using such wonderful material to weave a captivating story. The writing is somewhat varying in quality, ranging from mostly sublime to somewhat trite in a few places.
Covering such a large period of time necessarily means that Ghosh picks and chooses the places and periods where his narrative goes into extensive detail. In such places, the book is languorous, describing the setting and emotions in fabulous detail. The visual imagery is striking. The royal palace in Mandalay, and the royal family’s forced removal are captured in such words that one can almost see the events unfold in front of one’s eyes. The teak trade, the dizzying geometry of rubber plantations, and the myriad working class occupations of colonial times are brought forth.
The characters in the first generation, Rajkumar, Dolly, Saya John, Uma and others are fascinating personalities. Born in uncertain times, many to unknown parents, these people without moorings of family find themselves taking whichever opportunities come their way. Yet, rather than be drawn along the stream, each of them stands strong. From Dolly’s dedication to the royal family, to Uma’s independent thinking, and Rajkumar’s entrepreneurship, the reader sees real people whose lives are constructed and change before their eyes. The next generation however, is rendered more as stereotypes – the artistic, liberal minded Dinu, the obedient handsome son Neel, and the innocent soldier Arjun. They appear to be in the novel to represent certain viewpoints or ideas, not as full of surprises as the earlier generation.
Ghosh uses this backdrop and cast of characters to narrate a tale of multiple countries under British colonial rule. The novel expresses the opinions of the rulers and the ruled, conflicting yet each very believable. The role of the British Indian army in the maintenance and expansion of the British empire is well captured, as is the revolt by its soldiers in the WW-II era. Throughout, Ghosh's characters are true to life, and yet represent the larger reality of the world.
A fabulous read.