My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I thought I had sworn off Ghosh for good. But an uncle (the same one who had lent me his copy of “In An Antique Land”) told me to pick this book since I was about to go to Burma. With a rather divided mind I eventually got a kindle version of this book and started reading it a few days prior to my departure to the “Land of Gold”. The reading continued well into the trip and I finally finished during a train journey to the northern state of Kachin.
This is definitely one of Ghosh’s better works. It tells the rags-to-riches-and-back story of a certain Indian boy who made it big in Burma. It was partially in line with Haley’s Roots. The exile of the last king and queen of Burma was worked in quite well. The trouble : there was a lack of something pivotal in the story. The protagonist lost center stage at times and while other characters tried gaining focus, they were pushed back into obscurity before they could make their presence felt. It seemed a rather hastened narration of fictionalized history. All this rendered the book rather dry and, had the purpose been so, didactic. Ghosh could have done much better with this story. His research is very evident and the way he has managed to make a story of all the historical events is also very impressive. If only the story-telling had been up to the mark, this book would have been a delight. For me, however, the history of Queen Supayalat and King Thibaw and their palace in Mandalay was a delightful knowledge when I actually saw their effigies in the Mandalay Palace. In a certain way I could relate to the palace through Ghosh’s words, for which I shall ever remain thankful.
Rajkumar Raha, the protagonist of the story, is a young boy who finds himself in Mandalay when the English defeat the Burmese kingdom and make it a part of the Empire. While the king and queen are being exiled, he sees a strikingly beautiful girl, Dolly, in the queen’s entourage and falls in love with her. Years later Rajkumar is wiser and has made a fortune for himself in the Burmese wood industry. He seeks out Dolly in Ratnagiri, asks for her hand in marriage and takes her back to Yangon. The story follows their lives and the lives of the next two generations of their family and the ones closely associated with theirs. In the background take place the Great War and the age of rubber plantations, World War II, Japanese invasion of Malaya and Burma, the struggle for independence of India and Burma, and even the modern usurping of power by the military junta and the struggle for democracy by Aung San Suu Kyi.
I am not sure whether I enjoyed this book or not. Apart from it’s dryness I cannot really find any fault in this one (as opposed to “The Calcutta Chromosome”). Ghosh’s forte remains his research. I still find his storytelling not compatible with my palate. Unless there is another strong recommendation, I would not bother picking up Ghosh’s work proactively.