Amitav Ghosh's "The Glass Palace" starts off in Burma in the year 1885, showing monarchy, at its last gasp at the hands of the British, through a stark contrast between the life of a penniless orphan who would later become rich and the unfortunate royal family with its luxurious graces to be condemned to downfall and destitution. The change of power is sudden, and dramatically affects the lives of those involved: "This is how power is eclipsed: in a moment of vivid realism, between the waning of one fantasy of governance and its replacement by the next, in an instant when the world springs free of its moorings of dreams and reveals itself to be girdled in the pathways of survival and self-preservation."But there is more; the sweeping saga that covers continents and generations in its span is at once a political and social commentary on colonialism, an epic tale of the dehumanizing effects of racism and dispossession. Also remarkably, it is a few family chronicles intertwined as a romantic narrative of serendipitous meetings and reunions between more than a dozen characters.Rajkumar, the primary protagonist, is an orphan eleven-year-old stuck in Mandalay. An extremely resourceful boy, he is a survivor, a child with no relations who forges some as he goes along in the form of Saya John and his son, Matthew. He witnesses the tragic irony that marks the deposition of the King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat, and the subsequent loot of abode of the most venerated couple in the country at the hands of his simple, worshipful subjects who turn to robbery at the combined behest of desperation and unforeseen opportunity, and it is here he meets the memorable Dolly, the "most beautiful girl he had ever seen".
Ghosh's depiction of the court are picturesque, painting a Burma of former glory and his description of the King's exile in its anguish and inevitability is almost lyrical, "He sat in one of the armchairs and watched the ghostly shadows of coconut palms swaying on the room's white plaster walls. In this room the hours would accumulate like grains of sand until they buried him."
The story continues with the plight of the royal family in Ratnagiri, India, where Dolly is still taking care of the daughters. The family is under the protection of District Collector Dey, (who is somewhat of a motif for oppression by those who were not British, but served Britain nevertheless, a continuing theme in the novel) whose restless, intelligent and vivacious wife Uma befriends Dolly, to begin a relationship that would last a lifetime.
Rajkumar, on the other hand remains with Saya John in Burma, where under his tutelage and support works in the lumber industry, because the British have turned their ravenous eyes on teak by this time, and there is much money to be made. Again here is an underlying theme of Indians and not the colonial Britishers being the direct agency of exploitation, because the Indians profited out of the business that drained Burma, a fact that does not escape the author's scathing notice.
Rajkumar, after earning his riches sets off to find Dolly, and with some help from Uma, marries his first love. The rest of the novel spans the generations of connections between Rajkumar, Dolly, Saya John's family, and Uma's family against the backdrop of Burma, India, Malaya, New York and modern Myanmar. From the breed of those that worked within the confines of a British-ruled system, by harvesting teak and rubber using slave labor in order to build a prosperous family dynasty, like Rajkumar and Saya John, we come to a generation of those that are caught up in the dilemma between a British upbringing and education and the conscience that speaks to them of an independent India, like Uma's nephew, Arjun.
Once widowed, Uma sets about traveling the world and gains radical views on India's independence. The ties between her and Dolly are further reinforced when her niece Manju marries Dolly's son Neel. Neel's brother, Dinu, meets and falls for Alison, the granddaughter of Saya John, who had taken Rajkumar under