The novel, published in 2000, charts the lives of Rajkumar Raha and his family, starting in Mandalay, where he finds himself stranded when the sampan he is working on breaks down. Rajkumar stays on as a restaurant worker, and witnesses the British depose and deport the last king of Burma, Thebaw, and his family, to India in 1885. During the mayhem here he spies a girl he falls in love with, who works for Queen Supayalat, and after making a success of himself in the timber trade thanks to the lover of his former employer, Chinese merchant Saya John, helping him out, he tracks her down in Ratnagiri, where the family lives in exile. Rajkumar and Dolly move back to Burma, where their business thrives as they have two children.
Many threads are woven tightly in this straightforwardly executed novel as the story ricochets between the main Burmese, Indian and Chinese characters and through wars, into the modern era. While the fictional side of the tale enthralled us, what we loved most was the incredibly colourful historical context. Riots, a royal family in exile, the brutality of colonialism, the teak and rubber trade and more are all described in compelling detail. Take for instance the pages devoted to the British transporting teak: “Often the logs came not singly but in groups, dozens of tons of hardwood caroming down the stream together… At times a log would snag… Then at last something would give; a log, nine feet in girth, would snap like a matchstick. With a great detonation the dam would capsize and a tidal wave of wood and water would wash down the slopes of the mountain.”
Call it erudite historical trivia if you like; Ghosh weaves it effortlessly into the story so as a reader you come away feeling enriched as well as entertained. Have you ever heard of Yenangyaung? It’s “one of the few places in the world where petroleum seeped naturally to the surface of the earth”? Did you know anthrax was common in the forests of central Burma and epidemics hard to prevent? “A trail or pathway, tranquil in appearance and judged to be safe after lying many years unused, could reveal itself suddenly to be a causeway to death. In its most virulent forms anthrax could kill an elephant in a matter of hours.” As, naturally, it will do shortly in the text.
And another aside: Did you know the Irish schooled Indian nationalists in the arts of sedition, who were their “mentors and allies, schooling them in their methods of organisation”? “On St Patrick’s Day in New York, a small Indian contingent would sometimes march in the Irish parade, with their own banners, dressed in sherwanis and turbans, dhoties and kurtas, angarkhas and angavastrams.” The details are exhaustive, but never exhausting. We swallowed them all thirstily.
Ghosh breathes beauty into his prose pitched at just the right level, a difficult achievement no doubt in a tale where purple prose could have easily ruled, or cliches heavily relied upon. Consider this as a street fight description: “The arc of blood seemed to stop in its trajectory, hanging suspending in the air, brilliant translucent, like a string of garnets.”
If you're heading to Burma, you'd do well to spend a few days immersed in this, followed by Orwell's Burmese Days and then Andrew Marshall's The Trouser People. Remember, the Burmese are famed for their literacy rates, so you don't want them to show you up on arrival!
108 results found