The Fortune of War and The Glass Palace

The Fortune of War was a great read — typical Patrick O’Brian. There are setpiece naval battles, intrigue, romance, all that is a typical of an adventure involving Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend — surgeon and British secret agent Stephen Maturin. They are caught up in the War of 1812 and brought as prisoners of war to Boston. But not all Americans like the war — not the rich Bostonian merchants at least whose trade suffers as a result of the British naval blockade. Maturin meets Diana Villiers again, and this time she is his. She leaves the wicked, rich Southern plantation owner, who also happens to be an American secret agent thick as thieves with the evil Frenchmen, and joins Aubrey and Maturin as they escape from detention and are picked up by a British man-of-war. This synopsis makes it sound like a typical action adventure but O’Brian’s deft characterisation and period details make it a compelling story.

I have just started reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. I earlier tried reading his The Calcutta Chromosome, attracted by the title because Calcutta (Kolkata) is my home town, but gave up — science fiction usually leaves me cold. The Glass Palace, on the other hand, deals with history. It starts with the British colonisation of Burma and, says the blurb, “presents… a band of memorable characters, spread across Burma, Malaya and India”. I have only read the first few pages where an Indian boy, just arrived in Mandalay, sees the British invade the royal capital and depose King Thebaw. The story beginning in the 1880s continues through subsequent generations till Burmese independence and its aftermath. 

I am interested in the colonial experience and expect to spend some agreeable hours reading about the era. Coming from India and living in Singapore, I want to know more about the region and its history, especially as seen through the eyes of immigrants. A lot of Indians, like a lot of Chinese, settled in South-east Asia during British rule. Life for the local population also changed under the British. This book deals with the experience.      

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