In The Expansion of England (1883), the Imperial historian Sir John Seeley infamously declared that “we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind”. While the plural “we” leaves us in no doubt about Seeley’s view of the British Empire, then at its apogee, this oft-quoted sentence added to one of the many strands of mythmaking about Empire: that it was a benign, effortless feat of sprezzatura, so uncalculated as to be an entitlement that would be rude on the part of the British not to accept. (“History has many cunning passages”, as TS Eliot once wrote. If I may be permitted an aside: “absence of mind” nicely encapsulates, with rich proleptic irony, more recent, short-lived British prime ministers, especially one who “delivered” Brexit, which can be seen as the long shadow of Empire come back to play havoc with the present.)

Amitav Ghosh’s fourth novel, The Glass Palace (2000), sets a giant wrecking ball rolling through these programmatic lies about Empire and sees it for what it was and how it was acquired: not “in a fit of absence of mind” but instead through common thievery, duplicity, and violence. As the last ruler of Burma, King Thebaw, is sent to exile in India, he observes “that for all their [the British occupiers”] haughty ways and grand uniforms, they were not above some common thievery.”

Beginning with the deposition of King Thebaw in 1885 and ending in 1996, the sixth year of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest in the military dictatorship that Burma becomes in 1962, fourteen years after independence from British rule, The Glass Palace unfolds over a vast geographical canvas too: the fates of three countries, Burma, Malaya, and India, all British colonies, are linked together. The novel lulls us into believing that it is the destinies and travels – and travails too – of its richly populated cast that provide its cohering principle.

While in one sense that is true, since the novel, at least in its Western variants, is a genre founded on the arcs of individual destinies, I think the more crucial thematic underpinning here is provided by Empire. Look anywhere in the novel, at any of the lives depicted here, and you will see, sometimes obliquely, at other times straight on, the costs of Empire paid by the colonised: brutality, oppression, exploitation; racism directed at native soldiers who provided the manpower for England’s wars; enforced migration; famine; despoliation of natural resources.

The role of natural resources – rubber, teak, oil – in this novel is noteworthy for several reasons. First, they are the material for private speculation and, consequently, wealth or ruin, for several of the principal characters in the book. Second, this private speculation feeds the engine of Europe’s great wars. “The sinews of war: endless money”, observed Cicero. A corollary to that would be how war also generates money for a class of people we might charitably call savvy investors and entrepreneurs or realistically call war profiteers; war is always big business. Looser and more informal networks and organisations of what we now call the military-industrial complex have always existed. The novel offers a close view of such private ur-supply-side before these became complexes and dominant behemoths.

The third point I want to make about natural resources has to be considered in the light of what Ghosh was to go on to publish 16 years later, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, his meditation on why the depiction of climate change has eluded Western fiction. The seed for this later book lies in his 1992 essay, “Petrofiction”, published in The New Republic, but here I would like to note the novel’s running theme of exploitation of natural resources in colonized or conquered nations that scientists were to discover, much later, had contributed significantly to the acceleration of anthropogenic climate change. This twinning of colonialism and effectively fossil fuel extraction is something that Ghosh goes on to expound on magisterially in The Great Derangement, but the first soundings of that great theme are already here.

Set over a large span of South and South-East Asia, a lot of travel and crisscrossing of boundaries of countries necessarily underpin the novel. Now that immigration is front-page news again – it never really left – for all the wrong reasons, it would be instructive to let The Glass Palace remind us of two incontrovertible facts: first, colonialism was a form of economic migration too except it was in the opposite direction to the one we are seeing now, and, second, that most, if not all, of the migration that we witness today had its roots in the colonial enterprise of illegally conquering and looting countries.

As the Second World War enters the narrative, bringing tragedy and upheaval to the lives of the characters, Ghosh turns to the question that has been receiving much attention from scholars lately: who powered the two great wars Britain was centrally involved in last century by providing tens of millions of soldiers? Like most of the history of British colonialism, the issue has been wilfully consigned to oblivion. “In [British-ruled] India,” a character ponders, “… it was the military that devoured the bulk of public monies: although the army was small in number it consumed more than sixty per cent of the Government’s revenues, more even than was the case in countries that were castigated as ‘militaristic’. … India was, in effect, a vast garrison and … it was the impoverished Indian peasant who paid both for the upkeep of the conquering army and for Britain’s eastern campaigns.”

As Ghosh notes in his Acknowledgements, a personal thread may have inspired the novel. His father, Lieutenant-Colonel Shailendra Chandra Ghosh, fought in the British-Indian army in the Second World War and was part of General William Slim’s Burma campaign of 1945. Ghosh writes that his father “was thus among those ‘loyal’ Indians who found themselves across the lines from the ‘traitors’ of the Indian National Army”, which was involved in the armed resistance against British rule. A nation’s people pitted against each other: that Ghosh’s father was caught up in this long chain of the consequences of colonial rule gives the novel an unbearable poignancy.

Excerpted with permission from the Foreword by Neel Mukherjee in The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh, published by Borough Press.