Shantaram: A book review

Updated Jun 22, 2013 03:18pm

enter image description hereAfter reading a 900-something-paged book which is thrilling, philosophical, racy, romantic, giddy, heartbreakingly tragic, you would think one would be finally sated – having read something which is possibly about everything there is in the world. But when such a book still leaves the reader slightly delirious and wanting more, it makes you realise that this is no ordinary novel.

Shantaram is one of those rare books, which can make one rethink life from an entirely different perspective. It is almost a meditative experience. The debut novel of Australian writer, Gregory David Roberts, it is essentially an autobiographical piece of work, but parts of it are reportedly fiction as well.

In the year of 1980, while serving a prison sentence in Australia for committing several armed robberies, Roberts escapes to India where he spends 10 years before being caught and extradited back to his native land.

The 10 years in India for Gregory feature a series of transits and events, sometimes too fantastic and inconceivable for the average person. Roberts is welcomed in Mumbai, the busiest city of India, by an affable taxi driver named Prabaker. His first friend in India’s metropolis fondly addresses him as Linbaba.

Prabaker takes Linbaba to the Colaba district of the city where he meets a German woman named Karla and instantly falls in love with her. Lin’s immediate attraction and description of Karla can’t help one draw parallels with the conventional Bollywood films where heroines are almost always idealistically gorgeous. “She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.” “The clue to everything a man should love and fear in her was there, right from the start, in the ironic smile that primed and swelled the archery of her full lips.” However, considering Roberts spent a decade in India and even acted in films, yours truly won’t grudge his Bollywood-like description of Karla. The latter is not a memorable character. Despite Lin’s admiration towards her, she is uninspiring and their relationship is fickle and at best forgettable.

Lin manages to travel around Mumbai on the strength of his association with his taxi-driver friend and is increasingly exposed to the morbid offerings of the city. After a visit to Prabaker’s village, he is dubbed Shantaram, meaning “the man of peace”.

On his return to Bombay, the real drama unfolds with Lin getting mugged and landing up in a slum. Here he sets up a free health clinic for the poor and puts his modest medical training to use. The reader might say that this is where his predicament begins, but does it for Roberts? No. He battles swiftly through mafia, human trafficking, cholera, poverty, which would seem jarringly contrived, if it wasn’t for the realistic portrayal.

With several vile accounts of life and people in Mumbai, Shantaram has the power to make you hate humankind. The part where Roberts is arrested by the Mumbai police and thrown into Arthur Road Prison where he is tortured beyond the cognitive capacities of a person makes for one of the most revolting, yet emotionally rousing moments of the book.

Fortunately, the head of the mafia council in Bombay, Khader, whom our protagonist met before his time in prison, arranges for his release. As Lin seeks out his perpetrator, Khader takes him under his wing. Lin dabbles in drugs, philosophical discussions with his mafia comrades, and even imparts English lessons. Not even India’s film industry is too far-reaching for our central character as he lands in films before abandoning them to fight a war with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Admittedly, the book does make you raise eyebrows more than once as our protagonist seems like a superhero sometimes – living in the Mumbai slums; fighting with the Mujahideen are no mean feats, but Roberts pulls it off.

Shantaram is by no means ordinary. Although, certain events in the book may appear larger than life, it is a fair achievement. Roberts doesn’t labour over India’s myriad problems in the novel, but he isn’t afraid to point them out either. Although, it may prove to be an eye-opening read for foreigners, it is quite commonplace for India’s neighbouring nations, like Pakistan, which shares most of the problems. It is evident that the author genuinely loves India – his warmth towards the country and its people shines through the book.

The gorgeous language, undoubtedly, is the biggest strength of the book. Potent, lyrical, richly philosophical, the prose resonates with one on all the highs and lows of the multi-faceted plot.

For what it’s worth, Shantaram is a thrilling read.


The reviewer is a Multimedia Content Producer at Dawn.com. She can be reached at fatema.z.imani@gmail.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (12) (Closed)


Sid
Jun 22, 2013 01:54pm

Congrats on writing a review of the book which makes someone like me, who has possessed the book for years, wana read it.

Parvez
Jun 22, 2013 02:42pm

.....and it describes Leopolds pretty well. Have read it but found it a bit toooooo long.

Mehmud Ahmed
Jun 23, 2013 04:07am

You did not say if it was available in Karachi with Liberty or someone else and what was its price. Hence the review is incomplete.

Irtiza Kaleem
Jun 23, 2013 07:37am

Better late than never, a good review which summarizes everything about Shantaram.

Good going.

avirattam
Jun 23, 2013 10:01am

@Parvez: I agree. I liked that sentence from the Frenchman who said something to the effect that he was a thief, an illegal, a drug dealer and gay, and it was only in Mumbai that he could be all four at the same time. It's a fairly old book, why the review now?

Sridhar
Jun 23, 2013 10:04am

It is interesting that you should review this book that I read some 7 years ago. I am sure it deserves to be brought to the notice of those who have not heard of it. The last part drags on a bit. Otherwise, it is a wonderful read. An adroit mixture of fact and fiction. Johnny Depp who had procured the filming rights and Mira Nair who was to direct - all have some how lost steam and shelved the project. That is sad.

naveen
Jun 23, 2013 10:22am

Interesting review

Fatema
Jun 23, 2013 10:29am

@Mehmud Ahmed: The book is available in Karachi at the Liberty stores. The price should be somewhere between Rs 595-695.

John D Souza
Jun 23, 2013 11:46am

I think that this is a wonderful review of Shantaram. I have read the book and this review itself is just as interesting. By the way, "fighting with the Mujahideens" also reminds me of John Rambo and Zameer Khan in "Indians in Pakistan." To the uninitiated, the later is a fast-paced action thriller based in Pakistan. You can read the preview at http://pothi.com/pothi/preview?pFile=30876#preview-top

qazi
Jun 24, 2013 01:03pm

Good review, but why so late?

Krish
Jun 24, 2013 03:16pm

@Parvez: The same Leopold attacked by friends of Kasab ?

murli
Jun 25, 2013 11:21am

@Sridhar:

Stop blowing your trumpet by mentioning you read the book 7 years ago. Read the comment by Qazi who too asks why the review is so late.There are several people who have read it, but your comment is regrettably filled with a very large ego and attempting to show off your literary skills. The review is beautiful and so is the book; however your comment is just the opposite. Tone down your ego lest it become unmanageable.