After 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.