It is a world in a book; rather many worlds in a book. I purchased Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” long time back but was overwhelmed by the size of book (it’s has nearly 1000-pages). I, however, took to reading this one on Aug 1, 2008, when I had no other new book lined up for reading. I dusted the book-cover and settled down to read, and soon I was hooked.
Shantaram is a novel influenced by real events in the life of the author, filled with realistic, yet mostly fictional adventures. It is the story of a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escaped from maximum-security Pentridge Prison and fled to India where he lived for 10 years. In Mumbai, he got a glimpse of village life, learnt to speak Hindi and Marathi, lived in the slum and spent a lot of time in improving the medical conditions in the slum, made friends with local people and also with other foreigners. With time he got involved in illegal activities, suffered another spate of heroin addiction, a torturous four-months in Mumbai’s Arthur Road Prison, ironically not to serve punishment for getting on the other side of law, but as a revenge unleashed by someone he has messed around with, and finally he got involved with the Mumbai underworld, and even joined the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
A roller-coaster ride, written with amazing insight, detailed descriptions, a lot of clever one-liners (mostly voiced by the perpetually drunk Didier, or the female protagonist Karla), with discussions on the philosophy of pain and sorrow, and even the Big Bang theory, Shantaram has touched many aspects of life and living that is so unknown to the common man. For some interesting quotes, you can visit: http://www.shantaram-forum.com/shantaram-quotes.html and http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Shantaram
The bulky book is divided into five parts – the first two parts being the best of the four. There is a lot of laughter and fun in these two parts, courtesy the magic of characterization. Prabhaker, with his “solar smile” provides an amazing and often hilarious description of the Mumbai way of life, and introduces the author to a world of the Mumbai slum, and many friends, that he cherishes forever. Prabhaker was a loyal friend and guide and he warned Linbaba, as the author’s character is known in the book, to be careful of the company he keeps, and to maintain a distance from the underworld dons, who beckoned Lin into their world. Even Karla, in her mysterious ways tries to stop Lin from treading paths unknown. But Lin’s life was meant to be crazy and it got crazier by the minute after he entered the world of Abdul Kader Khan, the Afghan mafia don.
Turn to part three of the book, and the fun-reading is replaced by some serious stuff. Part three of the book is slightly difficult to cover as it describes at great length, Lin’s harrowing experience in the Indian prison. It’s heart-wrenching and scary and yet it’s an important part of the story that unfolds, since it makes Lin move away from the slums of Mumbai to the underworld. Part three is a reflection of the protagonists’ grit and determination to survive, even if it diverted his life further in the direction of the unrighteous. It’s the author’s way of justifying his need for revenge and his obligation to the tough men of the underworld.
Part four is again nowhere in the league of part one and two, but is easier to read than part three. The narrative is still very dramatic, but it helps to unravel the final mysteries surrounding the happenings in Lin’s life since he landed in Mumbai. What initially seemed a roller-coaster ride, ends up being driven by a cause and by a set of people! From losing his loved ones, and even the woman he loved, Lin realizes the lost cause in which he has come to be embroiled, and yet the gritty man stands steadfast with his Afghan fighters, and it is his fate that gives him just another lease of life. Part five is the concluding part that ties the strings together and brings the life and circumstances of Lin to a full circle.
The vivid descriptions in the book and the real-life characters and events, especially the deep and sensitive portrayal of Mumbai and its street life, have made readers believe that the book is autobiographical. However, the book cover puts it in the genre of “Literary Fiction”. An interesting debate has ensued over the years regarding whether the book is a biography or fiction. The author himself has been non-committal on the nature of the book, and even the fact file on the official website of the author is in league with the events in the book.