I picked up Shantaram at Bombay Central Station, just minutes before boarding a train to Rajasthan. With the Gregory Roberts mammoth perched on my knees, I peered through the window as the train cleared the last chaotic suburbs of Mumbai, the city that’d been my home for the last couple of months. Shantaram, I was assured, painted a unique, vibrant picture of the city I was leaving and the country I was discovering so I turned to page one with high expectations. Many laughs and gasps later, my nails chewed to the quick, we pulled into Jaipur Station; the 14-hour journey had passed in a flash.
Shantaram charts the enthralling adventures of an Australian convict nicknamed Lin, who, having escaped from a life sentence in his home country, builds a new life for himself in Bombay. The exiled Australian’s rare mixture of white man, medic, felon and intellectual make him uniquely attractive to an unlikely swath of Bombay’s poor, its ambitious and its criminal. Though a work of fiction, the life of Shantaram’s author has sufficient parallels to the protagonist’s to vest the story with an extra layer of depth. Roberts’ personal love and knowledge of the city Lin makes his home are so rooted in fact that anyone who has visited Mumbai, even many years later, can’t help but smile or nod in recognition of many of the people, places, smells and sounds described.
Within hours of his arrival in India, Lin meets Prabaker a slum-dwelling taxi driver come tour-guide whose honest smile and genuine friendship add a warm foil to a flawed, oft selfish protagonist. Soon added to his list of acquaintances are Karla, the beautiful and enigmatic Swiss-American expat who steals Lin’s heart, Didier, an incorrigible French homosexual with a penchant for liquor and irony, Abdullah the handsome mafia killer who becomes a brother to Lin and a whole host of similarly charismatic personalities tied in varying degrees to slums, drugs, scams, and Café Leopold (a Mumbai institution that survives to this day with just as much panache, if a little less intrigue). As his money runs out Lin, the ex-junkie bank robber, is seduced back into a life of crime. His life as outlaw is nevertheless imbued with currents of honour, loyalty, love and courage that not only normalize such a lifestyle but allow it an air of nobility. Central to constructing this aura of distinction is Lin’s professional and personal relationship with a local mafia don, an eloquent Afghan named Abdel Khader Khan. Despite his ruthlessness Khader’s moral compass forbids him to engage in the most distasteful of felonies (selling heroin, sex, children, and pornography); he takes on the role of teacher and father-figure to Lin lending his philosophical discussions a degree of gravity and sincerity they might otherwise lack. Under the veil of fatherly love but with motives that are far from altruistic, Khader deliberately draws Lin deeper into Bombay’s Mafia network and later into dangerous pursuits that take him to Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The sheer breadth of experiences and challenges Lin is faced with -life as a slum medic, drug dealer, lover, prisoner, and soldier – are enough to keep any reader on their toes. The broader interplay of politics, social upheaval and hidden agendas are seamlessly interwoven. Furthermore Roberts is continually introducing and reintroducing characters as varied as counterfeiters, slum lords, journalists and Bollywood producers- whose stories are artfully tied to Lin’s. It is the relationships with these friends, neighbours and enemies that make the book truly fascinating.
At 940 pages Shantaram requires quite an investment in time, effort, and unless you stumble on a lucky second hand copy, money; is it worth it? Absolutely. The author has a truly magnificent way of describing people, which combines genuine affection, with very witty, often laugh out loud conversations, so that the friendships, betrayals and love affairs have a rich, natural progression that bring the characters to life. At the half way mark I was almost convinced I might have found the best book I’d ever read.
Unfortunately it’s about this stage that the writing slips a notch or two. Every paragraph is heaped with similes and metaphors that are far from necessary. At this point Roberts also introduces the philosophy of life mentioned above, and despite attempts to give the intellectual musings weight through Khader, they smack of self indulgence and, in their repetitiveness, begin to grate (I am guilty of skimming past a few paragraphs I admit).
Another criticism levelled by an Indian friend of mine was that the book gave a reductionist portrayal of Indians and Indian society, which ranged from over-generalization to stereotyping and ridicule. I disagree wholeheartedly with this assessment however. Roberts characters are all slightly larger than life, their smiles a bit bigger, their excesses a little more dramatic, their strengths a little grander but I found, perhaps because I read it whilst still in India, that this reflected a more general Indian feeling; it seemed to channel the loud, bright, chaotic, madness so distinctive about India. There are few Indians in the book who are portrayed wholly negatively and if some of the customs induce unexpected guffaws -two grown men being chaperoned by their dates’ mother over dinner- it is because the rigidity of many traditional aspects of Hindu/Muslim India do seem comically outdated to the outsider.
When it came to description of the slums, in which both the protagonist and the author lived at various stages, Roberts artfully juxtaposes the poverty and destitution that defines such environments with the determination and love that held them together. However, where poverty met criminality the author was often a little to quick to distance his protagonist and he never does accept Lin’s inevitable complicity in the darkest aspects of his new world- drug addiction, prostitution and child slavery. In truth, Lin is perhaps the least likeable character. He is often a tad too self-congratulatory about his ability to adapt, assimilate and ‘objectively’ assess his own feelings and failings. A clear example of this, is his exacerbating repetition that he has been able to enter somewhere, survive something or befriend someone because he speaks not just Hindi, but Marathi (the regional language of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is capital). Although his language skills were remarkable, there was no need to mention them on over a dozen occasions. A degree of arrogance in the author is apparent in many of his interviews, his website, and has led many to avoid reading his book because they find him personally nauseating. Though this at times seeps into the stylistic flourishes of the book it does little to detract from a really good story. Shantaram is epic fiction, not social commentary and in that at least it is a beautifully constructed tale and a book I recommend without hesitation.
The worst thing about corruption as a system of governance is that it works so well- Didier
If fate doesn’t make you laugh, then you just don’t get the joke- Karla
I think wisdom is over-rated. Wisdom is just cleverness with all the guts kicked out of it. I’d rather be clever than wise, any day – Didier