Gregory David Roberts is an ex drug addict, ex prisoner, gun runner, drug dealer, a part of Bombay’s mafia and above all the author of the semi autobiographical novel Shantaram. The first thing that struck me when I started reading the book was the title itself. To name a novel describing extreme violence and gore, drudgery and corruption and the dark world of mafia, came across as being too facetious. So, with a little sceptism, I started reading this 900 page novel. However, as I read the book, the reason for naming the book Shantaram became clearer. Shantaram alias Lin is a very disturbed man, a violent man, who simply craves peace. This novel traces his journey in quest of coming to peace with himself and find a place which he can call his own.
The journey starts with Lindsay Ford or Lin, as he likes to call himself arriving in Bombay in the early 1980’s. It is simply an impulsive decision and he has no plans whatsoever. He just wishes to go with the flow and enjoy a little, trying to get out of his brooding melancholy. He falls in love at first sight, but not with a girl, as you might expect (though that does eventually happens) but with amchi Bombay.
Shantaram is a paean to Mumbai. Even after living in Bombay for the past 18 years, I cannot boast of saying that I know even half of the Bombay that Roberts has described. Reading this book has been an eye opener for and now I look at the city in a completely new light. In a city, where it is claimed that there is no love lost between anyone, we find that Lin is helped by Prabhakar, a young amicable man.
Prabhakar is the one who takes Lin around the unseen unknown parts of Bombay opening the eyes of the reader to wonderful and terrible aspects of Bombay. Lin is also, within a course of time, introduced to other foreigners in Mumbai, who are more Indian than the Indians themselves. So we are introduced to a funny Frenchman Didier, Karla a beautiful lady with a mysterious air around her and many other quirky characters that would induce in the reader extreme reactions.
Lin continues on with his easy life and slowly starts to develop feelings for Karla. Life is good for him till one day, in a cruel turn of fate, he is left penniless. Prabhakar comes to rescue and offers Lin, to come and live with him in the slums, which he surprisingly accepts.
The slum dwellers like Lin because of his efforts to learn Hindi and Marathi, his uncritical behavior and unquestioning acceptance of the slum dwellers and their lifestyle. It is the slums where he experiences a myriad of human emotions, day to day functioning of the slum dwellers, their struggles, their hopes and aspirations, their problems, their deep sense of solidarity and love for each other. All this deeply moves him and he wants to do something for them, just to redeem his past actions.
And thus, Lin takes up the position of the slum doctor. Now this part of the novel comes across as being a dubious account of the author life. We also see the close bonds developing between Prabhakar and Lin, which is why Prabhakar takes him to his native place. It is said that you may like someone and consider him your friend, trust him, but to truly accept the person as a part of your family is one act that will solidify a relationship for a lifetime and more. And it is in this very village that Lin becomes Shantaram, the adopted son of Prabhakar’s family.
The subsequent chapters need a lot of concentration because in between the plot we have chapters devoted to philosophy and philosophical arguments, which I found to be too distracting. In one chapter you are reading a really exciting account of the mafia dealings and in the other the mafia lord Abdel Khader Khan rambling about the greater good. Meanwhile, the plot thickens as Lin is arrested and we get to read about the vivid descriptions of the life in the Arthur Road jail. The surprising fact that none of Lin’s friends come looking for him, hurts him deeply. However, it is later revealed that none of them knew about his whereabouts.
The next part of the books tells about Lin’s work with the mafia. He becomes one of them and is loved and respected. Here he learns about the shady world of the underworld, where humans are expendable, a place where righteous lords exist, the unfair cat and mouse game between the gangsters and the police, who can be easily bribed, world of grandeur, wealth and absolute power.
Lin, all through the novel comes across as being a very confused person in constant state of internal turmoil. But in the end, he is at peace with himself. Shantaram describes his journey where Lin loses his identity but gets it back again and finally is at peace with himself and the world.
Shantaram as a novel is a beautifully written novel that makes you laugh, cry and even shudder in horror. You start living Lin’s life and at the end of each chapter you start wondering what would happen next. One of the biggest flaws made by the writer is that he makes use of too many metaphors. Though at some places they seem apt but in others they come across as being forced and over exaggerated. Karla’s character says some of the most beautiful lines of the book, but then who in real life goes around spouting quotes. I wish Roberts had made a few of the characters more realistic.
However, leaving these minor niggles aside, Shantaram is a wonderful book. The author is eloquent and the language is flowery in the places where it is required. It makes the reader think and carry out an introspection of his life and changes your perception about things slowly and steadily. Shantaram has managed to club different genres into one. There is violence, gore, love, relationships, there is philosophy and hard hitting reality, basically there is everything that will glue you to the book and not rest till you finish it completely.
I would like to end by saying that Shantaram is a perfect ode to the Maximum City Bombay and an entrancing tale of a wonderful man’s life
Click here to read my review of Gerard Durrell’s book Garden of Gods