Author: Gregory David Roberts
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
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Some books are not written because it has a bestseller story but because the story needs to be told. Shantaram by David Gregory Roberts is one such book which takes you through the dream ride of Gregory David Roberts’ visit to India. In the early 80s, Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. Roberts claims that the characters in Shantaram are a work of fiction, but merged with elements from true events and people.
The main protagonist, Lin, arrives in Mumbai (then Bombay) and puts faith in his guide, Prabhaker, who offers to take him on a tour of the “real Bombay”. Soon Prabhaker becomes Lin’s sidekick (reminds you of Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza) and together they explore Bombay’s hidden society of beggars, gangsters, prostitutes and holy men. His stay in the slum makes him learn Marathi and Hindi, establish a free health care clinic, work as a money launderer and a street soldier, thus earning the neighbours’ respect.
Meanwhile, he finds a father figure in a guru like mafia don, Abdul Khader Khan. The philosophical discussions between the father and son and the extent of spirituality a fugitive can attain mesmerize you. Discussions on the existence of human life, fate and the truth bring out some gem of conversations. “If fate doesn’t make you laugh then you just don’t get the joke,” he remarks.
The novel describes a number of foreigners of various origins, as well as local Indians, highlighting the rich diversity of life in Mumbai, specifically Colaba. Lin falls in love with Karla and their love inspires arguably the best metaphorical lines of the book. He describes their lovemaking thus: “My body was her chariot, and she drove it into the sun. Her body was my river, and I became the sea.”
The dark side of Lin is revealed when he is recruited by Khader Khan’s underworld gang for various crime operations and is arrested without explanation, and thrown in the notorious Arthur Road Prison. Thanks to the protection from Abdul Khader Khan, he is released and starts working as a counterfeiter and smuggler. With Khan, Lin goes to Afghanistan to smuggle weapons for Mujahideen freedom fighters. When his mentor Khan is killed, Lin realizes he has become everything he grew to loathe and falls into depression after he returns to India. He decides that he must fight for what he believes is right, and build an honest life. The story ends with him planning to go to Sri Lanka, which lays the premise for the sequel to the book.
More than anything else this book brings in some really enthralling quotes. I am enlisting few of my favorites here.
“She loved the guy. She did it for him. She would have done anything for him. Most loves are like that…Your heart starts to feel like an overcrowded lifeboat. You throw your pride out to keep it afloat, and your self-respect and your independence. After a while you start throwing people out – your friends, everyone you used to know…the lifeboat is still sinking, and you know it’s going to take you down with it.”
“The dishonest bribe is the same in every country, but the honest bribe is India’s alone.”
“Some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.”
“When the wish and the fear are exactly the same, we call the dream a nightmare.”
This was a fun book to read. Read some more reviews here. While some might find the language a little too flowery, and the characters one-dimensional, it has all the elements necessary for a blockbuster. No wonder Johnny Depp wants to make a movie based on it!