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Fiction, Non Fiction

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

shantaram

In the early 80’s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian maximum security prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic (with him providing the basic health services) and also joined the mafia, led by the all powerful Abdel Khader Khan and henchmen Abdullah, Abdel Ghani (passport), Majed (Gold smuggling); working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love with Karla Saranaan, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail. Then in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

I have read many books on India, from “The God of Small Things” to “White Tiger” but I have not come across another writer who has been able to capture the world of Mumbai and India in words so vividly and soulfully. Roberts has succeeded in eloquently capturing the soul of India, particularly the undying spirit of the people of Mumbai. Amidst narratives of Bollywood, romance, mafia wars, counterfeiting and cold blooded murders, the novel pays a befitting tribute to the large heartedness of the ordinary Indian.

There are basically 4 phases of his life in the book:

The first phase was his time spent dedicating his time to adjust to Mumbai and as a slum dweller. He operates a health clinic which obtain medical supplies from the black market runs by the lepers. His best friend is Prabaker, where Lin spent 3 months staying in his village learning to speak Marathi. He gets acquainted with Lord Abdel Khader Khan and his friends from weekly meetings of debate and his henchman Abdullah, Khader, Majeed, Abdul Ghani (who specialise in their areas of criminal activities). He is also in love with Karla but never seem to understand her. He mingles with characters from the Leopold bar; i.e. Didier, the French man. Vikram who is madly in love with Letitia. Kavitha a journalist. Lisa Carter, an ex-junkie turned Bollywood casting company manager. Ulla and her unscrupulous friends, gypsy Modena and pimp Maurizio.

Gregory David Roberts aka Lindsay Ford

Gregory David Roberts aka Lindsay Ford, Linbaba, Shantaram (the peaceful man)

The second phase which is also his turning point, when Lin is dragged away one night by the police and locked-up in jail for four months. His time spent in jail was most violence and trying. When he was released, his identity as runaways was exposed. Karla is more elusive than ever issued an ultimatum, but at least they get a week alone in Goa. While the whole city is in fear of Sapna, as the sadistic killer is on the prowl.

The third phase of his life takes on a dark turn. After being a saint in the slum, he lives a life of high crime, working for the Lord and meddling with forgery of passports, gold smuggling etc. having more money than needed. It is also courtship and wedding bells for all three of his friends, as Prabaker got married to Pavarti, Joseph to Sita, Vikram and Letitia.

The fourth phase narrates Lin’s experience fighting alongside with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, against the Russians. A lot more violence and gruesome incidents ensued. Not one of my favourite. I have to leave it for a week, read two other books before I could pick it up again.

The ending: a little wishy-washy. An ending that demands a sequel. The truth about Karla prevails, I didn’t like her when the ugly truth came out. I think Lin is better off with Lisa Carter. The so-called destiny of Lin is a farce as it was all pre-planned by both Karla and the Khader.

There are many arresting descriptions and exceptionally well defined characters. You fell in love and empathise with them. You would expect half of them dead by three quarter of the book. The endearing characters that stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Reflective, intelligent writing that pleases your intellect at every page. Sample these;

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in the shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free, free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when its all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life”

Suffering is the way we test our love, especially our love for God – Khaderbhai

Suffering of every kind, is always a matter of what we’ve lost. When we’re young, we think that suffering is something that’s done to us. When we get older – when the steel door slams shut, in one way or another – we know that real suffering is measured by what’s taken away from us.

The back cover says the book is a literary fiction, it is also mentioned that it is a fictional autobiography. My conclusion is that it is a spell-binding novel which draws its inspiration from real life happenings. But which part is fictional and which is autobiographical? If I am at awe with the fictional incidents, credit goes to Robert’s creativity. If I am at awe with the incidents and think that it is autobiographical, I am at highest awe for what the writer had been through. His acceptance of the darker sides of life without fear courage and without judgement (or revulsion) is something worth emulating. But how do I know where to place the credits when it is due? You see so many reviews that praised his courage and resilience, thinking every incident in the book is his life’s true story. This is a book where the line between fiction and reality becomes vague.

The man himself is enigmatic as well. I find myself having to constantly overcome my stereotypical mindset about criminals. With all the brawn, muscle and his imposing physical presence, he is a self-professed intellectual, writer and a philosopher, his writings are surprising sensitive and insightfulness, detailed with startling perceptions. Roberts makes use of metaphorical prose (Pugnacious unhappiness of his mouth, the upside-down horseshoe of bad luck that fate had nailed to the doorpost of his life, ah Beautiful!), of philosophical musings to explain his feelings and his experience – particularly his discourse with Kaderbhai on the complexities of the universe. Calling him now as Roberts seems surreal as I identified him most as Shantaram or Lin (short for Lindsay). Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. In the end, I ended up regarding Roberts as a man who has seen much of life. He has loved much, and suffered much. My one take away from the epic is that: There is goodness in every ugly thing we perceived in this world, and as long as you are alive there is a chance to be good, and there is a time for redemption and there is a time for success.

Wonderful and immensely captivating philosophical discourses in every other chapter gives this novel a high. An absolutely stunning blockbuster of a book, A sojourn of a lifetime. Not to be daunted by its size, not to be missed for anything.


Verdict: 4.5/5

What I like most about the book: Rich, vivid, full of wisdom, philosophy, love, deceit, betrayal, all the ingredients needed to keep me hooked at least for the first half of the book. It is rewarding. See India from a perspective that you will never read anywhere, for the first time I understand the Indian heart. I came out of the book thinking good about everyone and feeling positive about humanity. :)

What I like least about the book: At 933 pages, it is 400 pages too long. I find it exhausting. By the time I finished, my eyesight deteriorates with the tiny print, my hands ache from holding the heavy book, and the pages fell apart because of flimsy binding. Possible disguise of heroism as real life story. Too many coincidences as Lin kept bumping into one friend and another, or one accident to another. It’s bizarre and questionable.


Gregory david roberts 2About the writer:

He was recognised early for his brilliant writing and was studying philosophy when his marriage broke up.  He was imprisoned as punishment for a series of toy gun robberies that earned him the name “Gentleman Bandit”. because he had chosen to rob only institutions with adequate insurance, he would wear a 3-piece suit, and he always said “please” and “thank you” to the people he robbed.

He went on to escape from Victoria’s maximum-security prison in broad daylight, thereby becoming one of Australia’s most wanted men for what turned out to be the next ten years. After some startling adventures and escapes in New Zealand, Greg travelled to Bombay, India, where he set up a free health clinic in the slums, acted in Bollywood movies, worked for the Bombay mafia as a forger, counterfeiter, and smuggler and, as a gunrunner, resupplied a unit of Mujaheedin guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan.

He was captured in Germany in 1990, was imprisoned and extradited to Australia where he completed his prison sentence. During his second stay in Australian prison, Roberts began writing the novel Shantaram. The manuscript was destroyed by prison wardens, twice, while Roberts was writing it.

He went on to establish a small multi-media company, and is now a full-time writer living in Melbourne.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

28 thoughts on “Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

  1. I saw this guy on TV a couple of times when the book was published – he annoyed me so much I couldn’t possibly read anything he had written. It wasn’t so much his criminal background but his attitude towards it and his complete lack of capacity to accept any responsibility. He was also extremely arrogant.

    Posted by bernadetteinoz | September 6, 2009, 12:13 am
    • You are right there. His writing is evidently full of himself. Read many reviews and most readers was at awe of what he had gone through. but if that is true, why write an autobiography which is labelled literary fiction? I suspected he cooked up a lot of his material and portrayed himself as a hero.

      Posted by jovenus | September 7, 2009, 7:00 am
    • I bought this book in 2007 but due to the sheer size of it I have only just read it. It would be a third of the size without the OTT excessive similes (as Suzi wrote previously). As a work of fiction it is corny and contrived. As an “autobiography” it is pure fantasy. He may well have lived in Bombay for a time and the descriptions are quite probably correct. The feats of daring “the hero” did are what he would have liked to do, but sadly for him didn’t. The Afghanistan escapade is laughable. This man needs psychiatric medical attention as I have a very strong feeling that he probably believes Shantaram to be a true account of what happened to him in Bombay/India/Afghanistan. If he was honest and this was a true account, wouldn’t he write this under his real name of Gregory John Peter Smith? Why hide under another false name? It makes no sense.

      Posted by Jo | January 5, 2013, 1:47 am
      • I read “Shantaram” the same time as “Maximum City” by Suketu Mehta – around when both books came out. Having met both authors, hearing stories of their various encounters from the other participants’ perspectives, can say that Suketu’s take on Mumbai is more “fact” while Gregory’s is much more “fiction” not to be taken for anything else. For those looking for another interesting read, try “Narcopolis” by Jeet Thayil – someone who knows intimately the ‘other’ side of Bombay.

        Posted by Every Day Adventures in Asia | August 8, 2013, 1:10 pm
  2. I like your review. I read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. Haven’t heard Roberts speak so didn’t realize the impression that he isn’t contrite or accepted responsibility for his actions is a common view. I think reading the view of India through a foreigner’s eye vs and Indian’s was quite interesting, a real contrast from the struggles presented in books like the White Tiger.

    Posted by apurvadesai | October 3, 2009, 6:36 am
  3. Hi,

    I have read this book 3 times now. The first time I read it I was totally enthralled to the point where I ignored everyone while I tore through the book. I agree that the ending is a bit weak but I fell in love with it each time I have read it. I have travelled to India and my longest stay there was for 3 and a half months. Hi writing brings all the sights and smells flooding back to me like I was there now.

    Jonny

    Posted by Jonny | January 20, 2011, 2:44 am
    • Hi Jonny, thanks for dropping by. It is exciting to be in India isn’t it? I haven’t been there myself but I imagine I would have a ball. Glad that you like the book so much!

      Posted by JoV | January 20, 2011, 9:03 am
  4. Just finished the book. How tedious! First off, it would be half as long without the excessive similes every couple of sentences. Was he being paid by the word? The main character (and I transfer that to the author) is very arrogant, with an amazing understanding of other people at every turn by some telepathic sense or a flash in their eyes, which only comes in books. If the author or the protagonist had really had this insight neither would have lived the lives they did.

    So many rave about the book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

    Posted by Suzi | March 13, 2011, 8:26 pm
    • Suzi, thanks for dropping by. This is surely not a book for everyone. I think it contains some fictional scenes, but I do enjoy it in parts and some parts I have to drag on. Certainly wouldn’t recommend any author to produce a giant of a book. It puts off more people from reading it than those who actually read it.

      Posted by JoV | March 13, 2011, 10:20 pm
  5. This is the BEST BOOK written and published in this world. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Thank you Gregory for sharing your life experience in India (even if part of it was fictionary) it was just beautiful. I disagree with Suzi and her comments though. I loved the book and will recommend it to all my friends. If you have not read Shantaram then you have missed something in life.

    Posted by kavi | April 24, 2011, 8:58 am
  6. While I agree with Suzi, I still have to admit that the book is captivating. You simply can’t put it down. Never mind the fictional part of it, whatever it is. As a writer, he has the ability to have you hooked. You can’t but get under the skin of the character and live out his life. His narrative is superb and one can visualize Bombay and the romance associated with the city as he takes you through his incredible journey.

    Posted by Pradeep | April 27, 2011, 10:35 am
  7. Lin has just come back from Zaire. I’m 571 pages in and had to put it down, yes very heavy, my eyes and hands hurt, but love the story so far, though not sure I want to leave Bombay for Afghanistan, so may take a bit of a break. Had never heard of the author or the book, a book group I joined last year picked it. Came here to learn more about the fiction/biographical aspect. Have decided it doesn’t matter: he is quite the storyteller, true or not, I’m enthralled with this India, that much seems true and fantastical. And, frankly, the character seems quite humble and shamed by his past inflicted hurts on those he loved and lost.Arrogant? Not getting that. The character is not self-forgiving. Who cares, really, whether the author is, or needs to be.

    Posted by Suse | October 10, 2011, 8:46 pm
  8. Shantaram is a poetic suspending thriller with finest philosophy. The best book I´ve read this year. Is it fiction or not, who cares. It´s awesome literature, poetic and beautiful.

    Posted by Zimi | November 5, 2011, 4:13 am
  9. Roberts acknowledges that the book is a work of fiction. The main character, as he puts it, is a fictional version of himself, and all the characters are invented. With that in mind, there’s no need to worry about the factualness of the book because it isn’t supposed to be a true story.

    You either love Shantaram or you hate it. If you like really long books full of philosophizing and literary imagery it might be for you. Or it might put you to sleep. I’m definitely in the former category.

    Posted by C.P. Slocum | December 26, 2011, 7:13 pm
    • CP Slocum,
      Thanks for the first comment. I’m definitely the former. I like words that inspires, so the more the better provided it doesn’t borderline on being corny. I think he should write his next book. It’s been awhile. If most of it is fictional, I suppose then it is easier for me to stomach it.

      Posted by JoV | December 27, 2011, 7:54 pm
  10. Mate, what an awesome story as a aussie who has travelled India a few times and still goes back often, I was walking so many of those streets with you and pretty much knew where you were in Mumbai or Goa…..

    Posted by Garth Mangan | January 18, 2012, 12:38 pm
  11. I’ve been to India a few times and though I’m no expert on the place, Roberts seems to know what he is talking about, to me anyway.
    Maybe some of you should close your books and go see for yourselves.
    And isn’t it possible that the fiction of fiction might at times be needed?
    Think about it.
    A great book. The views and clues about life and liveing, along with the roller coaster ride, make it well worth the ticket.

    Posted by Michael | June 26, 2012, 3:06 pm
  12. I’m almost halfway through and I can’t put it down!.. and let me tell you something.. when it comes to India, nothing, and I mean nothing is over the top! If you’re an Indian reading it, you’d be like ‘oh yeah.. I know what he’s talking about..’ It’s just that sort of a place, you’ve got to see it to believe :)
    As for the book, it’s magnificent so far! So much heart in it.. I feel like I’m really there with Lin on one crazy emotional, soulful ride of a lifetime!
    Do not miss

    Posted by Shridevi | October 18, 2012, 5:00 am
  13. I just listened to the audible version with all the wonderful accents from India for the different characters, and it brought the book to life. I thought it was one of the best books I’ve listened to (read), and it held my attention throughout, although I also thought the war parts were hard to stomach in long sittings. “How much sin is in the crime, and how much crime is in the sin” was one of my favorites, as a philosophy for staying out of heroin and prostitution, at least until pride brought Khader Khan down, because he was too proud to bring donkeys instead of horses to Afghanistan. I love when the author goes to that much trouble to weave in that kind of detail into the fabric of a story. You understand the man, the country, the cultures, the history better for it. And if an author has to write it three f’ing times because the prison warden destroyed the manuscript of something that is obviously a labor of love to him then I for one don’t blame him for acting however he wants-all we see is the outside anyway-not the soul.Cut him some slack.It is a great, BIG, WONDERFUL BOOK, AND TO LISTEN TO IT IS INDESCRIBABLY FABULOUS. THANKS LIN. THANKS JOV.

    Posted by Jill | January 22, 2013, 1:34 am
  14. Shantaram…….i fell in love with the book right from the word go even though the ending wasnt very interesting.My best character is Prabaker.

    Posted by hary | December 5, 2013, 1:53 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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