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.
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.
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.
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.