This was while I was reading Shantaram. I was halfway through then:
Shantaram is not a book; it’s life itself. A thriller, a page-turner, an extraordinary work of literary art; a story of life, crime, love, redemption, adventure, and drama embedded inside first-class philosophy and literature; a story of India and Mumbai, and their unique diversity and totality of human culture; and a story of a man and his unbelievable destiny and perseverance for eternal survival — each of these may just fail to be a single most defining aspect of this book.
Gregory David Roberts has more to express than mere emotions, more to introduce than mere characters, more to articulate than mere impressive quotes, more to describe than just the city of Mumbai. Shantaram is everything life is not; but when reflected upon in totality, Shantaram might just be everything that life is.
Emotions are expressed through long beautiful pieces of prose that you will want to read and re-read. The thousands of characters in the book are mystical tales in themselves, most mentions of most characters being described repeatedly through their traits, personality, and life histories, and their names. The impressive quotes and one-liners are all works of seductive literary beauty; each will make you want to write it down, just so that you can ogle at those lines for years to come. If you want to understand the city of Mumbai, city guides will be a better choice; for Roberts sets his bar at describing nothing less than the world of Mumbai.
The front and the back cover of the book are a universe apart — for both the reader and the characters. Surviving 930-odd pages of tumultuous, maddening fiction is a feat of perseverance. Every time you feel like cursing the needless length of the book, the pages show you the face of Roberts sneering at you; after all, it was he who set you up for a quest for answers to mysteries you just can’t abandon despite getting irritated. The length of the prose, at such times, feels like a work of sadistic evil, more than a work of fiction. The quality of literature as well as the beauty of the story does seem to deteriorate as we move on from the first half to the second half. I spent most of the second half hoping to get the charm of the first half back, but that does not mean I’d still not rate the book highly overall.
Each character is a complex philosophical theory of the highest order. Each of them is a tribute to the vast complexities and varieties of human life. For a book that seems to mention a new character in every passing sentence, giving life and meaning to so many characters is quite a feat to achieve. Very few books are able to explain the characters, incidents and emotions so vividly that you feel you’ve known them longer than you’ve known your mothertongue. The book teaches how there is no single recipe of being good or bad; goodness and badness lie within actions, not humans.
Written by an outsider who championed Hindi and Marathi with incredible ease, spent time in a Maharashtrian village, and stayed in the slums of Mumbai for a long time, Shantaram is a book that represents India truly: neither respectfully nor embarrassingly, but adequately and accurately.
The ability of almost every character to willingly and skilfully indulge in crime for livelihood is alarming. Having said that, it doesn’t fail to describe the intrinsic goodness of those same characters either: and there it’s complete. I am unsure how many authors would have been able to represent both aspects so satisfactorily.
I’d strongly recommend this book to those who want an intense read. I’d not suggest you to keep reading if you feel dissatisfied after a point in the last two parts of the book. But for the parts before that, please don’t miss this epic. Read it to feel happy about India. Read it to enjoy the experience that Prabaker is. Read it to witness Indian English and Hindi (e.g. words like yaar, Marathi sentences, and of course, Hindi expletives) become global through an Australian author: much like you find French immersed in works by British authors. Read it to find a perspective of Mumbai you might never have known, amidst its slums and crime, the underworld and high-profile people of the 1980s. Read it to be mesmerized by characters you may never forget. The book will mesmerize you enough to make you research portions of it just because everything seems to be based on real incidents.
A review on Amazon, very accurately, says: “Burning slums and five-star hotels, romantic love and prison agonies, criminal wars and Bollywood films, spiritual gurus and mujaheddin guerrillas – this huge novel has the world of human experience in its reach, and a passionate love for India at its heart. Based on the life of the author, it is by any measure the debut of an extraordinary voice in literature.”
About Shantaram: The author Gregory David Roberts was a heroin addict and convicted bank robber who escaped a high-security Australian prison in 1980. He came to Bombay, and here begins this story. He says, “It took me thirteen years to write Shantaram. The first two drafts — six years’ work and six hundred pages — were destroyed in prison.” For that alone, this book is a must-read.
The book is based on real-life events, but is fictional at many places, as contested by some real-life characters described in the book. Roberts, as Lin, the protagonist, with a fake New Zealand passport, meets the tourist guide, Prabaker, who, by the way, might end up being the most memorable literary character you ever meet. In the years that come, he spends time in Prabaker’s village, discovers India, spends more than a year in slums, serves as a slum doctor. He falls in love, acts in Bollywood, falls into a trap to spend torturous time in Indian prison. He works for a mafia don, as a money launderer and forger. He learns Hindi and Marathi with apparently almost native proficiency. He even becomes part of the Afghan war, the place where various portions of the story start getting dissected.