Shantaram –not in a nutshell

I walked into Crossword and stumbled upon the book – Shantaram. I started reading the first few pages and was unable to leave without buying it! This book is quite fascinating right from its initial pages. This book is anything but in a nutshell! At a little over 900 pages it looks like a long hard slog but it definitely promises to be great. Apparently, the film rights have already been sold to Jhonny Depp and the author, Gregory David Roberts, is in the process of writing a sequel, that continues the story of Lindsay, from this book.

Based on a specific period of the main character’s life, the book touches on the Indian way of life, philosophy, ethics, underworld crime and war. Indian readers and readers who have been to India can relate more to some of the main characters in the book. The narrator of this book is Lindsay – An Australian, who escapes from jail and arrives in Bombay with a fake passport. In Bombay he makes friends with a tourist guide, Prabakar, who finds a place for Lindsay, in a slum – to live away from the eyes of the law. Lindsay is nicknamed ‘Linbaba’. The slum soon becomes Linbaba’s home. He runs a makeshift first-aid center in the slum. He also gets involved in criminal activities such as smuggling and counterfeiting. Eventually, he starts gun-running to Afghanistan. The book is about his experiences, in Bombay, that range from falling in love with Karla, to meeting the motherly Rukhmabai of Sundargaon. Karla introduces Linbaba to the world of prostitutes while Rukhmabai – Prabakar’s mother – christens Linbaba as Shantaram – Man of Peace. The most important characters in the whole book are Rukmabai, Karla, Kader and Prabakar. These characters showcase sweat and grime, dirt and squalor and extreme poverty. The book is written with genuine affection, passion and generosity. This book could have easily been a simple straight forward narration of a poverty-laden life in the slums. Instead, this book transforms poor people’s lives into an extraordinary piece of fiction.

It is confusing to decide whether  this book is fiction or biography. I assume that fiction has been used to a good extent but most of the story takes place with Linbaba at the center. It is extremely hard to have readers relate to a tough life in the slums. This is exactly where Gregory David Robert’s writing style has helped. His pre-Heroin days in Australia were as a writer. So, his past life has helped in portraying some of the characters in the book in a way that these characters don’t seem like strangers to the reader. The book is also unique because it is a foreigner  writing about India . He Plunges deep into the complexities of Indian society and also successfully brings out the underlying unity. He obviously admires Indians but never hesitates to point out things that are obviously wrong in the Indian system. He  brings out so many aspects of Indian society that will work only in India and will never ever work elsewhere. The book also brings to light details about the systems that operate across the whole world – the police, the currency, gold, drugs, prostitution, village life and so much more. This book could well be a prescribed text book for a short course titled “Crime 101″! What also makes this book so special are the random one liners that pop up at appropriate instances.

Like everything there are negatives to this book also. The read becomes too poetic at several places. Narration, at points, gets quite repetitive and corny. I thought there are several metaphors and other figures of speech that could have well been avoided. But, some readers may love that aspect of the book too. Not me though. The book runs up to a little over 900 pages while I feel the book could have been trimmed down to 700 pages . Not that the book gets boring but just that 900 page read feels a bit longer than a marathon.
So, finally – Shantaram is not just some random book, it is a spiritual travelogue of a life that explains how most complex and most powerful systems have a simple decipherable pattern at their core.
“Simple is the seal of truth, while beauty is the splendor of truth.” – No, that’s not a one liner from this book!
When fate gets tired of waiting, Luck happens to you. I was lucky to pick this book. Are you?
Prasanna Rengarajan

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