The size of the imposing blue and red tome can be a deterrent for many less-than-avid readers, but if I had to recommend any book to an adult non-reader to encourage them to begin, it would be Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. The novel is a fictionalized account of Roberts’ life – how much fact and how much fiction is debatable, but once you start reading you won’t care. The very first lines are captivatingly full of promise, offering a glimpse into a world of wonder, of reasoned thought and enlightening experiences.
Release from the ordinary is something we all crave, deep down in the corners of our minds or bubbling just under the surface. And ordinary is the last word that can be used to describe the life and experiences of Lindsay, the protagonist based minutely on Roberts himself. Lindsay is an Australian convict, who has escaped prison and made his way on changing tides to the haven that Bombay becomes. With little money in his pockets and leaving his whole life behind him forever, Lindsay meets a friendly tour guide Prabhakar who, after trying to swindle him and finding him a generous and trusting soul, takes him under his wing. Prabhakar takes Lin, as he is affectionately christened, to his ancestral village where he is named Shantaram, a man of peace, deeply ironic for a convicted armed robber. Lin explores a side of Bombay many of its inhabitants would never have seen, living in the slums as Linbaba, the quasi-doctor. Iranian-fighter-turned-mafia-strong-arm Abdullah Taheri, who becomes like a brother to him, and the exquisitely enchanting Karla introduce Lin to small-time black money exchange, ever broadening the scope of his adventures.
When Lin finds himself in prison for reasons unknown, the novel delves even deeper into the moral codes of system-deemed criminals, and to give us a look at the horrific conditions in Bombay’s Arthur Road jail, no doubt representative of jails around India. It also serves to create a burning desire in Lin to solve the mystery of the reasons and the people behind his incarceration. He is subsequently rescued by Abdul Khader Khan, the leader of Bombay’s mafia clans and then becomes a part of the world of organized crime, a part of the elite circle headed by Khaderbhai. The discussions of the eclectic thinkers who attend the meetings profoundly affect Lin, and make for fascinating reading, adding to the charm and magical quality of the novel. His exploits lead him into and out of situations which make you feel that if Roberts truly has gone through them, he must be an extraordinary man indeed. From Bollywood to murders to Afghanistan, Lin sees it all.
Apart from an intriguing plot, it is Roberts’ masterfully evocative language and the palpable love for all things Indian running through the novel that set it apart and above regular fiction. Themes of love, loyalty, alienation, hardship and endurance are set against the backdrop of colourful, sometimes cruel Bombay. The author’s thoughts and philosophies offer gems of offbeat wisdom, like Karla’s “Truth is a bully everyone pretends to like.” The characters are mesmerizing, though so extraordinary that identifying with them completely could be impossible, but the dialogue and thoughts are compellingly realistic and touchingly natural. The author is warm, sympathetic, enthralling and heart-wrenching, making the semi-fictional novel a masterpiece.
Shantaram is a novel of opposites, of reflections and of adventure. It is a journey through life, and for those of us who long to break free of the shackles of mundanity, a chance to live vicariously the life of our dreams.