By Gregory David Roberts
Paperback: 944 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin (September 29, 2005)
Author’s website: http://www.shantaram.com
I must admit an initial reluctance to buy this book because of its size. At close to 1000 pages, I wondered if it was going to be really interesting. Would I have the patience to read yet another tale set in India? Still, I liked the cover design and decided to browse through a copy. So, I picked the book off the shelves and turned the pages to read the first paragraph of his text:
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 realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that 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 it’s 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. … So it begins, this story, like everything else – with a woman, and a city, and a little bit of luck.
I was hooked. I bought the book and did not regret my choice.
This work of fiction and the story of the main protagonist, Lindsay, is very much like the life story of the author; in the first few pages of the novel, it is stated as follows:
Gregory David Roberts … spent many years as a fugitive. In 1978, after his divorce, losing custody of his daughter, and being convicted of a series of robberies committed to support his heroine habit, he was jailed in an Australian maximum security prison and sentenced to nineteen years. In 1980, he escaped over the prison’s front wall, and for the next ten years eluded authorities, living in New Zealand, Asia, Africa and Europe – but for most of that time in Bombay, where he established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers, and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner, and street soldier for the Bombay mafia. He was finally captured in Germany and served out his sentence there and in Australia, during which time he wrote Shantanram. He is now a full-time writer and lives in Bombay.
Reading Shantaram, I got the impression that it is not entirely a work of fiction. Neither is it entirely fact for this is not Mr. Roberts’s biography. Perhaps, it is ‘faction’, which is a mixture of both fiction and fact.
Many times, when I read books where the stories are set in India, it is usually about the past and more often than not, some aspect of the British Raj is introduced. With Shantaram, the author not only set the story in the present, he explored a section of society which very few people have ventured into – the slum dwellers. A point of distinction for this novel was the fact that when it came to dialogue, at times, this author was able to ‘speak’ in Marathi. Again, many times, when reading works set in India, especially in Bombay, the writers glossed over the dialogue of the local people and assumed that everyone spoke Hindi. I liked the fact Mr. Roberts made that difference between Hindi and Marathi in Shantaram. There was some Hindi, yes but this attention given to the use of Marathi in Bombay was what I enjoyed most.
The following are two descriptions, one of a place and another of a character, which both show Mr. Roberts’s mastery over language:
‘I felt myself to be so deep in the flow and the reflux of those narrow lanes so smothered by the intimacy of open doors and perfumed bodies, that it seemed I was walking inside the building, inside the very homes, rather than between them.’
‘His eyes and his lips defined his face. The eyes were unusually wide-set and large, giving him a slightly reptilian stare, and the marvelous lips were so full and sumptuously shaped that they seemed to be designed for a much larger head. His teeth were white and even at the front, but all the teeth on either side were capped with gold. Rococo curves at the corners of his wide nose gave his nostrils a delicate flare, as if he was constantly inhaling a pleasantly intoxicating scent.’
Without a doubt, with such care taken to describe places and people, the world, the people and the circumstances Mr. Roberts created came to life in Shantaram.
As I said before, I was apprehensive about whether I’d finish this tale. But I found that once I started reading, I could not put this book down. I must admit that I skipped the part where the main protagonist was imprisoned; not because I was not interested in it. The reason was far simpler – by then, I’d already become familiar with Mr. Roberts’s style of writing, the detailed descriptions and the images he invoked. I was not brave enough to read what I knew would be the horror of what happened to his character in jail. I do apologise for not reading this part but I just could not. His writing was just too powerful.
Most of all, I enjoyed the truth with which Mr. Roberts ‘spoke’. There are passages in this book which are true in any circumstance. For instance,
‘… politicians. They make a religion of being greedy.’
‘Fanatics … always seem to have the same scrubbed and staring look about them. They have the look of people who do not masturbate but who think about it almost all the time.’
‘The worst thing about corruption as a system of governance is that it works so well.’
‘Good doctors have at least three things in common: they know how to observe, they know how to listen and they’re very tired.’
‘“Happiness is a myth,” Karla snapped back angrily. “It was invented to make us buy things.”’
‘It’s not shame or cruelty that shapes man – it’s forgiveness.’
Usually, when I read a book, it is to use my time in an effective manner. If I’m lucky, I’ll enjoy the tale. If I’m fortunate, I’ll learn something. Rarely, am I so deeply touched and grateful to have read a book that both educates and entertains at the same time. It took Mr. Roberts some thirteen years to complete the manuscript. The lasting impression I get from reading his tale is that throughout the journey of writing this tale, there were two things he kept at the forefront of his mind: in his own words, Saatch aur Himmat (Truth and Courage).
I enjoyed reading Shantaram very much.
1st February 2008