Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott
August 2009

Shantaram

by Gregory David Roberts, Abacus/Little Brown, United Kingdom 2003, 936 pages.

 

Shantaram is a big book.  It is not only large in terms of its length (936 pages) but also in terms of its ambition.  The story is wide ranging and encompasses many genders – romance, action /adventure, spiritual odyssey, philosophical musing, war story, crime/mob tale, memoir, etc. – that one wonders if perhaps Gregory David Roberts might have been better off separating the material into two or three individual books.  Yet the novel works as one complete story and is interesting and entertaining to read.  It is also a fast read, despite the size.  Sure, there are times when the story drags for a moment or so – but never for longer than that.  Just turn the page and you’re carried off on the next tale or adventure.  I have some criticisms, of course, but overall recommend the book heartily.

Shantaram reads like a cross between novel and memoir.  My copy was labeled as ‘literary fiction’, whatever that means.   Although Roberts admits that most of the story and characters are imaginary, it is also documented that the novel is based on events from his life.  He actually did escape from Victoria’s Pentridge Prison in Australia in July 1980 and was a fugitive in Bombay for the next ten years.  My first complaint about the book, then, would be in the form of a snarky question: how I should know which parts are true or not?  But the book is not being sold as memoir so this issue resolves itself when I simply decide that the story is not only simply fiction but also a damn good yarn.  Some of the parts which are more fantastic (e.g. the endless pain and beatings that the protagonist lives through and simply walks away to recover from) seem a little more ‘believable’ when taken in the context of fiction.

The central character – the escaped Australian convict – goes by the assumed name of Lindsay Ford.  On his first day in India he meets a ‘tour guide’ with an irresistible smile named Prabaker, whom Lindsay decides he can trust (he sees the trustworthy and good parts of almost everyone he meets, which gets a bit redundant at times).  Prabaker renames Lindsay ‘Linbaba’.   Linbaba hangs out at Leopold’s, the local ex-pat bar, where he meets a colorful bunch of characters, including Karla Saaranen, a Swiss citizen of mixed heritage who has lived in many places.  This exotic multiculturalism makes her the perfect femme-fatale for Linbaba to fall in love with, which he does immediately.   Being the mysterious and secretive soul that she is, she does not return his love in full – somehow she is too damaged and incapable – and we know it will take us most o the book to find out why.  She speaks many languages, including Hindi.  Linbaba also becomes fluent in Hindi and in Marathi as well, which he learns during a six-month sojourn to Prabaker’s village.  During the visit to Prabaker’s village, Prabaker’s mother gives Linbaba the nickname ‘Shantaram’, which means ‘Man of God’s Peace’.  Linbaba, being the spiritual seeker and escaped felon that he is, feels both honored and guilty as he receives this name; he feels unworthy of what the name suggests. 

On the way back to Bombay from the village, Prabaker and Lin are robbed of all their money which forces Lin to move into Prabaker’s slum once they arrive in the city.  The slum becomes the backdrop for the next part of the book.  Here Linbaba not only meets colorful (and trustworthy) locals but Roberts, as author, manages to give these characters soul and substance.  He is also able to portray the slum’s poverty in contrast with the easygoing hope and integrity of its residents without being overly sentimental.  After a fire sweeps through the slum early upon Lin’s arrival there, he breaks out the large and complete first aid kit he happens to have brought along and accidentally becomes the slum’s unofficial ‘doctor’.  He establishes a health clinic (with supplies bought on the black market from a band of light-fingered lepers).   This plot device is perfect, as it allows our convict to become a more spiritual person while bonding with and healing the many more characters that are well rendered and enjoyable to know.  Lin begins to rediscover his humanity and the reader begins to think of him as less of a criminal and more of a seeker, which is clearly as he sees himself, according to the often self-aggrandizing style of the prose. 

Linbaba also becomes a bit of a philosopher once he meets the local mafia don Khader Khan.  Khan and Lin sit around often drinking tea and smoking hash (which occurs often in this book and is portrayed as a normal part of daily life) while pondering the meaning of life. Linbaba and Khader Khan fall for each other as father and son and this relationship appears to be more satisfying than the blood relationships either have with their real parent or child.  Linbaba would die for Khader if he had to – and he’ll get his chance when they run off to Afghanistan later in the book.  But first Linbaba must end up in the local Arthur Road Prison in Bombay where he can be brutally tortured while living in disgusting degrading conditions.  He ends up in prison because he’s angered a local madam with connections in high places. And he must remain there several months before Khader, who is also well connected, can finish his own business with the madam before getting Lin out. 

It seems Linbaba also remains in prison so that the story to shift into macho adventure mode.  Again, though, Roberts, as author, makes this part of the book believable as fiction without going too far over the top.  It seems, however, a bit redundant to have the main character, already an escaped convict, end up in jail again.  Perhaps this is an area where the story could have been shortened a bit.  Yet, some of the most fascinating events occur in this part of the book and, rather than a tangent, this section forwards the plot and story.  One wonders, though, if the author is trying to make some kind of social statement about abuse and hardship in prison or about prisons in general.  (Keep in mind also that ‘prison survival’ fiction is quite popular these days and has become a genre unto itself.  Although he incorporates his genres well in Shantaram, the idea occurs that Roberts is simply looking for a way to market this book to as broad a segment of readers as possible as well.  Though the overall feeling of Shantaram is ‘story’, there is a bit of the smell of ‘product’ about the whole endeavor.  To actually see the author himself ‘sell’ the whole idea of his story and book, google the word ‘shantaram’ and select the video links which come up.) 

After Khader springs Lin from prison, Lin is then even more obligated to accompany him – and a group of other  characters we’ve already come to know – on the ill-fated trip to Afghanistan to fight the Russians or to otherwise prove some point that Khader, who was born there but hasn’t visited for 50 years, wants to make.  Khader feels the strong need to return and ‘do something for his people’.  This need is so strong that Khader’s obsession with it has alienated a lot of the local dons, one of whom betrays his plans to the enemy in hopes that Khader will not return to Mumbai.   Khader shows his weaknesses and flaws as a human being during this trip, which is important for Linbaba to see so that he can resolve all his father issues.  Being a main part of the overall plot and character development, this section is important.  But it is also a long section that meanders off into Rambo-like shoot-outs which almost sabotage the overall believable coherence of the story.   Though necessary, this part of the story could have possibly been shortened or at least a little less sensationalized.

Actually several parts of the book could have been more tightly written but, overall, ‘Shantaram’ does not suffer because of Robert’s tendency to wordiness.  As verbose as he can be, it’s all in context of the ongoing action of the story and never really interrupts the story.   He does know how to spin a good yarn – which is a plus considering the length of the book!  After Afghanistan Roberts returns Lin to Mumbai where he continues to work for the mafia and where several plot lines of the book achieve full resolution.  Another ‘war’ trip (to Sri Lanka) is being planned at the very end of the book so the reader is fully primed for an eventual sequel (though if it’s more of the Rambo-styled hoo-ha, I think I’ll pass). 

A movie, starring Johnny Depp as the main character, has been in the planning stages for several years now but has stalled for various reasons.  Hopefully it will eventually be made.  This type of swashbuckling/spiritual/romantic tall tale is just the type of epic for the big screen – and Depp is the perfect actor to portray Linbaba/Shantaram.  In the meantime, when you have time, you can read and enjoy the story in book form.  According to online reviews, this book is either the best or the worst book people have ever read.  I’d put it more in the middle – it was a very good book and enjoyable read – and leave it at that.