I must’ve started reading this 933 page epic a year or so ago. From the first chapter I knew I loved it. Its company was as easy as that of an old friend. And yet it took me so long to actually get through it. I realise now that I didn’t want to part with it.
I’ve taken it to different countries on holiday, steadily chipping away at its wisdom and adventure while lounging on a sun-drenched beach in Sardinia. I’ve grasped on to it when a pilot announced that the plane I was on could not land in its chosen destination due to severe weather and would instead touch down over the ocean in Portugal instead. It felt fitting that I was forced to go with the flow with this book in tow. Shantaram’s main character, Lin, would approve of that. When the leaves fell and the chill began to spread back at home as the seasons changed, I was warmed by this book’s loving embrace.
I feel that there are a great many glories to be found in Shantaram. It is a magnificent, near unbelievable thriller on the surface and something far more philosophical beneath its crashing waves. At times, the dialogue feels contrived and on the nose but I sort of liked how unashamedly big its heart was as the pages absorbed into my consciousness. I found reading this book akin to visiting a tourist trap for the first time. You’re wowed by the big stuff first, glad to finally be in its mythical presence. As you become acclimatised, only then come the temptations to explore where the tracks are less worn. Shantaram contains both journeys. It has high and low roads; cliches and mystery; grit and gloss; light and dark; poetry and punctuation.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, here’s the blurb from the back cover:
A novel of high adventure, great storytelling and moral purpose, based on an extraordinary true story of eight years in the Bombay underworld.
‘In the early 80s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail. Then, in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan . . . Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. It’s a profound tribute to his willpower . . . At once a high-kicking, eye-gouging adventure, a love saga and a savage yet tenderly lyrical fugitive vision.’ (That last paragraph is from a review by Time Out).
So yes, a lot going on there. Something like Midnight Express, The Godfather and Slumdog Millionaire all rolled into one. To be honest, it’s not the kind of thing I would typically read.
I’ve been trying to work my way through some classic novels of late – usually quite dark fare from the likes of Friedrich Durrenmatt, Richard Yates, Graham Greene, Juan Rulfo and Shusaku Endo. Shantaram wasn’t just a welcome distraction from some pretty grim portraits of the human condition, it was a breath of fresh air from a writer who had suffered more than most but who had somehow always found value in every one of those breaths. Shantaram isn’t the perfect novel in literary terms but, for me anyway, it was the perfect sentiment.
Thank you Gregory David Roberts for this nourishing journey to the unknown of the east. I so want to visit India now, more than ever before. Shantaram was a vibrant companion for this jaunt and because I took so long reading it, I too had been on my own pilgrimage through the changing seasons, in different countries, at different points in my life. I’m glad I didn’t rush it. There is life in every breath after all.
“We live on.”