I must admit: I’m a sucker for well written novels about India. In the past two years, I’ve sampled R.K. Narayan, Suketu Mehta, Salman Rushdie, Vandana Singh, Ian McDonald (not Indian himself, but writes damn good stories) and now Gregory David Roberts, the inimitable author of Shantaram. First impressions run something like this:
Shantaram reads like a Bollywood movie.
Now let me explain that premise. Roberts takes many of the narrative conceits that are put to work in the typical Bollywood movie (the melodrama, the action sequences, the true love, the poetry, the religion, the philosophy, the happy endings and by god even the dance sequences) and deftly weaves them into an overarching narrative about the big questions of life:
Where are we from?
Why are we here?
Where are we going?
The novel is loosely based on Roberts’ life, particularly his experience as a heroin addict and armed robber breaking out of a maximum security prison in Australia and the story of his life in Mumbai, India where he spends approximately the next eight years of his life. He learns to speak Marathi and Hindi, lives in Mumbai under the assumed name of Lindsay (Lin), joins the Bombay mafia as a passport smuggler, runs the currency black market beat, falls in love, gets imprisoned in an Indian jail, acts in Bollywood movies, and even goes to Afghanistan to fight with the mujaheddin. The book weighs in at over 900 pages, and as a writer I’m jealous at how superbly he pulls off these tricks without overwhelming the reader. But this is not the book’s biggest strength.
When authors write cities in fiction, at some level, as the writer, they populate those vasty spaces with all the characters of their own mind. In that sense, Roberts’ Mumbai is not the one Rushdie wrote about in Midnight’s Children and its not the city Mehta explored in his travelogue Maximum City. This is a city that is uniquely Roberts and its streets, its pubs, its markets are all populated with the ghosts of his memory brought to life. His deep understanding of the hitmen, mobsters, prostitutes, slum dwellers, tourists, chai wallahs, taxi drivers, sinners, and saints that populate Mumbai are what bring the book to life in the reader’s mind, because its only through them that the reader can access Roberts’ Mumbai to the fullest.
A Few Minor Objections About the Book:
Although the poetic narrative is one of the book’s biggest selling points, it does slow down the book a few times with its overly verbose description. I did, however, like Roberts’ use of Hindi words in the book. I have a feeling that some readers will be frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary nature he inserts these phrases into the book, but it grew on me. Especially when it led to singing and dancing afterwards.
Roberts uses the novel as a platform to explore some philosophical themes that he calls The Theory of Complexity. The few times he brought this up verged on being pedantic, but the intrusions to the narrative were minor and I guess this can be given a pass when looking at the book overall.
Roberts is currently writing a sequel called The Mountain Shadow, that takes place after the events in Shantaram, but the novel can be read as a stand-alone as it ties together most of the loose plot ends. And, as is typical of Bollywood movies, we get a happy ending, one that borders on bittersweet, to the novel, but we’re never really given a closure to Lin’s story. As to what may happen to him next, I recount to you the popular dialogue from Bollywood movie Om Shanti Om:
Picture abhi bakhi hai meri dost!*
*The movie is still not over my friends!