Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Shantaram- A Book Review


Books have a profound affect on me. I mull over each of them for a long time after I finish reading savoring the way a story is told or at some things that are said. And I continuously read one after the other picking books intrigued by a review or the content in the blurb. Most of the books gifted to me are about dogs. So when this gift from a colleague reached me, I unwrapped the gift wrapper and looked at the bulky book with trepidation. The title Shantaram, very Indian in nature, also did not match with the Australian author’s name, Gregory David Roberts. The blurb was interesting talking about an escaped convict from Australia who had settled in Mumbai and among several other things he had done, being part of Mumbai mafia was one. I kind of guessed the story might be about the adventures of the author. But as I read this opening paragraph,

“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 of 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 an universe of possibility. And the choice you make between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

I reeled under the impact of this profound statement. I plunged into the book. The book is autobiographical and unfolds the remarkable story of an Australian fugitive finding a new life in Mumbai. Gregory David Roberts , the author, was convicted in Australia for armed robberies that he had participated in order to feed his Heroin addiction. He breaks out of the highest security prison in Australia and escapes to India on a fake New Zealand Passport. He lands in Mumbai, becomes associated with local people and makes lot of friends. He goes with the name Lindsay. He meets a local tourist guide Prabakar, who finds him a place to live in a slum away from the eyes of the law. The slum people refer him as Linbaba. This slum is to be his home for the next few years where he runs a makeshift first-aid center in the slum. He also lives in Prabhakar’s village for six months and is rechristened as Shantaram by Prabhakar’s mother. Eventually, he engages in criminal activities like smuggling and counterfeiting, and even starts gun-running to Afghanistan. Going through a tough life is one thing, but putting it down as a book to which readers can relate to is another matter. The author’s writing career before his Heroin days in Australia comes to help. The book is also unique because it is one of the rare real stories in which a foreigner has taken a deep plunge into the deepest of Indian society’s complexities and also done a successful job of understanding the underlying unifying theme. Of course he admires Indians for what they are but never hesitates a moment before showing things that are obviously wrong.
Interspersed amid the numerous characters like Rukhmabai, Prabakar, Karla, Didier and Kader are the sweat and grime, dirt and squalor, disease and fire and extreme poverty - all narrated with genuine affection, passion and generosity. This love and generosity towards the characters and circumstances is what sets Robert’s work apart. What could have been a mere narrative of poor people’s lives is transformed into an extraordinary story.
The other aspect of this book is the details the readers get about the systems that operate in most of the world. The police, currency, gold, drugs, prostitution etc. At no point in the book they overwhelm the main story though. And the best of all are the one-liners from several characters in the book, especially from Karla and Didier, that leave you pondering over them for a long time.
Shantaram is not just a book about crime and criminals or about the slum life. It is a spiritual journey into life itself.

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