I first got hold of a copy of Shantaram from the makeshift book vendor near the shopping area where I was living in Gurgaon, India. Books in India are much cheaper than in Singapore, and I got this copy for RS300 (SD8, USD6.30). (I realised later on that the book might be a photocopy, given the paper quality was similar to that of an aloo (potato) prata wrapper, and there were huge misprints on some pages.)
It’s a real thick book, and I’d never imagine the countless nights I stayed up to read this, night after night. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s life changing, but I think it was one of the things that made me love India even more.
In essence, Shantaram is a 2003 written by Gregory David Roberts, an ex-convict. He was previously a bank robber, who escaped from a maximum security prison and fled to India where he lived there for 10 years. The story is a fine line between a story of his life, though it’s presented as fiction. It talks about the main character – Lin and his life in Mumbai, making a home in the slums, and then mixing with the upper echelons of Mumbai and later the mafia.
If you would need further persuasion, I present to you, eight great reasons to read Shantaram.
1. You want to learn more about India, and other parts of Central Asia.
“The Indians are the Italians of Asia”, Didier pronounced with a sage and mischievous grin. “It can be said, certainly, with equal justice, that the Italians are the Indians of Europe, but you do understand me, I think. There is so much Italian in the Indians, and so much Indians in the Italians. They are both people of the Madonna – they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is music inside the body, and music is food inside the heart.”
I had a big laugh when I read the paragraph above. It’s cute, and true to me, if you think about it. At any “good” Indian outing, there will be song and dance, and most importantly fun. As Lin takes us through his life in Mumbai, to that of the mountains in Central Asia, the book is an eye-opener for a city dweller like me, who has only heard of Afghanistan via news reports of bombings and blasts.
2. You are living in India.
It’s not everyday that you get a chance to see what goes on in a Mumbai jail, and the anecdotes found in Shantaram, although fictitious, sheds some light in that respect. If not for the book, there are other aspects of India you wouldn’t have noticed. Ordinary daily activities such as the black market, weed selling and the challenges slum dwellers face. It’s told in a very down-to earth manner.
3. You are looking for a meaningful way to spend time.
If you have time on the plane, or are thinking of spending a nice Sunday afternoon in the company of a book, pick Shantaram. I promise you will not regret.
4. You are looking for meaning in life.
If you’re wondering what to do with your life, fret not. The main character Lin had escaped from a maximum security prison in Australia, and was still living well, trying to make each day of his life count. Each slum dweller has aspirations, to move into a concrete home with running water, away from fires and diseases. What more about you?
5. You want to write well.
The language used in this book is amazing. It flows so smoothly, perhaps like a song and it sort of gets embedded into your writing voice as well. Shantaram makes you think a second more when you write – to observe again and describe beyond the surface. Be it the description of the streets of Mumbai, or Diedier’s drinking problem, or Prabakar’s big smile, or Karla’s lovely eyelashes, it adds some weight and shows rather than tells, and that to me, is perhaps one of the best ways to tell a story.
6. You have met your very own Karla ( a girl you really love).
If you have tasted the fruits of forbidden love, then I think this book is very apt for you to drown your sorrows in. But it’s not entirely about that, so don’t worry if you have an aversion to “romancy” type of novels.
7. You are into Philosophy.
I’m not, but the character of a Mafia boss in this book is a philosopher, hence the several long writings about the meaning in life etc.
8. You have lost hope in India.
I say this because as a big fan of India, as many people and outsiders are, India has proven to be a disappointment. Over five years since I first touched down, some improvements have been made to the infrastructure, but things on the whole have not improved. There is still corruption, women are getting raped and beaten, and the homeless are still without homes.
It can get quite saddening to know that unlike its next door neighbour China, the overall standard of living has risen only slightly. Even the poorest in China have shoes to wear, and have places to live in during the cold. But Shantaram makes you understand, that India is a different creature, the only one in the world, with years of ancient history like no other. As Shantaram attests to, there’s nothing so special like the “heart” of India. Just when you’re about to give up hope in this chaotic, dirty and crazy country, someone does something that touches you in ways you can never imagine. That’s India for you.