It’s been a very long time since I have been as gripped, inspired and intellectually stimulated by a book as I was when I read Shantaram. Initially highly recommended by my best friend in Holland – she’s got great taste in books – then a colleague purchased it and finally I decided to download it on my Kindle in order to enjoy en route and while in Australia over Christmas, both of which I did.
For anyone who is a passionate traveller or curious about other cultures, Shantaram will either be complete torture – good torture that is, – pure pleasure or a mix of both. The book is so rich and vivid in it’s descriptions you almost feel like you’re in Leopold’s Cafe in Colaba, walking the streets of Bombay with Lin – the protagonist, – sitting on Chowpatty Beach watching the sunset, sharing the pain of his beatings in prison or crossing the Afghan mountains on horseback. And although I’ve never been to India – it was on my list before reading Shantaram – after finishing the book, I’m even more keen to visit.
Gregory David Roberts wrote the first two drafts of the book – both of which were destroyed by prison guards – during his second stint in prison in Australia. He had previously escaped from prison after being convicted of a series of armed robberies to feed his heroin addiction after the breakdown of his marriage and had fled to India where he ended up working for the Bombay mafia for 10 years while in exile. No one knows how much of Shantaram, which was published in 2003, is based on Roberts real life and how much is fantasy but I would guess a lot of it is true.
For me one of the most interesting parts of the books is that both the author and his protagonist are writers and intellectuals turned criminal which makes for fascinating reading in particular when Lin reflects on his personal feelings, emotions and rational, and his riveting conversations about life, death and morality with the Bombay mafia don Abdul Khader Khan.
One of the things that Lin spends a lot of time musing over throughout the book are his past actions, whether they were from his previous life in Australia or generally looking back at decisions he had made or things he had done in his life. One of my friends recently said to me that going away and being somewhere completely different gives you a new perspective on things, it gives you time to reflect on life, on what you have done so far and what your future plans are, and in many ways these reflections often help to re focus your life and priorities. She is absolutely right, and having read Shantaram that also seems to be what both Roberts and Lin are doing; they reflect on their past lives and actions, seeing everything a lot clearer through the passage of time and from the physical distance of the two continents.
From laughing out loud – usually thanks to Lin’s big smiled Indian guide Prabaker – to profound thinking and even crying – also courtesy of Prabaker – the book takes you on an amazing journey from the very first sentence to the last word.
The title of the book comes from the name Prabaker’s mother gives Lin when he stays with his family in their village, Sundar. The name which means “Man of Peace” or “Man of God’s Peace” is in many ways ironic but also increasingly apt the further you delve into Lin’s mind.
I’ve tried to explain what the book is about to a few people but words always literally fail me and I end my feeble attempted explanation with “you just have to read it.” So far I’ve convinced quite a few people to read the book that way, it’s simply one of those books all book lovers should read at some point in life.
One of my pet hates when it comes to reading books is when other people spoil a plot or story for me and although Shantaram is so richly intricate and beautifully written that it would be hard to ruin the story, I don’t want to give too much away. I’m hoping that my humble attempt to write about such a thought provoking and brilliant book is enough to convince you book and travel lovers to pick up a copy.
On a personal side note, the news that Roberts has another book coming out soon, The Mountain Shadow, which further follows Lin’s adventures, literally made my week when I found out and I’ve already pre-ordered my copy on Amazon!