My wife bought this book and read it a long time ago. I’ve been meaning to read it but I guess the fact that it is almost 1,000 pages long contributed to it getting neglected on the shelf. But a few weeks ago a friend from work sent out an email recommending it, and as I take friends’ recommendations seriously (they almost always turn out to be spot on) I decided it’s time to read “Shantaram”.
This book is an autobiography of sorts. Gregory David Roberts is a convicted armed robber who escaped from prison in Australia and landed in Bombay (today Mumbai) with a fake New Zealand passport in the name of Lindsay (Lin) Ford. In this book, Mr. Roberts weaves a tumultuous tale based (loosely? closely?) on his experiences in India and, later, in Afghanistan.
As soon as he lands in India, Lin meets Prabaker (Prabu), a man who offers his services as a guide. Lin is charmed by Prabu’s smile and hires him, thus beginning a long friendship that, sadly, ends in tragic circumstances. Lin travels with his new friend to Sunder, his home village, where he learns to speak Mahrati and is given a Maharashtrian name – Shantaram, meaning “man of God’s peace”. After Lin and Prabu are robbed, they end up living in a huge Bombay slum, where Lin runs the local “clinic”, administering first aid using illegal medicine procured from the city’s leper colony.
There is also the local “expat” community – French, Italians, Germans, Nigerians – most of whom escaped a former life and are etching out a living in Bombay, mostly via illegal means. Lin falls in love with Swiss Karla and becomes friends with local gangsters and Bollywood producers. Slowly but surely he is drawn into a mafia operation run by an Afghan don, Khader Khan, who becomes a father figure to Lin. After a vicious spate at the local jail, Lin is “rescued” by Khan and becomes devoted to his organization and cause. This is how he ends up going to Afghanistan and joining arms with the rebels fighting the Russian invaders.
The story is interesting enough, but perhaps more interesting are the little anecdotes about life in India. Mr. Roberts is a keen watcher of people, and he manages to pack countless descriptions of daily activities. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the story of his train journey to Prabu’s home village. When boarding the train, Prabu risks his life to secure a seat for his foreigner friend, by hiring a burly guy to escort Lin through the crowds and himself lying down on the seat to “reserve” it, despite being beaten repeatedly by angry passengers around him. But as soon as the train departs and fighting for seats is no longer a necessity, the passengers become friendly and courteous. Some of these passages in the book make you laugh out loud. Others make you sad.
Despite its length, this is an easy book to read. The tale is fascinating and the prose is engaging. It almost makes you forget that Mr. Roberts is a fugitive who engages in illegal activities that cause harm to many people. A classic antihero figure.