two unrelated people ask me in one week had I read Shantaram (ISBN
978-0-349-11754-6, Abacus, 2003 - and reprinted many times, with this
edition 2009), and then I see it on the Bookazine shelves, it had to be an
omen. I took it home for review. At 933 pages with an RRP of B. 485, it has
to be a literary bargain at half a baht a page.
It is written by Gregory David Roberts, who escaped from
an Australian prison and managed to make his way to India. However, he finds
that, in his own words, “A man on the run is alone in the world,” and he
spends much time ruing that fact.
For a while he makes Bombay his home, but very quickly
runs out of money and ends up in a Bombay slum, experiencing “…lacerating
guilt, that first confrontation with the wretched of the earth.”
Roberts had been a writer before his Australian
incarceration and is very descriptive. There are wonderful verbal exchanges
in the book, such that you can almost hear the sing-song Indian voice of
Prabaker his guide in Bombay.
He describes the expat population in Bombay with great
dissection. One of those who lived by being a grifter is described as saying,
“I am French, I am gay, I am Jewish and I am a criminal, more or less in
that order. Bombay is the only city I have ever found that allows me to be
all four of those things, at the same time.”
Whilst in Bombay, Roberts establishes a first aid clinic,
but also becomes heavily involved in the Indian mafia and running passports
to Africa. Counterfeit passports of course.
Roberts spends much of the book bemoaning his plight as a
fugitive, and detailing his good works for charity and the oppressed in the
Bombay slums. He describes watching the slum dwellers getting their huts
ready for the monsoons, “I envied the importance of the work and their
devotion to it,” but then fits himself neatly within the mafia again.
Seemingly the only group he could really relate to.
There is violence, there is killing, there are characters
entwined throughout, making it (almost) unbelievable as a work of fact.
There is heroin and ganja, there is mob violence, life in the raw.
However, towards the end, I did weary of this book. The
language is excellent, the descriptive text superb, but there is just too
much of it and too detailed, as to become unbelievable. Shantaram could be
half the length and you would not lose the main thread of the plot. One
begins to suspect a Munchausen syndrome with such fantastic tales.
It a very moving book and you do feel you can understand
India and the lower castes in Bombay much more clearly. The smells can be
experienced, the poverty underlined, but the spirit of the poor is, for the
most part, unable to be understood by the western world. A rather disturbing
book, but I just felt he could have done it with fewer pages. At times it is
something of an overkill and the dialogue details too glib.