Disclaimer: This review was written on my iPhone on an overnight bus in Vietnam.
When I spotted the weathered copy of Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram lying in a pile of books in a dark hostel lobby on a small island off the coast of Vietnam, I immediately picked it up. I’d seen it on book shelves of parents and family members and friends for years, and recognised it mainly because of it’s obnoxiously fat spine with the gaudy red green and gold print. Having covered my share of post-colonialism in my years as a literature student, Shantaram has lingered in the periphery for years, too fat and not serious enough to make the cut. But beggars, as we know, cannot be choosers. Stranded on an entirely non-English-speaking island with an uncharged kindle and an already devoured Stieg Larsson in my backpack, pickings were slim and I decided to give the to too-ubiquitous Shantaram a chance.
One paragraph in, lying languidly on a beach chair with a freshly cut watermelon and sickly-sweet iced coffee at my side I announced to my sister that I probably wasn’t going to read this brick, and followed that statement with a cuttingly sarcastic reading of some of Roberts’ soul searching first person opening lines: “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”. The combinati on of gritty prison thriller and elaborate winding philosophy was enough to set all my literature snob warnings blaring, and I giggled as I read onwards.
However, a few chapters later, I was forced to concede that perhaps a bit of eloquence and grit wasn’t to be despised. The thrilling tale of an escaped Australian Convict ending up working for the Bombay mafia had me transfixed. Perhaps it was the exotic yet peaceful setting in which I was reading it, but I was hooked.
Not one for reading blurbs or judging a book for anything but the front cover , it wasn’t until I was completely stumped as to how ANYONE could invent such tales and do such research that I turned to the back of the book and learnt that it was indeed a literary autobiography.
Perhaps at some points filled with a little too much of that eye-opening, cross-religious, deeply philosophical meandering through florid phrases of soul searching “meaning”, Shantaram is nonetheless a well written and extremely captivating tale of the secret life of Bombay. Weaving through slums and palaces and Bollywood studios, 5 star hotels and crack dens, slave markets and harvest villages, Roberts’ 933 page narrative is fast paced enough to keep the pages turning avidly, compulsively, while leaving the reader that little bit more enlightened.
Delving deep into the characters surrounding Roberts’ Indian exile, it almost makes one wish for a similar life. The mysterious Swiss Karla, queen of foreign contacts, bane of the protagonist’s heart. The disarmingly foppish, irritable and flamboyant yet lethal Didier, Francais to the fingertips. Always smiling villager-turned-slum dweller Prabaker and his host of head-wagging natives. And of course, the all powerful, all compassionate father figure – lord Abdel Khader Khan, the ultimate Bombay mafia don.
The eclectic mix of characters do a lot for the narrative, keeping it varied , interesting, and above all extremely unpredictable. Though the protagonist’s anguished flashbacks, “I know now, of course, that that was the wrong question”; “had I only known then, what I know so well today” and so forth, get a little frustrating at time, combined with his subtle begging for forgiveness (unavoidable, I suppose, in the autobiography of an ex-heroin addict ex-con), can get a tad repetitive, there is enough genuinely good writing and interesting detail to stave off cover-closing irritation.
Perhaps Shantaram had given a different impression had I read it on American buses or in a garden in Norway. Nonetheless, I’m fairly sure this backbreaking tome is worthy the time and effort (physical as well as mental) it will take.