5 out of 5 stars
Transporting, inspiring, and nearly indescribable, Shantaram is all at once simple and profound, action-packed and ultimately peaceful.
Shantaram is so vast a novel that I feel unqualified to express the experience it gave me. It’s a thinly veiled biography, too wild and epic to be anything but truth. It encompasses every genre: crime, travel, philosophy, politics, humanities. It’s beautiful and profound but not preachy. Roberts shares philosophies that are simultaneously complicated and simple, all with the matter-of-fact eloquence of lessons both learned and lived.
It starts with a bang: Our narrator is Australian Lindsay Ford (male – and admitted psuedonym, though we never learn his real name). He’s escaped a 20-year prison sentence for armed robbery and fled to Bombay. But he’s a good guy-turned-bad-turned-good again, or good enough. It’s a page one testament to Roberts’ writing: Never has a protagonist started so low and been loved so quickly – without really bothering to turn himself around. Instead, Lin repents his past sins while committing new ones. We readers are both charmed and convinced.
[Author Gregory David Roberts has said that Shantaram is largely autobiographical. For sure he is an Austrian heroin addict and prison escapee who lived in India for 10 years as a fugitive. (link) He was rearrested and returned to Australian prison, where he later wrote Shantaram. The entire manuscript was destroyed twice by guards. He finished the book after being released. I don’t think anyone’s a good enough writer to make up the prison experiences, both Austrilian and Indian, that Roberts describes. I had no doubt they were real.]
Bombay is described as I dream it, my number one travel destination, will be when I arrive: chaos, beauty, poverty, love, crime, community. Lin adores it instantly, electrified by the city. A new life begins to spin itself around him. He meets local “guide” Prabaker, and we discover the city through his borrowed, guileless eyes. Prabaker is one of my Top 5 all-time favorite book characters. I hope he was a real person, but question if anyone could truly be so great. [I highly recommend listening to Shantaram on audiobook for the ultimate experience. The joy, humor, and endless, brilliant vocabulary twisting of Prabaker’s English, along with the lyrical speech and musical accents of the many Indian characters, brings this story to life in a way reading alone cannot.]
Very long, Shantaram is perfectly paced. So many things happen (romance, crimes, friends, slums, remote villages, medical work, jail time, philosophical discourse – there’s even a bear AND the Russian war in Afghanistan, for heaven’s sake). Lin and Prabaker, along with a host of other indelible, unforgettable characters, wind their lives around each other as they tangle themselves, irrevocably, joyously, into the city of Bombay and the experience of being Indian.
Set in the 1980s, there’s lots of factual backdrop to the story. I learned as I read, never feeling as if I were being educated but rather entertained. The social and political upheavals of the time directly affect the events in Lin’s life. It’s another way in which he becomes Indian, or as close to it as he possibly can.
The supporting cast in Shantaram is another thing too real to be made up. Combined, sure. Exaggerated? Of course. But any true traveller, anyone who’s backpacked across a continent on a near-empty bank account and a nearly-expired visa has known characters like these. They’re expat icons, fellow hostel-dwellers, loud touts, and local experts.
The book is a love letter to a life full of regret. Lin’s narration pauses often to reflect on his mistakes, big and small, his crimes and failures. He’s a brilliantly drawn anti-hero, sorry for many – but not all – of the things he’s done, even as he knows he’ll do many of them again. His moral code does have some clear lines; everyone has some kind of code. Lin knows his code is not ours, and he doesn’t ask for our forgiveness. He just asks us to see his reasons, even if we can’t always understand them.
It’s also a treatise on what it is to have. To have money is one thing. But to have family (chosen or born), to have a place and a reason, that’s what drives Lin. It’s the lesson he learned from losing his freedom, it’s the rehabilitation he got from prison even if he hasn’t stopped committing crime. He sees value in everything – but least of all its dollar value. That could be very trite and saccharine, especially in a story with a setting as disparate as India. But Lin moves in all circles and learns to treat those with the least as well as he treats those with the most. For always those with the least treat him the best.
For most of the characters in Shantaram, India is their birthplace. For the foreign characters, some can’t go home and some won’t. Most consider those two situations to be the same. As a reader I envied them all. Gritty and glorious, impoverished and powerful, I didn’t want to leave Shantaram‘s Bombay either.
ADAPTATION: Shantaram is being adapted as a series for Apple TV+, to be released this fall. Charlie Hunnam will play Lin – perfect casting, ya. Sounds like there are some changes from the novel to the screen, as well. Richard Roxburgh will play an Aussie detective tracking Lin – that’s not in the book, but it’s intriguing.