This is my impression of ‘Shantaram’, by Gregory David Roberts (GDR). Again, like my earlier reviews, this is not a ‘literary review’ that an ‘expert’ might write. It might not be ‘balanced’, if there is such a thing as that. This is my experience of the book. Also, the reason I write a review (when I do) for a book is that I find it worth reading, and even writing about. I don’t review books I don’t enjoy reading. I won’t rate it on a scale or give it any number of “stars” because I’m not comparing it against anything else. Also, to quantify how “good” a book is on some scale (arbitrary as that quantification anyway is) would be unfair to the intangible essence of any literary or artistic experience — one more visceral than intellectual.
On a particularly unproductive day, stuck with a problem and unable to make much headway, I decided to browse the literature section of the library. Nestled in a quiet corner of an obscure shelf was ‘Shantaram’. It was familiar, that book. I’d seen it earlier. I picked it up to read the first page. Usually if the first page makes me move on to the second, I start reading the book. And so I did. When I stopped reading, I was on page 933. No, I didn’t read all those 933 pages at one go. I read it before sleeping every night, I read it while travelling in buses, and I read it on a particularly long journey in a train. I read it when I found the time to. So, naturally, I took many breaks while reading it. Moving from one page to the next, the events in the story played out in my mind — like a movie — as I read the book. And they replayed like a memory during the breaks, making me come back to the book and continue reading. The beautiful thing about ‘Shantaram’ is that I never felt I’d stopped reading it, even when I took those breaks from reading it. The narrative was one coherent whole. The pages I read seemed to fit nicely with each other, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and I kept moving on to the unread pages that would complete the puzzle. Perhaps that is what works for the book, that coming together of various elements to make a whole that would not be itself if any of the parts was missing. Once the puzzle is solved, the book is read and one reflects upon it, one gets a glimpse of the whole. The movie replays in one’s memory. And that is what I share.
If I had to pick a couple of lines on the first page that made me want to move on to the next, I think it would be,
‘In my case, it’s a long story, and a crowded one. I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum security prison.’
‘The contrast between the familiar and the exceptional was everywhere around me. A bullock cart drawn up beside a modern sports car at a traffic signal… The impression was of a plodding, indefatigable, and distant past that had crashed intact, through barriers of time, into its own future. I liked it.’
Beautiful. It is an expression of the quintessential dichotomy of the Indian experience — the past coexisting with its own future, the ancient juxtaposed with the modern, and the contradictions that are a usual part of Indian life, even today. Lin also visits Prabaker’s village on his invitation. They have quite a ride in the unreserved compartment of the train — where Lin learns what he calls ‘the famous Indian head-wiggle’, ‘the first truly Indian expression my body learned’. When they reach the village, Lin’s first meeting with Prabaker’s father, Kishan, is hilarious. In his own words,
Sometimes you have to surrender, Karla said, before you win. And she was right. Surrender is at the heart of the Indian experience. I gave in. Glancing around me, on the deserted track, I reached out and patted the warm and fuzzy belly.
When Lin is about to take his first Indian “shower” in the village, Prabaker teaches Lin the difference between under-underpants and over-underpants and shows him how to bathe. Lin spends some six months in the village. His experience there makes him introspective about his own being, his identity, of who he was and what he stood for:
They nailed their stakes into the earth of my life, those farmers. They knew the place in me where the river stopped, and they marked it with a new name. Shantaram Kishan Kharre…
…the truth is that the man I am was born in those moments, as I stood near the flood sticks with my face lifted to the chrismal rain. Shantaram. The better man that, slowly, and much too late, I began to be.
The rest of the story is largely an account of Lin’s return to Bombay, his living in the slum and learning from the people there, setting up a clinic for them, getting a real bear hug, being put in jail and being beaten up there, being bailed out my a mafia kingpin, working for him and going to war, learning forgery of passports and other documents, falling in love, and generally making his way through life — a fugitive that he was — in that quintessential human quest: freedom.
Indeed, the essence of Lin’s story, I think, is best captured (ironic as that may sound) by the word ‘freedom’. For it is his need to be free from which all else emanates. It is what the story seems to be rooted in. That is where it begins, with his escape from prison. (In case you’re curious, check the wiki page.) Lin’s life is in sharp contrast to K’s life, from another novel. Lin’s character has a voice of its own, which K’s doesn’t (in ‘Life & Times of Michael K’). You might, of course, wonder how K shows up here. And why I refer to another book when I review the present one. K shows up here because I know K, and now I know Shantaram, and it is only very natural for me to look at two characters — albeit from different novels — that are polar opposites of each other in many ways. Yet the theme of war, purpose, and (in particular) freedom are common to both. K only eats ‘the bread of freedom’ while Lin wants ‘the freedom to say no’.
So, the theme I chose for my trilogy of novels was the 20th Century. The defining characteristic of the 20th Century, from the point of view of my major work, was alienation. The three components of the alienation phenomenon that I chose to explore were conflict, exile, and the search for meaning. Each of those components provided the originating theme for each of the novels in the trilogy. And the first novel to appear, chronologically speaking, was the second in the order: the novel, Shantaram, which explored the exile experience.
Evidently, I’m quite impressed by the work. I loved the literary experience. The ability of the author to hold my attention for 933 pages bears testimony to that fact. I await the other two books in the trilogy. I shall close this ‘review’ with the author’s closing words in Shantaram,
For this is what we do. Put one foot forward and then the other. Lift our eyes to the snarl and smile of the world once more. Think. Act. Feel …
… With love: the passionate search for a truth other than our own. With longing: the pure, ineffable yearning to be saved. For so long as fate keeps waiting, we live on.