Ahhh. Hmmm. Wow. I feel like I’ve just woken up from a long dream. Like, really long. It took me so long to finish this that in the meantime, David Gregory Roberts even released its sequel!
Sometime in the year 2009, the bibliophiles in my circle (few in number, but still) were all discussing Shantaram. The opinion was so deeply divided that wars often broke out between those who liked it and those who did not. Well, “like” and “did not like” are putting it mildly. They either went all out to murder anyone who spoke a word against it or they slaughtered whoever liked it.
My point is – this book evokes strong emotions in otherwise rational people.
I also got my copy in 2009, by the way, in December. That’s six years ago. And I picked it up in October ’15, right after I finished The Dark Tower Series. Truth was, I was worried I wouldn’t like it. It’s a big book (understatement of the year); I wasn’t sure if I wanted to invest so much time and ending up in the latter group – the haters club.
I read the first few pages. I surprised myself by liking it a great deal! In fact, the first few pages, I was so enthralled by it that I went around recommending it to anyone who would listen (If anyone reading this review was one of those people, well, I apologize if that annoyed you, but I hope you took my advice). Told you the book evokes extreme and bizarre emotions.
This is the story of Lin (David Roberts states it is autobiographical), a man who escapes from a maximum security prison in Australia and arrives in India with a fake passport. He is a wanted man, but he eludes the police, lives in a slum and sets up a little clinic for the slum dwellers, and also sets up a little school for the slum kids. He gets involved with the underworld, and learns all about the Mumbai mafia.
The book, if I were to be frank with you, is like a magic pot of rice – one that finds mention in all the great mythologies – one that gets refilled on its own no matter how much you feel you’ve eaten. It’s like the page count does not seem to matter, and no matter how many pages I read each day, I could not seem to be crossing the 50% mark. Which was strange, cos looking at it, I could swear I had read more than that!
Up to the 50% mark, I have to say, it was an excellent story. Excellent, and I mean it. No other word for it. After that, I felt it needed an editor. David Roberts has mentioned every minute detail in his story as Lin, regardless of its relevance. Post the 50% mark, I admit, I skimmed through some of it and I still found I had not missed much.
Despite that, it was thoroughly captivating – Lin/David/Shantaram’s love for India is something that leaps at you from the book and sort of settles beneath your own skin – in a good way. I don’t think I have read any other book that shows so much love for the land it is set in. I found similarities between Shantaram and Maximum City. Maybe because both explore the un-pretty, outright grisly and shady side of Bombay. But the difference is, Maximum City’s tone sounds apologetic, like it’s trying too hard to please. On the other hand, Shantaram pleases the reader effortlessly. The Mumbai in both the books is essentially the same, but the one in Shantaram just finds a way to your heart.
The language used is… interesting. Here’s the thing, metaphors can make prose look glorious when used right – but there’s a time and place to use them. If someone is being beaten up, or if there’s been a murder or something, do not, just don’t. It sounds funny. David Roberts’ prose is deep and lyrical most of the time. Other times his metaphors cross over from purple to ridiculous territory. For instance, what is “words passing through the rumbling gemstone-tumbler of his throat”? And don’t even get me started on a certain chariot!
Another thing I found out of place (or drivel-ly, if you will) is that Roberts can speak at length on utterly ordinary things. Somewhere in the middle of the book, there are two whole pages about evenings. Two. Whole. Pages. The evening’s beautiful, we get it, enough already! And the number of adjectives he’s used for the green eyes of Karla, the woman he loves – wow. I mean, dude, you’re… wow.
I don’t belong to the group that will rip your throat out if you say anything against the book (believe me, people who like this book are crazy passionate about it) but I will tell you it’s a damn good story. Non-fiction or not, exaggerated or not, it is good. I was not lying when I said I felt like I woke up from a dream – it’s not just the time taken, but also the fact that this book made me travel with Lin. I saw his life like I had lived it. The ending was beautiful and apt – a fitting closure that this epic novel deserved.
If you’re not daunted by the page count, and if you’re willing to overlook the fact that this book could have used some editing, then do pick it up.
PS: Did I mention that Lin has a lot of philosophical conversations (with every other character in the book)? He does, and you’ll find a lot of great lines in there.