Shantaram – The novel


It took me 4 years! I picked up this book 4 years ago and I was only able to finish it last night. It’s definitely a huge read with close to 1000 pages but that wasn’t the reason. I think this book demands a proper state of mind to read and I put it down first time after reading about 200 pages, I picked it up again few times but could never even get through halfway. This time the job was done! Mission accomplished.

The intrigue : 

On the back cover of the book, it says :

In the early 80’s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail. Then, in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan… Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. It’s a profound tribute to his willpower… At once a high-kicking , eye-gouging adventure, a love saga and a savage yet tenderly lyrical fugitive vision.

The Literature :

We have to understand that this author is not a novelist at all. This is the only book he has ever published. He is a convict, addict with no formal degree of sorts. With this perspective, I fell in love with the language of this book. I love the beauty in explaining even the mundane of things. For instance, When an author like Chetan Bhagat might say ‘It was amavas ki raat and it was just stars in the sky’ this book says ‘There was no moon, and the stars punctured the black doom of sky with a dazzling intensity’. For me, the language of narration has a huge impact, it elevates the book to a higher degree. The protagonist explains his first impressions on the disgusting slums of Bombay and we can feel the stink. He then goes on to explain the beauty of the people living in slums and the same slum is made to look colorful and vibrant, the transition takes some time but its beautifully described.

The Philosophy :

This book has an overdose of philosophical discussions. The classic good v/s evil and the meaning and purpose of human life. The philosophy of love/hate/arrogance/politics/power/crime/sin/justice is dissected to the core. We see the world through a prism of a criminal. The philosophy is the main reason, I put down this book many times. You need to completely immerse in the book, understand the context and align with the perspective of the author to feel a tug in the strings of your heart. If you just randomly read the excerpts below, it will NOT have the same effect. The conversations sometimes feels forced, How many times have you walked to a friend , and asked ‘Hi-What do you think drives humans?’  and start a serious conversation, despite that, I liked all the philosophical conversations among the characters.

The Desi touch:

I doubt if I would have picked up this book if its name was in English. If this book were named Robert’s journey, or Slum-doctor or something like that , I might not have given this book a thought. I think the author understand the Indian audience well. Shantaram is the name that’s given to him in a village but it finds a mention in just one chapter. He is called ‘Lin’ throughout the book. To name the book with a inconsequential Indian name is not a coincidence. The name itself gives a feel of India. Each of the smallest ‘Indian’ thing is kept real/credible. This novel is made to sound like an autobiography and it completely succeeds in that. The protagonist is quick to learn fluent Hindi and Marathi which is well appreciated by everybody. After reading this book, I feel I know Bombay more than what many ppl in Bombay might not be aware of (like standing baba/lepers colony). The author takes time to explain the history/origin of too many things. Many things which we have taken for granted but seen from a foreigners perspective gives it a different spin. The book is set in the eighties, so the detailed gold smuggling, Indira Gandhi’s death and many more things takes us back in time. The Bollywood that’s explained here might not have changed much. The way Indians reach in situations is fun but I am not sure if Bombay is the same now with all the people being so goody-goody.

The verdict : 

This book literally has everything, Its part autobiographical peppered with facts, its has a generous amount of fiction, It contains murder mystery, its deals with politics, it takes us on an adventure , its drowns us in philosophical conversations, it’s a part self-help book (if you have the eye), and more than anything, it’s a love story. If any of you guys are interested in this book but too lazy to read the book, do take a look into the quotes from this book. The book is not for amateur readers like me and I recommend it for serious readers only.

Some excerpts :

“The worst thing about corruption as a system of government is that it works so well.”

“Justice is a judgment that is both fair and forgiving… Justice is not only the way we punish those who do wrong. It is also the way we try to save them.”

“The burden of happiness can only be relieved by the balm of suffering.”

“When we’re young, we think that suffering is something that’s done to us. When we get older – when the steel door slams shut, in one way or another – we know that suffering is measured by what’s taken away from us.”

“At first, when we truly love someone, our greatest fear is that the loved one will stop loving us. What we should fear and dread, of course, is that we won’t stop loving them, even after they’re dead and gone.”

“Every life, every love, every action and feeling and thought has its reason and significance: its beginning, and the part it plays in the end. Sometimes, we do see..Nothing in any life, no matter how well or poorly lived, is wiser than failure or clearer than sorrow. And in the tiny, precious wisdom they give to us, even those dread and hated enemies, suffering and failure, have their reason and their right to be.”

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

“Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears.”

“The world is run by one million evil men, ten million stupid men, and one hundred million cowards.”

“Loves are like that. You heart starts to feel like an overcrowded lifeboat. You throw your pride out to keep it afloat, and your self-respect and independence. After a while, you started throwing people out – your friends and everyone you used to know. And it’s still not enough. The lifeboat is still sinking, and you know it’s going to take down with it. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of girls. That’s why I’m sick of Love.”


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