‘Shantaram,’ the Book

by on January 14th, 2011
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“Shantaram” is a big, sprawling novel of crime and redemption set in Bombay, India, during the 1980s. On a panoramic canvas that extends from India to Australia to Africa and Afghanistan, Gregory David Roberts tells an old-fashioned first-person adventure story that is colorful, gripping, poignant, and kicking with life.

The much-delayed movie of the book, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Mira Nair, is still more or less up in the air.

In his novel, apparently using some of his own life experience, Roberts’ novel tells the story of a desperate drug addict who escapes from prison in Australia, as Roberts once did. The narrator of this 936-page novel is sort of cross between Chuck Norris and Mother Theresa, a fighter with a hunger for selfless spiritual transcendence, and there are countless interesting threads to the colorful, pungent, nearly unbelievable story he weaves.

After breaking out of jail, the narrator makes it to Bombay, where he falls in love with a beautiful expatriate, the mysterious Karla, but he never really gets the girl. Living by his wits as a low-level fixer, the narrator meets a little Indian hustler with a limited command of English but an immense smile, Prabaker. Visiting Prabaker’s village the narrator receives the Indian name “Shantaram,” which means man of peace.

The narrator undergoes a long pleasant interlude in the poorest of Bombay slums, becoming a sort of amateur doctor of the poor. The sights and smells of the Bombay slum, its community, its struggles, its rats and dogs and fires and filth as well as the decent people who struggle to live there on almost no money, are among the most vividly described and felt portions of the book, as the narrator struggles to fake it as a doctor while learning as he goes along.

But the narrator is also a street hustler, living by his wits. At the same time he’s curing sick people, he’s scoring money as a low-level criminal in Bombay, fixing tourists up with local suppliers of drugs and so forth. The narrator meets many denizens of Bombay’s lower and criminal classes, including a charismatic Bombay mafia chief, the Afghan Abdel Khader Khan, who takes the narrator under his wing and introduces him into the lucrative black arts of laundering money and counterfeiting passports, smuggling and more.

When Khan asks him to go with him to Afghanistan, to deliver weapons and medicines to the mujahedeen (then battling Russian occupation and supported by the United States) the narrator agrees. He is among a group who embarks on a perilous winter journey on horses through Pakistan and up into the snows of Afghanistan’s cold, perilous mountains. Betrayed, they wind up in a shootout which kills Khan and almost kills the narrator, who suffers severe frostbite while being pulled to safety through the snow. On this journey, the narrator is also relieved of some of his illusions, and also learns he has been manipulated and betrayed by Kahn and by the woman he has long idealized and loved.

The narrator plunges through leper colonies and opium dens and Bollywood movie studios and expensive Indian whorehouses and mountain villages and violent Indian prisons and Bombay mafia councils and more, smoking beedies and hashish, mastering the local Marithi language along the way, and occasionally having to fight his way to survival and usually making a good showing for himself without ever killing a man.

While some of the plot is reminiscent of “The Godfather,” in that the beloved noble Mafia chieftain is the last holdout against dealing in drugs or prostitution, and the love interest while often poetic isn’t quite fleshed out, and if it all this sometimes seems a little too cinematic, and trying to have it all, Roberts does hook us into the poetry of life on the lam and he has written a remarkable, readable, exotic dream of a book.

In real life, in 1990 Roberts was captured smuggling heroin into Germany after living for 10 years in India. He served the balance of his sentence for armed robbery in Australia, and moved back to Bombay, the richest and most highly populated city in India as well as its movie capital. He worked on “Shantaram” for 13 years, and says it is a novel, not an autobiography, and surely no person could be this tough and this good.

Roberts the writer hooks a whale of a lot of adventure around the funky corrupt grandeur of Bombay (now called Mumbai) as it was, just a few years ago, but the wheels of global homogenization are turning and Bombay as Roberts writes about it and saw it may never be that same way again.

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