I like Big Books and I Cannot Lie

A review of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts 

In which Jerry Bruckheimer meets Deepak Chopra on speed, over 944 pages of very purple prose.

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”  

The first line of Shantaram is a handy summary of things to come; love, fate, torture, and learning are the key ingredients of this big, big novel. The narrator Lin (a thinly-fictionalized version of the author) is a convict who escapes his Australian prison for the Indian underworld, and Bombay– fifteen million people and counting – absorbs him effortlessly into its fold.   

Lin in turn absorbs Bombay into his heart. He makes a colorful set of acquaintances and friends, starting with a tourist guide, Prabaker, whose mother gives Lin his Indian name, Shantaram (man of peace). But there’s also the scary Madame Zhou, whose laughter could have “hunted down funny things, and killed them stone dead,”who shows an unnerving interest in him. A mafia don named Abdel Khader Khan, with whom Lin discusses ethics and religion even as they work out the details of their gun-running and smuggling activities, becomes a father figure. And there’s mysterious green-eyed Karla, with whom our hero inevitably falls in love… In between his adventures, Lin studies Hindi and Marathi, runs a free medical clinic for the slum-dwellers of Bombay, and learns the tricky art of passport-fakery. 

It’s quite a story, and with a little editing, could make the basis for the next thirteen episodes of a Jerry Bruckheimer show. But reader beware: much of book deals with the author’s views on spirituality, rather than his experiences in the underworld. We get to hear Lin’s detailed take on Life, the Universe and Everything, often in wildly overblown prose—it’s rather like reading Deepak Chopra on speed.  

Saving this novel from melodrama and self-absorption, however, is the narrator’s relationship with Bombay and its people. Lin struggles to help those he can, and to accept what he cannot comprehend, and never loses his compassion for the less-privileged along the way. It’s hard not to like Lin, hard not admire his large-heartedness, and hard not marvel at his profoundly sympathetic understanding of Bombay’s soul. 

There’s a scene where Lin and his guide Prabaker are trying to board a crowded train at the Bombay railway station. They’ve been punched, kicked at, bitten and slapped at by the people fighting to enter the train. When the train begins moving, however, the formerly violent crowd turns extraordinarily respectful and genteel. Lin initially finds the transition astonishingly hypocritical, but later comes to realize that the: 

‘…scrambled fighting and courteous deference were both expressions of the one philosophy: the doctrine of necessity. The amount of force and violence needed to board the train, for example, was no less and no more than the amount of politeness and consideration necessary to ensure that the cramped journey was as pleasant as possible afterwards. What is necessary? That was the unspoken but implied and unavoidable question everywhere in India. When I understood that, a great many of the characteristically perplexing aspects of public life became comprehensible: from the acceptance of sprawling slums by city authorities, to the freedom that cows had to roam at random in the midst of traffic; from the toleration of beggars on the streets, to the concatenate complexity of the bureaucracies; and from the gorgeous, unashamed escapism of Bollywood movies, to the accommodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tibet, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa and  Bangladesh, in a country that was already too crowded with sorrows and needs of its own.’ (pg 105)

Each time I read that paragraph, I’m reminded anew of why I miss India…

The ultimate achievement of this exuberant, untidy, magical work is that few readers, after finishing the novel, will not be tempted to hop on to the next flight to Bombay, their passports safely stashed in their underwear (now they’re aware of passport-thieves on the prowl). Sometimes baleful, sometimes benevolent, Bombay is a living character who beguiles the reader. Many of us who think we know the city well will be forced to re-examine our beliefs; this reviewer, for one, will never be able to look at Leopold’s in Colaba in the same light again. Are those folks at the next table mild-mannered call center workers unwinding after a hard day, or dope fiends planning their next shipment to Kabul?  

The film version of Shantaram is reportedly due in 2008 (check out http://imdb.com/title/tt0429087/ ). It stars Johnny Depp as Lin and Amitabh Bachchan as Kader Khan the mafia don, and is directed by Mira Nair. Eat your heart out, Jerry Bruckheimer.  

7 thoughts on “I like Big Books and I Cannot Lie

  1. Pingback: DesiPundit » Archives » Shantaram

  2. just completed the book 2 days ago..And gripping it was !!First thing i want to do when i ‘m in Mumbai again is to go to Leopolds Colaba. Didier, Ulla, Vikram etc might just be still ther !! Have a feeling that the movie version might run in to some controversy- for eg: kano bear as Ganesh, Lin running guns to Taliban, unapologetical glorification of underworld – might just cause some pbms for Mira Nair.
    Anyway – a great read – and will try for first day first show for the movie version !

    (btw do check out my blog if you dont mind some humor )

  3. Nice!

    Personally, I couldn’t get past the first page… ]

    “As a poet, I lost my soul…” completely put me off.

    Why, I still don’t know. Even my mother swares by the book!

  4. Flaashgordon: Thanks for stopping by, and yes, I’m going to be queuing for tickets here too. I did visit your blog, btw; you have such rich material to write about that I’m envious!

    Blue: Yep! And as for who’s going to play Karla– my breath is bated.

    Tanmay: Thanks! Yes, some of the prose can be OTT, but the story warms up once Lin’s adventures begin. But if you just can’t stand the writing–well, the film’s on its way 🙂

  5. Superb review!!! I am on page 680 of “Shantaram” but because I am not partial to tomes, I am starting to struggle with it and I really don’t know if I am going to find the patience to finish it! I know, I know, my loss…I so wish I could get over my dislike of BIG books, it’s just that I get so impatient for it to end, ya know? 🙂

    Lin is an amazing character, his love for Bombay and the people of the city is palpable…I loved his impressions of the city and like you predicted, they truly made me want to return, if not for good, atleast for a long while. I grew up in Bombay and remain very attached to it despite the fact that it can be hard to live there sometimes.

    I am excited about the forthcoming movie on his life. I love what Mira Nair said about the character Lin (courtesy the NY Times)

    “The theme I’m most interested in is, can a foreigner be a native? I’m interested in the seesaw of it, because I’m not sure that in the deepest way that’s possible. Ultimately you have to understand where you came from. Otherwise you’re lost.”

  6. Lotus: Thanks! Yep, I often wanted him to just get on with the story and skip all that philosophizing. I felt the book could have easily been edited to a fifth of its current size without losing much.

    And that is a wonderful quote from Nair about a subject I think about often. It’s reminiscent of the Nehru quote on your blog header…

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