Shantaram Book Review

Since I am a little bookworm and received a Kindle for Christmas, I thought I had little excuse to slack off reading this year. Following this good intention, I thought why the hell don’t I read 15 books in 2015 AND review them on my blog?

I love books. There’s so much beauty in novels and I find it’s a real way to get close to someone’s ‘inside’ and to experience for a brief while what it’s like to be another human being. From a practical perspective, I also hope that doing this will help me to actually remember what I’ve read and stop me from dating too many books at once.

So the first of these reviews will be Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, a repetitive- strain-injury-inducing novel of over 900 pages based on a fugitive’s life in Mumbai following an escape from an Australian prison. The point must be made that this novel is a Roman à clef, a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The narrative is based on the cinematically epic life of the protagonist Lin’s life as a fugitive, convict, heroin addict, mafia convert and slum dweller in Mumbai.

My first point on this book is that the editor must’ve been asleep at the switch. I found that there were so many powerful and beautiful images in the novel that lost their influence due to far too much ‘purple prose.’ There was also far too much unimpressive philosophy in the book that didn’t really add up to thought provocation.

However, having spent six months in India myself, I found Roberts’ depiction of the underworld of Mumbai absolutely captivating. India is the sort of place that has its own rhythm and logic that is so far from our own that it appears ludicrous to a firangi. Indeed, the characters and incidents in Shantaram feel absolutely authentic and are lovingly brought to life on the page from the writers’ sensory memory. Prabaker. Abdul Khader Khan. Even minor characters such as Gemini George and Scorpio George.

I found Roberts didn’t get under the metaphysical skin of his female characters. This was disappointing since so much of the novel is centred round a woman called Karla, the elusive and utterly unattached woman on the run in her own way. I couldn’t believe her character and I didn’t like her either – especially her pretentious philosophical musings. I think Roberts sets himself up for a fall when implying an epic unravelling of events that will finally ‘show us’ who Karla really is (without giving away spoilers), the real woman wasn’t the heroine I was expecting.

Still going back to some of the most lucid moments of the book, the standing babas “who’d taken a vow to never sit down or life down, ever again for the rest of their lives” was a moment in the narrative where I had to put the book down and really think. Some of the descriptions of life in the Indian prison also deeply terrified me, particularly the portrayal of the small but certain degradation of the human spirit and the unimaginable plight of inmates there. The description of the body lice that crawled over the inmates in in the prison each night as they slept on the urine soaked floors will haunt me forever:

“Even when I knew I killed the lice, and rid myself of them temporarily, I still felt their wriggling, itching, crawling loathsomeness on my skin. And little by little, month by month, the horror of that creeping infestation pushed me to the edge.”

As one last point, aside from the successful embellishment of the thrilling plot with tiny, astute details, Roberts also left me with thinking about one large concept. This is the idea of necessity in such a profusely overpopulated subcontinent that is steeped in poverty. One of the most powerful scenes that brings this to life is a train journey where passengers are savagely fighting with one another for seats until they settle and become loving and gentile towards one another.

Didier explains how India is such a unique place for having its own heart that unites so many people: “That’s how we keep this crazy place together – with the heart. Two hundred fuckin’ languages, and a billion people. India is the heart. It’s the heart that keeps us together. There’s no place with people like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart.”

Thinking back to my time in India one of the things that really surprised me was grown men holding hands in the streets and napping holding one another. Shantaram has helped me to understand the importance of loving one another in order to survive in the fascinating and wild world that is India.

Read this novel? What do you think?

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