With Slumdog Millionaire being the flavour of the season, I am reminded of one of my favourite books on our city – the book which has plenty of heart and the ability to make you relive and visit the lost nooks and corners of the city and everything it stands for – Shantaram
Shantaram is a story of adventure and daring, a fictionalized account of the life of author Gregory David Roberts who escaped an Australian prison and moved to Bombay to spend almost a decade of his life in the slums and underworld of this city.
Roberts, an Australian fugitive on the run, lands in Bombay with an assumed name of Lindsay and instantly falls in love with the city as he encounters one interesting character after another starting with his sidekick, Prabaker, the ever-smiling tourist guide who immediately christens him as ‘Lin’ or ‘Linbaba’ (because, he feels Lindsay is too big to be an Indian name). As the novel progresses, we’re introduced to Karla, the woman who Lin loves (and who claims to just ‘like’ Lin), Abdullah Taheri, the Iranian-fighter-turned-mafia-strong-arm with whom Lin shares a brotherly kinship, Didier, the flamboyantly gay Frenchman who loves his drinks and his one-liners, Abdul Khader Khan, the wise old mafia don who is like a father to Lin. There are many more people of course many more! Each one of them, carefully fleshed out, lending them multi-dimensional personalities and not making them appear merely as flat caricatures.
The story moves ahead as Lin shifts his accommodation from a lodge to a slum where he starts a free clinic to a village in interior Maharashtra. It is there, in the village called Sunder that Prabaker’s mother christens Lin with an Indian name, ‘Shantaram’. Lin likes the slums, which he thinks have lots of virtues in spite (or because?) of the poverty. And he enjoys working selflessly in the slums, while on the other hand he comes into contact with some of the most powerful men in the Bombay underworld.
The story takes a sudden turn when Lin gets arrested by the police and is sent to the Arthur Road prison where the viciousness of the ruthless convict guards nearly costs him his life. After this prison term, Lin plunges into the Bombay underworld, with the blessings of Abdul Khader Khan, as he gets trained in various disciplines of black marketing, counterfeiting and smuggling.
And the excitement, surprises and twists continue unabated as the scene shifts from Bombay to Afghanistan where Lin and his mafia masters travel to supply weapons to the Mujahideen.
One of the biggest pluses is that the characterization is real and believable, as are the prison scenes. The strength of the book, however, lies in the way Roberts sees Mumbai—as a character that’s larger than the others and has a way of influencing everyone’s destiny. Roberts, clearly draws from personal experience and that’s what gives the book its raw and edgy element. Despite the exaggerated sentimentality and verbose descriptions in several places, the novel is a superlative piece of work.
The book is also unique because its one of the rare books in which a foreigner has taken a deep plunge into the deepest of Indian society’s complexities and also done a successful job of understanding the underlying unifying theme. Of course he admires Indians for what they are but never hesitates a moment before showing things that are obviously wrong.
The other aspect of this book is the details you get about the systems that operate most of the world; the police, currency, gold, drugs, prostitution etc. At no point in the book they overwhelm the main story though.
And the best of all are the one-liners from several characters in the book (especially from Karla and Didier) that leave you pondering over them for hours or years depending on your own shallowness or depth. I think most of the credit for making the book ‘great’ goes to these random notes that appear to be so original and fit as much in the story as they do in your own life.
Yes, there are flipsides to this book. At times, it becomes too ‘poetic’ at places. There are several metaphors and other figures of speech that could have been done away with. And secondly, the book could have been trimmed a bit by a couple of hundred pages. Not that the book gets boring at any point of time, but a tighter editing would not have hurt.
More than just an account of drugs and crime, Shantaram is the story of a man who, even in a life of violence, genuinely loves those in his life and the city that became his home, Bombay. It is an autobiography, a travelogue, a love story and an adventure all rolled into one. And that may not agree with the palates of the connoisseurs but it is sure to excite the taste buds of just about everyone else!