Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Shantaram- by Gregory David Roberts

 I finally managed to devour all the 933 pages of “Shantaram”, the “autobiography” of Gregory David Roberts. If it was even a part true story, the man is a miracle. Regardless, it is a very well written book, and as long as one doesn’t get too hung up on the veracity of the true accounts that the author narrates, it makes for fantastic reading.

 Gregory Roberts, known as Lin on the streets of Mumbai, was an escaped Australian convict, who found a home in Mumbai, where he could finally live a free life. During his years in Mumbai, he made many friends and several enemies, and lost quite a few of them. He also found true love, and lost it to the bitter games that were played in the Mafia background. He worked for the Mumbai mafia, but claimed to have never joined them since he did what he did for the people he believed in, rather than the cause that they represented. The book details Lin’s journey from his arrival in Mumbai, to his life in the Slums and his role as the slum doctor, his tryst with the Mujahideen movement in Afghanistan, and finally, his role in establishing the new Mafia in Mumbai. The last chapter, and the closing lines, hints at Lin’s disillusionment with the Mafia life, and his craving to return to his loved ones.

 Apart from the plot, what really makes it a worthy read are the little embellishments, the attention to detail, and the author’s way with words. “Shantaram” paints a surreal picture of Mumbai in the 1980s, through its plot and the various characters that appear at many points in the story. The Foreigners that thronged to the elite Leopolds and the slum dwellers have both been accorded equally significant roles in the plot. The drug culture and the Mafia rule during those dark days in the 80s have been beautifully described in near-graphic details. Each character in the story has a distinct personality, and the author paints such a vivid picture that you can almost visualize the characters in life. The character of Prabhakar, the lovable city guide-cum-Taxi driver-cum-best friend, is easily, the most memorable and interesting one. Karla Saaranen, the Swiss-German with a mysterious past, is another fantastic character in the story. Karla has some of the best lines and is easily, the most quotable. Sample this for Karla’s one liners – “Life gives you two choices, the one you should make, and the one you do”, or this - “Luck is what happens to you when fate gets tired of waiting”. Quotable, indeed!

 One of the sub-plots revolves around the Afghan Mujahideen movement during the cold war era, when the Afghans, with guerilla support from the CIA, went to war against the invading Russians. It evokes a deep sense of irony, due to the stark contrast with the current situation where the US is struggling to contain the terrorism emanating from the Afghanistan- Pakistan axis of evil. One is tempted to brand it as poetic justice considering the Americans are reaping what they had sowed years ago. Unfortunately, the whole world, and that includes innocent American civilians, are paying the price for the poor judgment from the powers that were in those Cold War years.  

 Remarkably, despite being a fictional autobiography of a reformed convict, there are some really profound concepts of philosophy and theology that have been discussed in the book. The Resolution Theory that Khader Bhai, the Mafia don and Lin’s Godfather, uses to explain his philosophy of life, and of all things Good and Bad, leaves an impact. The concept of the universe continuously moving towards increasing complexity, with the ultimate complexity being God, is fascinating. He also uses it to lend objectivity to the concepts of Right and Wrong. As per the theory, anything that helps move towards this ultimate complexity is good, and anything that inhibits it is bad. Simple, and yet, fascinating. Khader also delves into the concepts of “crime” and “sin”, and questions why the law-makers and enforcers are obsessed with the “Crime in the Sin”, rather than the “Sin in the crime”. He intelligently ties the two concepts, and explains why, as a Mafia don, he has to do the wrong things for the right reasons.

 The book, however, has its flaws. The author tries really hard to make it seem like a true account of the tumultuous years of his life, and in the process, robs the story of its credibility. Despite being involved in many gang wars and of course, the war in Afghanistan, the author constantly claims that he has never killed another human. More than the claim, it is the continuous emphasis on the claim that robs it of its authenticity. The author also clearly reserves the moral high ground for himself, and is always shown to be the most virtuous, in a Bollywood Hero-like way.

 There is another improbable sub-plot about a crazed killer who calls himself SAPNA, and goes around the city chopping people up and leaving notes written in blood to claim the kill. Inspired heavily by the “Jack the Ripper” legend, the SAPNA character in this story is half-baked and delusional and is, at best, a poor distraction.

In conclusion, if you have a lot of time at hand, and are game for an engaging journey into the Mumbai of the 1980s, “Shantaram” is just the book for you. It is not perfect, and might not even be a near-true story, but still makes for compelling reading due to the graphic story-telling style of the author, and the roller-coaster ride that it takes you on.

Shantaram, incidentally, was the name given to the protagonist by Prabhakar’s mother, who he comes to love as his own, and is symbolic of a man trying to make peace with his inner demons. In the end, Lin does become “Shantaram”.