Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

Cover ImageFinished 5-28-09, rating 4.5, fiction, pub. 2003

A lot of people in my own country knew me as a face on a wanted poster.  But is it my own country, I asked myself.  Do I have a country?

It wasn’t until I’d asked myself the question that I realised I already had the answer.  If I did have a country, a nation of the heart, it was India.  I knew that I was as much a refugee, a displaced and stateless person, as the thousands of Afghans, Iranians, and others who’d come to Bombay across the burning bridge; those exiles who’d taken shovels of hope, and set about burying the past in the earth of their own lives.

Chapter 14

This novel is a beautiful, honest, and lyrical love letter to India.  I think before I try to describe the novel I’ll give you some stats about the author.  Roberts is an Australian who became a heroin addict, went to prison, escaped from the Australian prison after two years and made his way to Bombay.  In India he lived in the slums, opened a medical clinic, was imprisoned, worked for the Bombay mafia, and went to Afghanistan to provide weapons during their war with the Soviet Union.  Okay.  Now take all of that information and apply it to Lin, the man telling the story of Shantaram, and you have the basics for the book.  Roberts knows what he speaks.

When Lin arrives in Bombay he is immediately taken in by a guide with a huge smile and even larger heart, Prabaker, a small Indian who gives Lin his name,  Linbaba.  The two men become the best of friends and Parabaker even takes Lin home to his small village where his parents live, where he given the name, Shantaram, which means man of peace.  Once back in Bombay Lin takes up residence in one of the largest slums and with only a basic first aid kit opens up a clinic for the tens of thousands of the slums.  He finds ways to make money on the street before he is eventually befriended by Khader Khan, the don of the Bombay mafia.  Lin begins to look at this man as a father fiigure. 

Even as I’m writing this I know that I cannot really tell you even half of this story.  It’s sheer size, 933 pages, forces me to just give you a few of my thoughts.  I was blown away by the description of India and its people.  Also, he does travel to Afghanistan and its history provides much insight into what is happening there today.  I also loved the writing.  Roberts knows how to tell a story and to tell it well.  The introspection of Lin (and Roberts) will start many a conversation and cause much reflection. 

It is almost a perfect book.  I did feel that the last few hundred pages lost a little of the intensity of the rest of the book, but I’m sure that was probably intended.  Also, Lin felt like a very self-important character.  I don’t think this takes away from the enjoyment of the novel, but it did make me read his story with some question about his genuineness.

I recommend this book to everyone.  It has adventure, crime, love, powerful men, war, hugging bears, and people who will touch your heart.  Set aside some time and read it.  Johnny Depp has purchased the rights to the movie and plans on playing Lin (yum!).  This is one of my husband’s favorite books (maybe the very favorite?) and he was hooked from the first line, so I will end this review with the first two lines of the book…

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.  I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.