Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
This book Shantaram had been a bestseller for years now. Every other day you hear about the Hollywood movie being made on the book. For some reason or the other, the book remains in news. I have met several people who have read the book. While reading (it takes a long time to read this 950 odd pages book), everyone wanted to go and sit in the Leopold café in Mumbai. A couple of years back on a business visit to Mumbai, I actually did go and sit there as a colleague was reading the book and desperately wanted to see the place. I kept looking at this book every time I visited a bookstore. But either because of the size of the book or because of its bestseller tag, I kept avoiding it.
But now that I have lots of time on hand. I picked up this book Shantaram and read it over the last couple of weeks.
It is a story that keeps you glued to the book while you are reading it. Brilliantly written, it is a good mix of fact and fiction. And all elements of a good story, some revealing facts, some emotions, a bit of romance, a bad guy with a golden heart, a mysterious underworld don, an adopted family. All this in well-balanced proportions and spread across the length of the story. Still, this story fits within the few years of the protagonist’s life that he spent in Mumbai.
It’s a story of grit and determination of a person refusing to give up after all that he goes through. A story of someone who is ready to learn new things anytime be it the language or be it the ways of doing a new business. The story of someone who comes out of nowhere to Mumbai and becomes the face of Mumbai crime. And can probably take lessons for the new recruits in business.
The book Shantaram has many layers or rather stories, the common thread being the protagonist. There is a story of people living in slums. And their day to day survival, their interdependence on each other. Their ways and means to manage a crisis, their trust, and faith and their joys and sorrows. There is a story of illegal immigrants to Mumbai. Mostly from first world countries, who are escaping from their own countries, usually, have criminal backgrounds. And find an anonymous existence here. Their relationships with each other and with the locals, their lure for drugs, their vulnerability, and their courage.
There is a story of the underworld. The way it operates in a truly global way. How it earns for itself, how it recruits, trains and rewards its people. How it manages everything with perfection and how they actually believe in what they are doing. There is a story of Mumbai city in itself. How it exists and why it is the melting pot of all kinds of people, especially the non-conforming ones. Of course, it is the story of the protagonist who has escaped from an Australian Jail and landed in Mumbai on a fake passport and with a fake name. Who goes and lives in a remote village in Maharashtra for six months. Comes back and lives in a slum for years working as a doctor curing slum dwellers and is then discovered by the underworld.
He gets entangled in their web in such a way that he eventually becomes a key player in their game plan. Runs black market operations in currency exchange, runs forged passport business, experiments in black marketing gold. Goes and fights in Afghanistan and loves a woman from the first page of the book till the last. Quite a life in one life…
As you read the book Shantaram, you keep wondering what is fact and what is writer’s imagination. Author has not claimed anything to be true, but a lot of things written, in my opinion, can be written only if you have gone through the experience. You may twist and tweak but you have to go through it to be able to so eloquently describe it. The author may have deliberately left out a lot of details or added a few to fill the gaps hence created, but overall the story does look true. For an average reader, there are quite a few things to learn from this book, particularly about the operations of the underworld.
Shantaram makes an interesting read if you have the patience to read a long book. Towards the end, you find it a bit dragging when he goes on to describe each and every wound on everyone’s body part. But otherwise, it has been written in a way that keeps you interested to know what next, even when you reach the last page. The author is very good at depicting emotions, both his and of others, you would almost feel the feeling the characters are going through. But at the same time, he keeps it light enough for you to move on.