So I’ve just finished the epic novel Shantaram. I put off reading this time and again because of its size. At 933 pages it overwhelmed me and it gathered dust on the shelf. A friend’s Mum lent it to me and told me how amazing and inspirational it was but it took me about 5 years to get round to actually opening it. I’m really not kidding when I say I was 100% committed and completely hooked within about 20 pages. It’s one of the most beautifully written and descriptive books I’ve ever read – I’m a big reader too so this isn’t said lightly.
If you’ve not heard about Shantaram then this is the description on the back:
A novel of high adventure, great storytelling and moral purpose, based on an extraordinary true story of eight years in the Bombay underworld.
‘In the early 80s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail. Then, in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan . . . Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. It’s a profound tribute to his willpower . . . At once a high-kicking, eye-gouging adventure, a love saga and a savage yet tenderly lyrical fugitive vision.’ Time Out
It’s actually a very well known book, even renowned. Although saying that, I hadn’t heard of it when it was given to me. I think the fact it’s partly a true story (or at least based on some of Robert’s experiences) has made it infamous in certain circles. The author has been interviewed and is now well known on the media circuit. I didn’t know any of this though when I opened it. This book doesn’t just transport you to India, it literally submerges you violently into a world so foreign (to me) it was a culture shock. I could smell the smells, tastes the tastes and I almost immediately identified with and became invested in the characters. In fact it’s some of the best character development I’ve ever seen. It takes an immense talent to translate that to readers. I craved a cup of chai every time I read it, to the point I’ve now looked up recipes and learnt how to make my own proper hot, milky, sweet chai on the stove from scratch. I felt lonely in my flat because of the detail given to me of the communities and people in the slums of Bombay.
I was genuinely distressed at certain parts, one particular part really upset me for quite some time and it’s one of the books that has made me cry. It was also wise beyond belief. There was so much spirituality and knowledge within those pages! I wanted to write down some amazing sentence every 20 pages or so and share it on social media. It hasn’t surprised me that since finishing I’ve discovered that lots of people do exactly that, which is why this post is illustrated with some quotes from this book. It made me want to have lived in that time, in that place, despite some of the awful things that were occurring. I now more than ever want to travel to India at some point in my life. Although I feel this will maybe be something I do in my later years (I’m not sure, it depends on lots of factors coming together to do it sooner, but it is now higher up on my list).
I really felt an affinity with the experiences that Roberts had (fictional or otherwise. Partly because I’ve had a totally mad life myself, and I’ve also felt that desolation and desperation in the past. But also because that’s how Roberts writes, he draws you in and makes you live every day with him. There are very few writers who can create the world that he’s created. I will forever maintain that if you don’t read the things those people write for you then you’re missing something in life. I can’t recommend this enough to people. It’s a fabulous book about the complexity of life in Bombay at that time, a testament to human strength, love, endurance and another 50 cliched things people say. But it does this without ever becoming a cliche. I just loved it and I was sad but also strangely relieved when I finished it. I was sad because I felt like those people had really entered my life and had intertwined with mine. But I was relieved because that book was emotionally draining, it put me through the mill. I lived a life whilst reading it. That has happened to me before but usually with series, never before has an author done that in just one book.
A friend of mine raised an issue with me whilst I was reading it. He was convinced that it was just too mad, that what Roberts claimed just couldn’t be true because it was so outlandish. He was also angry because he felt that Roberts gained a lot of fame and attention from the story and because he wasn’t convinced in its truth he thinks this is fraudulent in some way. My life has been crazy enough for me to know that true life really is way stranger than fiction so I had no issue believing Roberts. In fact I can more than believe it. But more importantly I actually don’t think it matters. If Roberts has made all that up as a piece of fiction then F***! I think I might be more impressed… the writing style and content is so good I guess I don’t care if I’ve been duped. Maybe the mystery is part of it. Roberts himself says he “structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact. I wanted the novel to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it had the authentic feel of fact.” He states clearly it’s a novel though.
There’s various disputed facts from different people, I think the best route is to just look at this book as a novel. A work of fiction inspired by someone’s life over a number of years. Some of it may be how he wanted his life to go rather than how it did actually go (at least according to some Indian sources). The debate rages as to where the lines of fact and fiction are drawn and I’m pulled in different directions on how I feel about it. Putting that aside though it is an incredibly well written book and definitely one of the most accomplished displays of character development/creation I’ve ever seen. Some of the wisest words I’ve read are written in works of fiction and many are now added to that list from ‘Shantaram’.