“It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world.”
Even since I was tiny, I’ve been a fast reader and so for me with books, the bigger the better. With a two hundred pager I’m absorbed into its world of thick, black type and spat back out again in a matter of hours. So when I came across Shantaram in the corner of an English book shop in Prague, in all it’s nine-hundred and forty four page glory, you could say it was easy to pick my next read.
Its length is daunting. If you were looking for light entertainment and a cheap, quick laugh I would suggest looking elsewhere. Shantaram weighed down my bag considerably for the week of bus journeys and train-rides that it accompanied me.
It’s a somewhat memoir, an autobiography of sorts. The characters are mismatched, patchwork people, assembled from the memories of the author. But elaborated truth or not it is a beautiful world that Roberts creates. It’s simple language arranged in a way that draws you into his India so fully and completely that I found myself making mug after mug of chai on our stove so I truly could immerse myself in the four-dimensional experience.
Roberts has a clawed hold over your emotions but he isn’t clumsy with them. The tragic deaths of characters are not drawn out, lengthy, but short, sweet and all the more painful for it. He makes you feel everything all at once, its beautifully emotionally relatable despite the absurdity of the protagonist. I certainly never thought the word “relatable” would fall from my lips when talking about an ex-convict and heroin addict. But I think what I mean is that the narrative is quite simply a human account from the viewpoint of the extraordinary.
“I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum security prison.”
I hate to give away plots in a review so I’ll sum up the scenery that Roberts sets. Its narrated by Lin, an ex-convict fleeing the Australian authorities who seeks out India as a bustling melting pot of beggars, thieves, mafia, actors and lovers in which to suitably disappear. Led by an unlikely friend, Prabaker, Lin becomes enveloped in Bombay, an otherworldly unlikely utopia, where philosophical insight and just morality are served up from the unlikeliest of sources. Where you question the criminality of thieves and the happiness of rich men.
It contains some nuggets of pure gold life advice every couple of pages. They are understated and so all the more sweet. Usually dished out by those on the fringes of the slums or at the top of the criminal ladder, each one an unlikely source for philosophical insight.
“Anything that can be put in a nutshell should remain there”
If it fails to do anything else Shantaram fills you with an immense love for India, not romanticized but a gritty reality of simple love that flourishes in the most desolate poverty. It is powerful, insightful and thought provoking, however cliché. Roberts’ depictions of Bombay, a city of extremes, leave the air around you smelling of cardamom and dust long after you’ve closed its pages.
“The past reflects eternally between two mirrors -the bright mirror of words and deeds, and the dark one, full of things we didn’t do or say.”