by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram really took me by surprise. I bought the book before a week long holiday to Athens expecting it be some forgettable, but enjoyable, read. I got far more than that. The book is seemingly an autobiography of Roberts, an escaped Australian armed robber trying to run from his past and create a new life in Bombay. The book is written like an autobiography but it seems that the book was inspired by real events as opposed to being a recollection of them. This makes sense since many of the events in the book seem too perfectly adapted to written drama to be true.

Being an Australian in Bombay immediately sets Roberts as an outsider and is a perfect narrator to introduce the unique charms and customs of Bombay and the people who live there. The story is a well written tour of Bombay's slums and the hardships that are present there; it is an insight into organised crime, its brutality and its brotherhood; it is about being displaced and finding your way and the people who help and hinder us; and it is about love. Fantastically written and emotionally evokative Shantaram is deserving of the praise it gets.

Shantaram is well written, emotional and interesting from start to finish. It may be a bit long for some people but if you're looking for a good long read look no further. Highly recommended.

Now for the spoilers

For the first half of the book I was convinced the book was autobiographical. There were some things that seemed adapted to novel (the number of important conversations that Roberts finds interrupted at crucial moments make you realise that some events have probably been changed for dramatic effect) but all that is fine because it flowed. It was around the time when he had to hug a bear in an Indian slum due to the misunderstanding of the English term "bear bug" that I seriously doubted the facts in the novel but even then it didn't matter to me. The characters are so vivid that they are real to the reader, its a real feat that Roberts can mix the facts with fiction and the reader will want to believe what is written.

The book can be split into different sections. The frirst being Roberts' introduction to Bombay friends along with his friends. This actually acts as a great introduction for the reader too since the Bombay is like a whole new world to the one many people will be familiar with. You get to see the people who will make appearances and important decisions through the book and they are well established at the start. The pay off of this early character establishment is incredible. Characters like Karla play a huge role in the story and the changes they go through are made stronger by the opening chapters. I think this is most effectively seen in the character Didier. Seen as an aloof and irreverent person for most of the novel it isn't until he comes to the aid of Roberts that we see who he really is. It brings a tear to your eye to see that this man who you would never have thought reliable could exceed your expectations so thoroughly.

"There was the real man, the steel blade within the shabby, rusting scabbard."

I won't go through each part of the book but his time in the slums is without a doubt the highlight of the novel. The people and culture in this section capture your imagination like a glorious fairytale. The sense of community and hardship combine to make the Cholera outbreak that happens all the more devastating. You don't read about slum life, you live it through Roberts.

"Hate had no great literature: real fear and real hate have no words"

The slums may the highlight in the story but it's Roberts' criminal life that gives way to some of the most profound ideas in the book. Roberts is a junkie, an armed robber, a bully, a gangster and he is eloquent. His dark past often contrasts the close community and warmness of Indian society and its a contrast that gives us great insight into Roberts' mind. My guess would be that most readers wouldn't have much experience in jail or in criminal gangs, Roberts give you a window to that life. The life and death struggle with deplorable jail conditions, the seemingly perverse honour in organised criminal gangs and the paranoia of being a man on the run.

The book grabs you in these moments where you have Roberts, the hardened criminal, trying to save lives in a slum clinic or rescuing people from the grip of people traffickers. The conflict between his past, his present and future, his desire for forgiveness and love all comes together for to give you insights and revelations about a type a life you will (most likely) never lead.

"Every time we cage a man we close him in with hate"

The best parts of the book are when Roberts is faced with the differences in pursuing love and criminal activity and Bombay is the perfect setting due to its vast social differences living so close to each other. So when the book takes a trip into the Afgan war against Russia the book drags. The love interest story is paused, the loving environment that was present in Bombay is removed and you're left with the cold, harsh war. This section of the book could also be powerful but I found myself reading through it to get back to Bombay, to see Karla and the slums again. This is my one criticism of the book really, that is has a section that isn't as strong as the rest of the book. Not a bad criticism to have honestly.

I feel like I should mention Karla here too. She's an enigma for a long time. You never know if she's friend or foe, victim or persecutor and like all great characters when you do learn about her full circumstances you still don't know. She's the romantic interest that Roberts pursues through the novel...until he stops. That's what I like about this relationship, it's tortuous. Despite both of them opening to each other they never open fully and the subterfuge and lack of trust ultimately leads to them falling apart and not getting together in some sort of "happily ever after" ending. It becomes clear that these two people may love each other but they can't be together and it's nice to see a book come to a natural conclusion.

Side note: I have looked up if the Karla was real or not and it seems that in real life she may have been an addict who died of HIV. This doesn't happen in the books, Karla is a completely different person it seems but it is telling that I feel so saddened that this may be the case after reading this book. It's a testament to the writing on display here.

In conclusion:

Definitely one to put on the reading list. It's story will grip you, you will love its characters and you will be reeling and laughing through all the highs and lows. I'll put a link in here if I've convinced you to read it.

Imran Khan - 15/06/2014