The sensational epic novel Shantaram by Australian author Gregory David Roberts is one that I don’t think I will ever forget for as long as I live. It is the best book I have ever read and giving it 5 stars just isn’t enough to express how much I loved it and what a profound effect its author has had on the way I look at the world.
This is a book I savored like a last bottle of water in the desert, while reading several others in between over a period of five months, because I never wanted it to end. Its gripping, visceral descriptions of prison life will make you squirm in your seat and its heartrending passages about the loss of loved ones will have you weeping uncontrollably, but it will also make you daydream, smile, and laugh out loud.
The theme of Shantaram is the exile experience, alienation, and man’s quest for meaning. It’s also about shame and self-loathing, sadness and hope, fear and forgiveness, poverty and true wealth, understanding and catharsis. And above all, it is about love.
Shantaram (which is actually the second book in a trilogy that has not yet been published) for the most part takes place in Bombay (Mumbai) and the author’s knowledge and love for the Indian people is so intoxicating and infectious that it will make you want to visit India with the hope that you will come to know its people in the same way. He describes the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of India (as well as his romantic retreat in Goa and the war torn and ravaged Afghanistan) with as much perfect detail, love and care as a famous artist put into his masterpiece with each strategic brush stroke.
Shantaram is the story of the indomitable spirit of a man who has lost everything – whose will to survive is astonishing – and the lengths to which he will fight to climb out of the abyss, absolutely astounding. The main character who has a number of names: Linbaba, Lin, Shantaram…is a man who feels damned and beyond redemption because of the crimes he’s committed (robbery, smuggling, gunrunning, counterfeiting, and working as a street soldier for the Bombay mafia) but who manages to find light, peace and salvation through the relationships he shares with the people he loves.
“It’s forgiveness that makes us what we are. Without forgiveness, our species would’ve annihilated itself in endless retributions. Without forgiveness, there would be no history. Without that hope, there would be no art, for every work of art is in some way an act of forgiveness. Without that dream, there would be no love, for every act of love is in some way a promise to forget. We live on because we can love, and we love because we can forgive.”
Based on many of the true life experiences of Gregory David Roberts – who after the failure of his marriage in Australia became a heroin addict, robber, inmate, escapee, and finally a refugee hiding out in India – Shantaram is stellar fiction that will leave you with many questions about how much of the story actually happened and how much was devised by Roberts’ literary genius. You may also find yourself falling in love with its author because of his intellect, charisma, and the sheer magnitude of his gigantic heart.
This book should be required reading for every college and university student on the planet. It’s a story that should be read, if possible, before embarking on the major part of your life’s journey. It is filled with so many exquisitely written passages and profound and remarkable quotes that you will be able to find something in it to express almost every situation you could possibly encounter.
“Everything you ever sense, in touch or taste or sight or even thought, has an effect on you that’s greater than zero. Some things, like the background sound of a bird chirping as it passes your house in the evening, or a flower glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, have such an infinitesimally small effect that you can’t detect them. Some things, like triumph and heartbreak, and some images, like the image of yourself reflected in the eyes of a man you’ve just stabbed, attach themselves to the secret gallery and they change your life forever.”
The characters, particularly his closest friends outside of the mafia council, such as Prabaker, Johnny Cigar, Qasim Ali Hussein and the slum dwellers, and the European crowd from Leopold’s Bar: Karla, Lisa, Didier, Ulla and Modena, Maurizio, Lettie and Vikram, Scorpio George and Gemini George, as well as Abdullah, Khader Khan and the other members of the Bombay mafia, are richly developed and fully realized and as a reader you become invested in them as you experience their joys and tragedies. I believe that some of these characters were amalgamations of several different people who Roberts knew in India in the 80s, but the world he creates through their eyes is as complex and colourful as the one we live in at this moment. Rarely, have I read a book that so completely transported me into the author’s world and seldom have I thought of one so much after I’d put the book down.
As I read the last few pages of this giant tome, tears trickled down my face, because of what Roberts had written in ending this part of his tale, and because I had come to the end and now I have to wait for the sequel to be published; hopefully in September 2011. Having a writer’s work that is this good, to look forward to, is something exceptional indeed. Gregory David Roberts’ life has been beyond extraordinary.
I won’t say anything more but READ THIS BOOK. You can also read an essay, The Architecture of the Novel on Roberts’ website at www.shantaram.com under the Author Notes tab.
Here is Gregory David Roberts talking about Shantaram and his experiences in India for CNN’s Talk Asia:
Johnny Depp bought the rights to this book for the making of the movie but the project has been stalled in development for quite a long time and there is no telling when production will begin.