If you liked Breaking Bad, you will love this novel: violence, mafia and of course a love story. Shantaram is arguably less of a story, and more of a deliberation of life and its meaning by a man who is trying to make sense of his past and his present. After the novel was published, the author denied that the characters were real, but he says that ‘the experiences were all true for him’. Was he responding to legal advice my inner cynic wondered? And besides, it is well-known that a writer’s first novel is often a thinly veiled autobiography.
“The problem is that opportunity only knocks gently, temptation breaks down the door’.
In real life the ballsy author, the former heroin addict, Gregory Roberts escaped across the front wall from a jail in Australia in broad daylight, cutting short his conviction of 20 years for armed robbery. With the aid of a fake New Zealand passport and a new name Lindsay, Greg leaves behind his status as most wanted man in Australia and creates a new life in Bombay in India. He is quickly seduced by the chaos, the colour and crazy life in India. More importantly, he is living in a world where his face is not known and the risk of capture is relatively low.
What makes this novel so special, is how the author succeeds in writing directly to the reader and how his vulnerability endears him to us. The reader finds themselves wanting ’Lin Baba’ as he becomes known to succeed. We desperately want him to beat, not just fight his daemons and to choose the right path. The first half of the novel is inspiring. He becomes fluent in two local Indian languages: Hindi and Marathi, he falls in love, he sets up a health centre in a poor slum. He becomes a popular, respected, and admired man who is greatly loved by the locals.
The second half of the novel is a good deal darker. Without wishing to give the whole story away, he becomes wrapped up in a violent world not dissimilar to the world, and probably more dangerous than the one he left behind in Australia.
The book talks a good deal about good and evil. And while it may seem unjust to draw parallels between this story and Breaking Bad, I often wondered how Breaking Bad could be so successful. How could it appeal to me: a white, overe-ducated female who is appalled by violence? My theory is this: it gives an insight into how good men can do the wrong things for the right reasons. And this is a major theme of this book. It sheds a small light on how men who commit atrocities can sleep at night. They do so armed with the flimsy excuse that they are avenging a wrong done to them, or that their families were once abused.
What this story does particularly well is to show how a man who is fundamentally principled and honourable like Lin can be drawn to the good, but is somehow magnetised to the bad. Lin is obviously a very intelligent and charming man. He is educated, makes friends easily and women find him attractive. And yet he always remains very alone, feeling guilty and troubled. He often laments the breakdown of his marriage and that he lost custody of his only child: a daughter.
Lin is prone to heroic acts of kindness to help others, people he hardly even knows and yet he is sadly destructive when it comes to helping himself. And while he seeks to help others, he is not easily helped. And when happiness and the chance of a new life beckons in the form of a woman he loves, he runs away, thinking he has some greater destiny to fill. Like so many people he fails to realise that life is a moving train. When chance comes our way, we must jump on the moving train. Instead he thinks he can wait for it to stop for him until he feels ready. And does that ever happen?
The book paints a picture of India in an affectionate but realistic light. While he loves it, he can see its flaws. He shows that despite the poverty in the slums, that the people still experience daily joy: the men, women and children smile despite the challenges. And despite the chaos, and unfairness that a certain law and order prevails. There were never any murders, nor was there ever any stealing. The slum he lived in had a leader who actually intervened when a man is found beating his wife. He imposes a punishment on the man, and gives him two months to clean up at which point his wife will decide if she will return to him or not. This is something that would never happen in the West. Lin, however also shows the sinister side: the organ donation from living humans, the prostitution, the buying and selling of children.
While the story was compelling, it was the themes of the book that will remain with me: they ranged from: the loss a man feels in the absence of a father figure to manipulation: how charismatic crime leaders can abuse this void to manipulate these lost young men to work for them for their own glory, wealth or power.
Another theme is risk and danger and how addictive they can be. In 2014, there is a hit song by OneRepublic called Counting Stars that contains the line “everything that kills me, makes me feel alive,” and and this song came to mind when I read this novel. And of course love is a central theme: how vulnerable men are when they really love a woman.
Shantaram is compelling, moving and the language is poetic. The story holds an honesty that resonated with readers worldwide. At one point, he was receiving up to 80 mails a month.
He is the trained assassin who never kills, the terrorist who never bombs and the adoring father who never gets to see his daughter. He is a man so longing to love and yet he loses the love every time. But every time he writes a sentence, he makes us think. Are we all in some small way creating our own destruction?
Some novels are like people we meet at dinner parties. They can be interesting, engaging, funny and while we enjoy them we can easily leave them behind, never really thinking about them again. This is not this kind of book. It is a book that moves you. It is more like reading an intimate memoir of a close friend, than a novel written by a stranger. In fact at one point it when a loved one dies, I was moved me to tears while on an idyllic island in Greece. And I have the burnt shoulders to prove how wrapped up I was in the story.
And to finish this off. Let’s have the author himself describe his book: