“Sooner or later, fate puts us together with all the people, one by one, who show us what we could, and shouldn’t, let ourselves become” – Shantaram
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts is a sublime tale of a journey towards life. The book serves as a fictional , semi – pseudo auto biography of sorts. This is a book where fiction and reality hold hands together and they both , rather conveniently, chose a cinematic narrative approach to story telling. The book starts with a bloke who flies into Bombay with a fake passport that belongs to a certain Lindsay Ford. The assumed identity becomes the only identity of the tale’s protagonist. If I were to sum up the tale into a line, it would read as the journey of a man from being Lindsay Ford to Lin to Shantaram. While the sentence is short, the road taken by the protagonist is wonderfully entertaining , thought provoking and long.
Lindsay or the bloke who soon is addressed as Lin, is a man of violence. There is violence in his heart. There is guilt from that violence. A shade of repentance and a longing for redemption. Lin, as he starts, is no saint and the Bombay of the 1970’s happens to be the perfect city for vices. The retro vibes to the 70’s set amidst the blossoming Mumbai Mafia sets the stage for the tale. From substance abuse to suckering unassuming, unsuspecting travellers, Lin beings to offer a bespoke professional service of procuring and delivering instruments of vice based on fluctuating demands. That’s fancy for Lin working the streets and peddling whatever he can.
At every page there is crime and its holistic view. Crime , is both a source of escape and a means of entrapment. It keeps the characters in a state of inertia. The characters endure a distinct sense of irony. Their lives of crime keeps them free. It’s the crime that keeps them chained. The world revolves around a subtle balance.
The characters are the strength of this book. There are far too many characters and the best part is, as readers, we’d grown warm to most of them. We’d passionately root for them. We’d vengefully want some of them to suffer. The heart of this tale is the nurturing of the bonds that the characters share. From the smiles of Prabhakar, the wisdom of Lord Abdel Khader Khan, the friendship that is with Abdulla, the charismatic Didier Levy , the whacky-do-doodle that is Vikram and the frustration that is love in the form of Karla.
“Nothing grieves more deeply or pathetically than one half of a great love that isn’t meant to be.” – Shantaram
I don’t think there are any stories worth telling that do not concern the matters of the heart. Lin shares the same sentiment. Neatly set in the backdrop of a violent mafia, wars across the world, poverty , the human spirit (aka the Mumbai spirit) that never gives up, is a frustrating love story of Lin and Karla. The two are equally matched, in coefficients of both the intellect and emotions. One cannot be a lover unless one is a certified fool and this tale is a testament to that foolishness. Not that there is anything wrong with being a fool. Karla and Lin, all the other tiny tales of love and life, render the characters to either remain as fools or volunteer to be one. I’m a romantic and I find that state of foolishness as cute. Reality does come and it comes biting. Wisdom, I reckon, is attained by not staying a fool forever.
There is a lot of philosophy plastered across the pages of the tale. Lin shares his view of the world and the principles that he holds close. Lord Abdel is another wonderful source of wisdom that covers all realms of existence. The moralities are put to the test. We, along with Lin, have a glimpse into the world that sits comfortable between the two extremes of black and white.
One of the best feature of the book is the way that all the characters are flawed and broken. Nobody is holier than the rest. The virtues and vices grip everybody alike. There are no saints in the land of the vice. Despite the evil, it is the quintessential struggle to do good, that quest to make this world a better place, that effort to make life better for others, that sets the book apart from rest of the fiction. As Abdel says, it’s the capacity to do bad for the right reasons is what that defines us as humans. I’m tempted to both agree and disagree. Good finds a way. So does evil. We are left to our own wits to embrace either, or even both.
Speaking of the huge list of characters, Bombay, or the present day Mumbai is also a subtle character in the tale. Mumbai takes in people from all walks of life, accepts all moralities and ethics that people choose to live by, and lets its people be. Some bring it pain while others endure pain to spread joy. The book is a fantastic tribute to Bombay. It lives and breathes the fabric that is the city. Right from the underbelly that has the slippery grime that is crime , to the most humane face of humanity that’s expressed through poverty, from the front where money buys a £150 cup of coffee to humble villagers who migrate to the city with nothing but hopes and dreams in their eyes, the book has the city painted all over its pages.
The big theme in the book is around what it means to belong to someone or even some place? Why do we yearn that sense of belonging? How does that belonging change our life? Each character in the book is , in one way or another, an alien to the city. They all walk in, fall in love with the city and endure and survive.
The next big theme is around ‘Karma’ of things. The big question around should we continue to be what we were or do we allow ourselves to evolve and in time, repent, atone, grow , and adopt a new path? Lin is a perfect example of man of violence who blooms into a man with a golden heart that has a few thorns that adorn it.
The biggest payoff from the book is the mention of the name “Shantaram”.
The many lives of Lin reflect the many conflicts that arise within his heart. Lin is driven by love, loyalty, anger, regret, guilt and he embraces all the choices that he makes and is forced to make. As Lin adapts to the consequences, we as readers, no longer remain blind to the way he evolves. The fantastic irony to the tale is that Lin is soaked and bleached in crime and yet there is a saint in him that comes out strong.
A name is just a name and it seldom defines the nature of the person that it is tagged to. Shantaram is a beautiful example of a man living his life, in pursuit of earning that name that emanates peace that is Shantaram.
Definite read. Give it a shot.