It has been years since I've read a book by such a descriptive writer. He is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine. This book was recommended to me by one of friends from Russia “Dinara”
First of all, this book is over 800 pages, so I found it a little challenging to start because I didn't want to carry it around with me to read on the bus (too bulky) and I was so tired each night that I couldn't read more than a page or two. But I finally got a chance to read a small chunk of it in one sitting and that was it for me. I loved it and couldn't put it down.
Secondly, the books plot, twists, and pace would make a great book in itself. What caught me is without trying to shove it down your throat is the Author's love of people. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, extremely poor, extremely rich, strange, and even straight out hell types of people. The author and main character who portrays himself as no pillar of society seems to have an intense love of humans and human nature. Not only are the characters and what they do complex but no matter how deep or shallow they are in crime ranging from petty scammers to murderers and even torturers, in by far most cases he pulls the good out of them and demonstrates that even though people get themselves in these situations regularly, that we consider heinous crimes, there is actually good in them that may be hidden deep but is in every human being.
As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to Lin, a man who has escaped his Australian jail and arrives in Bombay, hoping to hide in India's vast populace. Early on, Lin is forced to realise that India is a beast unlike any other; culturally, racially, and economically. It is, however, home to many who have the same idea, hiding from their criminal pasts elsewhere. These include Karla Saarinen, a woman who occupies Lin's mind and dreams from the moment he lays eyes on her. As Lin befriends others who have recently arrive in country, seeking to blend into the billions around him with vague and beige back stories, he meets a tour guide, Prabaker (Prabu). Their connection is almost instantaneous, soon becoming an entertaining pair throughout the narrative. Prabu is able to help Lin make numerous connections in and around the city. While they venture out to better explore Bombay and eventually other parts of the state, Lin learns the cultural differences between India and his Australian upbringing. As Prabu and Lin continue their adventures, the latter finds himself living in the city's slums and opens a medical clinic to cater to the poorest population, where Lin becomes involved with the shady underworld and black market living.
Throughout the book, Lin crosses paths with those whose simple conversations turn philosophical and force him to digest complex analyses to the universe's most basic concepts. When offered a position working in forged passports by the Bombay Mafia, Lin accepts, if only to explore new pathways to survival. His living in the slums of Bombay prove not only eye opening, but life changing in ways that the reader can only understand by being enveloped in the larger narrative. Even as Lin is able to build himself up in his new homeland, he is broken by the cruelest and most sadistic Indians, especially when his identity is learned and extradition considered. Roberts offers so much in this narrative that it is hard to summarise or believe that this is the life of a single man on the run. However, where truth ends and fiction commences, the reader is permitted a front seat for everything and the chance to change alongside Lin throughout. A must read by any and all who want to offer up all they feel they know, only to finish the book and question everything.
On the upside, the descriptions of India and its people are fantastic. Life in the city and in the small village is graphically portrayed and I really felt I was living these sections. Some of the characters were exceptional – I particularly loved Prabhaker, Didier, Vicram and the scarily insane Habib. I don't want to give anything away but I will say there are scenes that left me variously laughing out loud, desperately sad and/or pretty much revolted and scared witless – the latter particularly coming to the fore when our hero was temporarily incarcerated in Bombay’s Arthur Road Jail. It's a book that really does stretch the emotions. I also enjoyed the way the underlying themes of freedom, loyalty, love (lots of love) and betrayal played out through the narrative.
Read it because it is an expansive story in so many ways. Read it for the vivid descriptions of Bombay, war-torn Afghanistan and many other places. For the range of the human condition that is explored, the very believable portrayal of the life of an escape prisoner at the edges of society and the multitude of characters he encounters. All these are bright and believable. There are lessons hard learned that are painful and powerful in their retelling.
Finally, I was captivated by Shantaram. While the book is not strictly autobiographical, the storytelling is convincing enough that it feels like it could be. You can tell that Roberts is, in a montaignesque* way, really trying to know and represent himself as faithfully as possible. It's impressive how he is able to return to his past self's state of mind--it reminds me of Proust in that sense, the realization that who he is now isn't who he was, but at the same time, trying to accurately identify with that past self.
* Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), French humanist and philosopher