Shantaram




Courtesy - http://en.wikipedia.org/


I’ve always been a bit wary about foreign authors writing about India. I know it is a hopeless prejudice – but I kind of believe they have nothing new to say; apart from spirituality, yoga, gurus, Himalayas, curry, and yes, slums, poverty, corruption.  

I’d heard about Shantaram but never got a chance to pick it up. A couple of weeks ago, during a regular pilgrimage to the library, I found a copy. I grinned. At 900 odd pages, the book looked sumptuous. Hell, if the book turned out to be a bore, I could always do a couple of bicep curls instead!

A part-autobiographical account written by Gregory David Roberts, the book left me breathless. The protagonist – Lin- grabbed me by the collar right in the first page when he said, “So it begins, this story, like everything else – with a woman, and a city, and a little bit of luck.” I clung to him as he dragged me into the very belly of Mumbai – made me take in the sweat, the smell, the blood and the love of Mumbai streets – and we settled eternally in Leopold’s. I succumbed to his story as he ripped out his heart and laid it bare without shame or embarrassment – smeared my mind with his deepest and at times profound, at times exasperating thoughts – the narration in parts languid like the flow of honey, and in parts stinging, burning like acid.

Perhaps what makes this book an outstanding India experience is that the firang protagonist is not merely an observer – but a participant of Mumbai street life. He lives in the slums, does his ablutions under the sky like all the slum dwellers, works in the slum as a doctor, wipes vomit and excrement during an episode of cholera, cleans drains in preparation for the monsoon - and when he absolutely runs out of money now and then, he acts as a mediator connecting tourists to the best hashish and fake passport dealers.

It is this duality in the protagonist’s character that fascinates you and nails you. On one hand his kindness brings tears to your eyes – and just when you want to reach out and pat his back – he’s out there smoking a hashish chillums and sitting with the most fearsome underworld dons.

And the Mumbai don – Khaderbhai – well, all I can say is Don Corleone seems like a kindergarten kid in front of our Mumbai bhai! Khaderbhai’s conversations on metaphysics are fascinating. But then, a criminal is a criminal...is a criminal. Under all that intelligence, Khaderbhai is nothing more than a thief, a dacoit, and a murderer. And yet, our Lin finds a father-figure in him.

No other author, Indian or otherwise, has captured the Indianness as superbly as Roberts has done - right to the tone, the curses, the Hindi, the Marathi, the love for bollywood, the mannerisms, the kindness, the pettiness, the generosity, the stares, the vulnerability, the tenacity, the apathy, the philosophy, the idea of love – it is a rollercoaster all the way! The conversations make your laugh out loud, the relationships leave you hurting and tender, the violence – brutal and horrific, leaves you panting.

Shantaram is a book of mammoth quotes. It is a book which forces you to take a marker and underline lines and paragraphs.

When Lin’s exotic, enigmatic and neurotic love-interest Karla says, “Sometimes you break your heart in the right way...You learn something or you feel something completely new, when you break your heart that way. Something that only you can know or feel in that way...” you don’t know what the hell she’s talking about, and yet, she makes perfect sense because - haven't we all broken our hearts in some way, and came out feeling stronger, better, more alive?

I howled with laughter when the guileless, ever-smiling, angelic Prabhakar – Lin’s friend, philosopher and guide gives lessons on underwear in India -

“In India, the men are wearing this over-underpants, under their clothes, at all times, and in all situations. Even if they are wearing under-underpants, still they are wearing over-underpants over their unders. You see?” Indeed he explains to the bewildered Lin, “Nobody is ever naked in India. And especially, nobody is naked without clothes.”

I chewed for a long time on Lin’s observation – “The truth is that, no matter what kind of game you find yourself in, no matter how good or bad the luck, you can change your life completely with a simple thought or a single act of love.”

I understand people like the protagonist – they fascinate me. Have you come across people who are warm-hearted, genuinely affectionate, ever smiling? They are kind, and even if they don’t know you, they are the first ones to help you in time of need. They are so giving and embrace you unconditionally in their friendship. Yet, these are the ones who go through life with a cloak of loneliness...not solitude mind you, but loneliness. You can see this cloak in their eyes, their words, their action, their contemplative frowns. They can be surrounded by people who reciprocate their friendship with whole-hearted love – but it is never enough. For some reason, there is a black hole in their core and not all the love in the world is enough to fill up that hole.

They go stumbling about life, arms perpetually outstretched, collecting love in all its forms – be it a smile, an embrace, a handshake, a kiss – they grab it with both hands, fold this love, pack it tightly and hide it in that black-hole core. In return, they give you everything they’ve got. And this makes them less discerning – makes them blind to the unscrupulous ones who exploit their naivety – the hurt wounds them terribly. But yet, even the pseudo-love they receive is packed and stored and relished – and they go on unchanged. Nothing can make these adult-children of the universe cynical, suspecting, bitter.

The life of Roberts, even if part of it is reflected in the book, is the wonderous, thunderous and at times ridiculous drama on Eastman colour – an intersection of Sholay and Godfather. Compared to his life, it looks like most of us have been sleepwalking so far!

And yes, even if you have lived in Mumbai all your life – you will never know Mumbai till you’ve read this book.

© Sumana Khan - 2012

Comments

  1. One of the best books I have read. And this post is also beautiful!

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    1. :) Thank you Shail. Apparently Johnny Depp was supposed to essay the role of Lin...can anything get better than this? :D

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  2. Loved the review, especially the part where you talk about some people being incorrigible romantics : the adult-children as you call them. There seems to be a certain intimacy in this book which makes you reflect back ; I like all the reflections you shared.
    This book has been on my reading list for a while now and after reading this post, I think I am going to get hold of it.

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    1. Thank you Abhivyakti. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did :)

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  3. I can't decide which is better, the book or your brilliant review!

    Thanks for this nostalgic trip.

    I had started to read this book about two years ago, and had got through the first 300 pages and was raving about it even as I was reading it.

    A relative who heard me and who had observed that it had taken me over three weeks to read just 300 pages told me he wanted to borrow it for just a week and finish it.
    Being a nice uncle, I allowed him to borrow it.
    That's the last I saw of that book.
    He grins sheepishly at me when I ask him when he plans to return it to me.
    Obviously it has been passed on and must have changed many hands and no one can trace it now.

    Any way, let's hope, now that I have retired, I will be able to get my hands on another copy and finish it faster. Those days I was professionally active and three weeks for 300 pages was the best I could achieve.

    The book appealed to me because I was born in Mumbai and have spent the most formative years of my life (from birth to age 18) in Mumbai.

    I can relate to the incidents in the book. I have watched the police chasing bootleggers. I have watched my friends investing in Matka. I have followed the the career of the notorious Dharaavi Don (Varada) on whose life the movie Dayavaan was made. I have experienced black-marketing in cinema tickets outside theatres when fans were obsessed with being the ones to watch a new release on the first day, first show.

    I have experienced how beggars operate in Mumbai and how the city offers a zillion ways of surviving if you only try. A new language was created in Mumbai. I can still speak Mumbai Hindi (that crude mix of Hindi/Gujarati/Marathi and English)

    Thanks for reminding me of this book and now let me see if I can get a another copy.
    The middle class mind operating inside me is loath to invest on buying another copy. Let's see if I can borrow it somehow. The lender can be sure it won't be passed on and will be returned.

    Regards
    GV

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    1. GVjee...as a Mumbaiker I guess you would have enjoyed the book even more than I have!

      I think there are online lending libraries operating in Bengaluru. You can book a copy online, and they will send it to you. Let me find out more on this.

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  4. I have read the book. I have lived in Mumbai and agree that I would not have known about this part of Mumbai. But, I found the book dragging in the second half and losing its grip in the second half. It gave me mixed feelings by the time I finished the book.

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    1. :) I'm a hopelessly sentimental reader!

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  5. Ah! I've been wanting to read this ever since I read Yashas's status updates about the book and he had written to me about it too. Now your review is making me long for it. Will pick this up soon. Thanks :)

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  6. I bought this book after reading the first line. It's been sitting in my library for the past year. After reading this review, I'll take it up soon (after Villette)
    And yes, waiting for Johnny Depp. He suits perfectly!

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    1. You know...Johnny Depp was the first face that flashed in my mind - glad he's bought the rights!

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  7. Are you going to review Shirley (Bronte)?

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    1. It will be a hopeless repetition if I attempt to write on Shirley :) I've already gushed so much in my other Bronte notes LOL!

      What are you reading these days?

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    2. This is the person who recommended Syrie James' book to you. :) I just finished reading "Prince of Publishers. A Biography of the Great Victorian Publisher George Smith." He is who published Charlotte Bronte and who Graham in Villette was based on. Very good book. I also just read "Charlotte Bronte's Promised Land", a book about Brussels in her time and stuff about the Pensionnat Heger.
      Luv

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    3. Anon - let's give you a name :) How about Anon Bronte? :) Thanks for the recommendations! Will pick up the copies as soon as I get a chance!At this rate I can do a PhD on Bronte :)

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    4. My name is Luv Lubker. I've been reading about the Brontes since December 2010 - I read Jane Eyre a couple times before that too. My mom and dad watched the 2006 Jane Eyre Miniseries in April that year and then she read the book and we listened to an audiobook of it and then I read it a couple times. I was reading other stuff for a couple months and then we got an audiobook of Villette - then "Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte" and I haven't been able to stop since. :)
      Luv

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    5. THat' quite a journey! Once again, thank you for all the lovely recommendations :)

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  8. What a sumptuous review! Must read it now :)

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    1. ...and let me know YOUR review :)

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  9. Loved the review, been hovering over this book for quite sometime, maybe its time to pick it up :)

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