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