Sunday, January 13, 2008


By Gregory David Roberts

I think The Seattle Times reviewer nailed it: “Shantaram is a true epic. It is a huge, messy, over-the-top, irresistible shaggy-dog story.”

Shantaram is based on Roberts’ own personal history and his love of the city where he spent most of his fugitive years during the 1980s and where he now lives and works.

We meet the protagonist, Lindsay, when he arrives, for the first time, in Bombay. From then on, we follow his voyage of discovery of the city and its people. We see the city through his eyes. We smell it through his nose. We experience it through his life. In many ways, this is as much a story about Bombay as it is about Lindsay himself, and in the end, I think, every reader will also come to love Bombay at some level, although few would presume to have the attachment for it that Roberts so clearly has.

Lindsay’s journey really starts with Prabaker, a freelance Bombay guide who insinuates himself into his life by grabbing his bags as Lindsay exits the airport shuttle bus in downtown Bombay. A fast and enduring friendship is born from that chance meeting and it is Prabaker who introduces Lindsay (and the reader) to his city, his world. Lindsay, in response, embraces the city and the people and comes to know and love them both.

From living in the slums to consorting with prostitutes, freedom fighters and the Bombay mafia, Lindsay becomes part of the warp and weave of Bombay life, and Bombay becomes part of him: “Everyone in the whole world ... was Indian in at least one past life.”

In the beginning, when Lindsay is still somewhat in awe of the city, the book has a lightness and underlying sense of discovery and humour that offsets some of the misery and poverty that he encounters in his travels. To a large degree, that is due to the fact that Prabaker is still a major presence and influence in his life and in many ways continues in his role as Lindsay’s guide. However as Lindsay becomes more and more involved in the Bombay mafia, and with Prabaker’s untimely and accidental death, the story loses that sense of joy and wonderment and becomes progressively darker. Lindsay’s life becomes bleaker and more desperate, and it’s only periodically that we get to see flashes of the humanitarian Lindsay who set up and ran the medical clinic in the slum, or who marvelled at the resilience and joy to be found among even the most desperate of Bombay’s impoverished millions.

A great, rambling tale, Shantaram grabbed me from the very first page and kept me up well past my bedtime on more than one occasion. Highly recommended.

No comments: