SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts (Scribe Publications, 2003)
Stewart Brand described this novel as “the Les Misérables of the 21st century” and he’s not wrong. Both are sprawling and flawed epics which reflect the most essential aspects of humanity, warts and all.
I was gripped for over two-thirds of it which considering it is a 936 page brick, is quite an achievement.
Unfortunately, it tails off badly towards the end when many of the key characters are either dead or missing. The shift away from Mumbai as the centre of the action also diminishes the intensity. Nevertheless, I would still recommend it for a mostly riveting account of what may well be the ultimate exile experience.
Like the book’s central character, the author was a drug addict and a convicted felon who escaped from prison in Australia to India. He describes himself as “a revolutionary social activist who had lost his ideals in heroin and crime”.
The story documents the slow process of rediscovering these ideals and finding a fresh moral code to live by. This journey involves a recognition that “the burden of happiness can only be relieved by the balm of suffering”.
Lin, the first person narrator, loses everything is materialistic terms but gains so much more by finding heart and soul in the “collapsible city” of the slums. There he finds both a “collective wretchedness” but also a world within a world where people can find happiness despite their adverse poverty.
The reason the novel falls down, for me, lies in the way Lin’s altruism, refusal to kill and sexual abstinence (except for with his one true love) ultimately become qualities that stretch the bounds of credibility.
Roberts maintains that the fiction was entirely based on real experiences and admits to many human failings but I ended up wondering if he wasn’t guilty of presenting himself as an altogether too saint-like figure to live up his nickname as Shantaram, “man of peace”.
Still, you have to marvel at the book’s ambition and scope where the wisdom lies main character’s endurance and the pragmatism that is the key to his survival. As he says, “It’s good to know what is wrong with the world but just as important to know that sometimes you can’t change it”.