‘It does what all good books do: it takes over your life’ – Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Having escaped from a maximum security prison in Australia, Lindsay Ford arrives in India with a dodgy, forged passport, a bag of belongings and a guitar. With the help of a local guide, Prabraker, Lin (as he is later nicknamed) explores the real Bombay and it is during one of his tours of the city that he meets Karla Saaranen who begins to change his life forever.

After a roadside mugging, Lin is forced to live in the slum where he sets up a free health clinic for its residents. His exploits and good deeds in Bombay make him a favourite amongst the locals and he is quickly drawn into their culture. However, he is later drawn into the world of the Asian black market and, eventually, the Mafia after enduring a stint in an Indian prison.  He finds love, friends and trouble and loses them too, he commits crimes and fights wars and he even finds the time to make an appearance in a Bollywood movie and learn several languages; all in the space of nine hundred and thirty three pages.

The story is broken into five sections that cover different periods of Lin’s life in Bombay. Within those sections, each chapter seems to have its own complete episodic story that leaves a trail for the sequel in the next chapter. Roberts’ style is slightly unorthodox in that he often prepares the reader for what will happen later but when the moment comes he still manages to build the suspense superbly.

I have never come across another author who manages to excite all my senses so expertly. The way that Roberts describes Bombay – the smells, the food, the scenery – is detailed enough to qualify him as a travel writer. He transports the reader around the city to the point that it becomes familiar. Through Lin’s eyes, he moves from the poverty stricken squalor of the Colaba slums to the spectacle of the floating Mosque at Haji Ali with such ease and believability that the reader begins to trust his every word.

However, it is not the city itself that is Lin’s main concern; it’s the people in it. Nearly every character he meets has a huge impact on his life and, just as the majesty of Bombay is so emphatically revealed, so are the vivid qualities of Lin’s companions. Roberts tends to focus on a significant feature for each of his characters like Prabaker’s enormous smile or Karla’s sea green eyes. However, the only niggling downside with the writing is that, for all the faces that appear in the book, the only expression that Roberts allows them to display is a smile or a frown.

The novel is said to be based on real life events, however, the balance of how much is true and how much is fiction remains a mystery. We know that the author escaped from an Australian prison in the early 80’s after being jailed for armed robbery. He then fled to India which clearly forms the basis for this story but, beyond that, we either have to salute Roberts’ imagination or salute him for what he has experienced in life.

Any Cop?: Gregory David Roberts has produced a classic. Shantaram is a must read simply because it does what all good books do: it takes over your life. The impulse to carry on reading remains throughout the novel and I’d struggle to believe that you could find a more captivating plot in any library anywhere in the world. It literally has everything. One way or another, it will have an impact on your life.

Tom Gill

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