04 Oct / Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts
Forty-three (yes, 43!) hours is a major commitment to a single book. And in spite of the most eye-rolling, not-so-nicely-talking back to a continuously babbling (for 43 hours, 3 minutes to be exact!) iPod that I have ever done, I will actually admit that Shantaram is one of the most thrillingly entertaining stories ever. I can’t believe I just wrote that!
I’ll also add that when Mira Nair finally finishes her film version (Johnny Depp as Lin, though? definitely Daddy Bachchan as Khader Khan, yes! Gregory Roberts himself is doing the screenplay), it will most certainly be one of the few better-on-film-than-page movies.
Kudos are definitely in order for the amazing Humphrey Bower who does a remarkable job narrating, especially given that big chunks of the sometimes embarrassingly overwritten passages could have substantially whittled down the 944-pages. Hey, but that’s the price the reader (and/or listener) has to pay for Lin’s phenomenal story.
An escaped convict from Australia with an unknown real name, “Lindsay Ford” – as his fake New Zealand passport originally identifies him in the opening chapter – lands in the teeming streets of 1980s Bombay. His first real friend, Prabaker, baptizes him as “Lin,” and “Linbaba” with the affectionate honorific added. On that day of arrival on his way to sharing his first meal with Prabu, Lin is instantly mesmerized by Karla, a gorgeous but damaged Swiss American fellow ex-pat, with whom he immediately falls in love. She remains a haunting presence throughout Lin’s story.
Living the life of a fugitive, Lin proves extremely adaptive, picking up languages in his new home city almost as easily as he finds friends. Prabu, with his wide, unforgettable, always loving smile, proves to be Lin’s guide far beyond the city’s limits. Lin joins Prabu on a visit to his remote village, where Prabu’s family welcomes him as one of their own, and Prabu’s father further baptizes Lin withthe name Shantaram, meaning ‘man of god’s peace.’ With Prabu’s teaching and encouragement, Lin learns Marathi, the native language of Maharashtra of which Bombay is the capital, a language too few Bombay-ites speak; the skill will serve Lin well.
As Lin’s funds dwindle, Prabu finds him a much in-demand hovel in a densely populated Bombay slum. Lin’s arrival there is marked by a tragic fire, and he begins his residency as a local hero when his past training as a medic saves numerous lives. His dwelling eventually becomes a free slum clinic, subsidized by black-market medical supplies procured by a renegade community of lepers. Lin is hand-chosen by one of the city’s most powerful mafia leaders, Abdel Khader Khan, who becomes both an inspiring guru and father-substitute for the lonely, searching Lin. He learns – and quickly excels in – all the local illegal trades, from international money laundering to passport fakery, and eventually risks his life in Khan’s own Russian/Afghan war. He experiences the heart-shattering price of doing “the wrong thing, for the right reasons.”
The many similarities to Roberts’ own life detailed in Shantaram have prompted many to ask why it’s called a novel … fact or fiction, it’s a remarkable account of one man’s experiences of life on the run. All quibbles aside, you’ll have to just read (or listen) to it yourself because no description could possibly do it justice. Eye-rolling, cursing, and all!
Published: 2004 (United States), 2006 (unabridged recording)