Friday, May 08, 2009

The book leaves you shaken and stirrred, to use a famous James Bond line

Shantaram from The Big Picture by T T Ram Mohan
I finally finished reading Shantaram. I say 'finally' because I am a slow reader and the novel runs into over 900 pages.

Shantaram, which came out about three years ago, is penned by Gregory David Roberts, an Australian who was serving a jail sentence for armed robbery in his country. He escaped from jail, landed in Mumbai, spent several years there as part of the local underworld, was recaptured in Germany and, after serving the remaining sentence, got his novel published. He needed to write it thrice because his captors destroyed the first two versions when they found out. Roberts has since made Mumbai his home.

The novel is an epic. And it's more than a novel, it's a soul-stirring experience. To think that a man could go through all that, retain his humanity and find the reserves to write a splendid novel! Roberts's mother taught him to appreciate literature and he spent his time in the Australian jail devouring first-rate fiction. It shows in his own writing.

It's impossible to capture the splendours of the novel in one short post. Roberts has said in interviews that the events are real, only the narrative is fictional. There is a charming account of Roberts' six month stay in a village in Maharashtra's interior where he is given his name; a moving description of life in the slum near Cuffe Parade where the locals adopted him as one of their own; great encounters with Abdel Kader Khan, the underworld don, who combines a fine command of the English language with a fondness for philosophical speculation (every week, he and his comarades meet for lofty discussions); and, then, Roberts' embroilment in the war in Afghanistan when he accompanies Khan and others on a journey through Pakistan to arm the Taliban in their war against the Russians.

I won't narrate more. I will leave you to find out for yourself. Shantaram is being made into a film by Tara Nair. I can't wait to see it. Let me just say that the book leaves you shaken and stirrred, to use a famous James Bond line.

I had a post some time back on another book on Mumbai, Suketu Mehta's Maximum City. That is also about the seamy side of Mumbai. But the philosophical approaches are very different. Mehta is appalled and outraged at the violence and corruption that lie beneath the surface in Mumbai. Roberts writes with empathy and affection for those on the seamy side. There is understanding and love, an underlying humanity that comes from having experienced the worst of it. Roberts is now off smoking, drinks and drugs and leads the life of a celebrity in Mumbai.

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