Sunday 17 July 2011

Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts

Lin arrives in India on stolen passport having escaped from prison in Australia. He's not sure what to do next but is on the run and this passport will only get him so far. Straight off the bus in Bombay he meets Prabaker who guides him through the city. Lin quickly realises he loves India and doesn't want to leave. He finds some work for himself and discovers other sides of Bombay along the way. He falls in love, rescues prostitutes, lives in the slums, creates a free clinic, joins the mafia and so much more.

This book has been sitting on my shelf collecting dust for a couple of years. It's a fairly large book which doesn't normally daunt me but I think the fact that it wasn't the sort of book I would normally pick up delayed me reading it. I added it to my list of books to read in the Books I Should Have Read By Now challenge and I spotted a readalong for this title. Two signs that I should read it.

I am glad I did. The entire book is extremely descriptive. Normally that can be a negative but in this case I liked it. It was almost as if I was standing in the streets of Bombay with him. It also helped me to fall in love with characters such as Prabaker, his family and Johnny Cigar. Prabaker was probably my favourite character. I loved all his scenes. He seemed to have no concept of sarcasm and so would answer Lin as though he had asked a serious question. It made for some very funny moments and just endeared Prabaker all the more to me. One of my favourite moments was when he was living in the slum. Lin was in a bad mood as he hadn't had much sleep and Johnny Cigar woke him up early as there were patients waiting for him. He put the bad mood down to Lin's toilet issues which set off all his neighbours discussing how regularly Lin went.

I actually have lots of favourite moments and they all involve Prabaker or one of the others who lived in the slum. They seemed to have more to laugh about and I liked their philosophy on life. They were honest men who just wanted a happy life. I read in another review (I think it was a comment by Aths who is also taking part in the readalong) that the book was patronising at times. I can see where this view comes from. Although Lin loved living with Prabaker and his friends, enjoyed their company and saw them as friends I don't think he every really saw them as his equal. I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it was the tone he used when talking about them. It was almost like he saw himself as their saviour.

There were a lot of difficult moments too. It wasn't all lightness and fun. The cholera epidemic that hit the slums whilst Lin was living there was one. Although I don't think Lin saw himself as being in any real danger then. The real danger was when he was falsely imprisoned and had to fight his way to survive. Then of course his time in Afghanistan. He was in constant danger then. I think it was from those chapters that the tone of the book changed completely. It already had a little when he got out of prison and was learning the ways of the mob. But it truly changed then. The heart warming stories were few and far between. In fact there was only really one after Afghanistan and that once again involved Johnny Cigar.

The mob or mafia didn't interest me quite as much. I felt that Lin had doubts about the work he was doing. He knew it was wrong but even after he had paid off his debts for getting out of prison he didn't stop. It couldn't have bothered him that much. It was after that point we learned more about Karla, the woman he loved. She was a mysterious character from the start who had her own sad story.

The only negative thing I can say about the book itself is that I don't think Lin quite knew how he wanted to be portrayed. One minute he was the saviour and he wanted to be everyones friend. Accepted by everyone (which he just about was). On the other hand he wanted to be the hard man. There was a little of that before he joined the mob but it was more pronounced then. It somehow didn't quite sit well with the character because more times than not he was the good guy and the voice of reason.

If I was to talk about all the things I loved about this book I would honestly be here all day. It's one of those books that I'm not going to forget in a hurry. Although I eventually finished it earlier than the readalong planned it's still the longest time I have spent on a book. I am actually very glad for that. It gave me the chance to enjoy it in more detail before moving on to the next book.

Despite the size of the book it still felt that there was more packed into there than could possibly fit. Having finished it I came away surprised that it wasn't longer than it actually was. Believe me it was worth every page. I know the follow up is meant to be published this year. I'm not sure I will be able to hold off until the paperback as I want to know what happens to Lin next.

Oh, and one last thing. The book itself is meant to be semi -autobiographical. I know that Roberts did escape from prison, spent time in India before getting caught years later. He himself states that most of it is fiction. It would be interesting to know which of it is fact. Although according to wikipedia Prabaker was based on a real person.


  1. I am doing the read-a-long for this book with Athira on Reading on a Rainy Day and loving the book. Although i must agree that it is extremely descriptive and at times i just want to rush. I really need to finish it soon and get on with some other reading!

  2. Wow This review is great!
    You know I actually live in Bombay so I am kind of reluctant to read this book since it's supposed to show the dark side and all.
    It scares me a little actually!

  3. This book was so long but I could not put it down when I read it a few years ago.

  4. I had the same thing with the book: was the author a good or a bad guy, really, and was he maybe a bit of both?

    But it was a good story, and I loved reading it.

  5. This isn't a book I had on my radar before now. Thanks to your review, it's one that just towards the top of my wishlist. Thanks for the headsup.

  6. I am at page 600 of the book and love it! I did not know it was autobiographical. Good story and so intense

  7. I loved this book. I wasn't so keen on the later part of the book not set in India but the rest of it was great.

  8. Thanks everyone and thanks for all your lovely comments.

    Young1, I felt the need to rush at one point too. I loved the readalong but each weeks section always seemed to stop at an important part. In then end I had to just keep going.

    Thanks AgnesPink, a lot of the dark side I am sure is exaggerated. At one point it makes it sounds as though everyone in Bombay is committing crimes and bribing the police to turn an eye. I'm sure that's not true at all. It's worth reading but I would read it with a pinch of salt.

    Yeah Leeswammes, maybe he was a bit of both but I don't think he knew quite where he stood. It was good though.

    Ryan, I highly recommend it. I hope you enjoy it.

    Mystica, it's only semi-autobiographical. The author claims that most of it is fiction. One of those things that maybe we will never know quite how much of it is true.

    Rago, I know what you mean. The tone of the book was definitely different when he went to Afghanistan which maybe was necessary since he was in the middle of a war. I don't think the tone ever got back to the way it was before though. Maybe that was to show how much it changed him. I have to confess my favourite parts were all with Prabaker at the start.

  9. I read it last year and love it except I'm not that crazy with the middle part of it when he goes out to the war in Afghanistan. I thought it's a little cliche and I was very doubtful and think that part was very fictional. Overall I like the book a lot!

  10. I know what you mean. I think that part changed the whole tone of the book too. In those parts I wasn't sure I liked Lin any more which is a shame because he's a fantastic character.

  11. Loved your review! I'm so glad that you joined us for reading this one. And you got it right on the patronizing. That's exactly the reason why I thought so. I loved Prabaker but it was sad that Lin never really saw Prabaker or a few other characters as his equal. He seemed to be writing from far above. But otherwise, nice book.

  12. I've had this one on my shelf for a while too, and have been putting it off for the same reasons as you did. You review makes it sound really worthwhile, so maybe its time to dust it off and start reading!

  13. Aths, I am glad that I joined it too. I have loved reading what everyone has been thinking. It just adds to the goodness of the book I think. You are definitely right and it was almost as if Prabaker and his friends worshipped him. In reality I think they probably just accepted him in a way that he didn't accept him. I think Lin probably missed out on so much because of that.

    Sophp I hope you get the chance to pick it up. It's definitely worth reading. I still find myself thinking back to it.