Shantaram is an autobiographical account of author Gregory David Roberts’ experiences as a fugitive in Bombay, after his escape from a brutal Australian prison where he was serving a long sentence for the armed robberies he carried out whilst in the grip of a heroin addiction. The book is both awe-inspiring and long. Very long. In fact, the only other book I’ve ever read on the same epic scale was War and Peace.
You might think that there’s not much comparison, except in length, and on subject matter I’d agree: the events leading up to the French invasion of Russia seen through the eyes of five aristocratic families versus the events following the escape of a bank robber to India. But bear with me…. these books share more than length, perhaps because of their length. Like War and Peace, Shantaram weaves together the stories of so many different lives that intersect and transform over time, buffeted as they are by fate and circumstance. True, War and Peace spans a far longer period, but like Shantaram it is a detailed snapshot of place – Roberts’ Bombay is as lovingly drawn as Tolstoy’s Russia – and the journeys of the individuals in each book are hazardous and full of drama.
Roberts’ life has been, in many respects, stranger than fiction. In fact, if I’d read this as a novel I would probably have scoffed a lot more. For a start, Roberts comes across as pretty much the hardest man in the world. I lost count of the number of brutal fights he became involved in, and though he came off badly sometimes he never came off the worst. Perhaps I only say this because I am a little girl with soft, unblemished skin, who has led a charmed life but I can’t imagine running headlong into fights the way the author does – he makes Bruce Willis look like a pussy.
But Roberts is not just a hard man. He’s also a deeply sensitive soul who sets up a free medical clinic in a Bombay slum, rescues damsels in distress (even when said damsels are deeply unsavoury characters), smuggles dancing bears across borders when it’s required….the list of his heroic deeds is endless. If you had a friend like Gregory David Roberts (and I doubt many people do) you would know exactly who to call first in any crisis.
Now you might think that this superman sounds dubious, boastful or even full of shit – but you wouldn’t feel like that if you’d read Shantaram. I have. I’ve been living with this book for months. I was reading it when I was on a plane in heavy turbulence and I thought to myself, come on Literary Kitty, get a grip, your chances of dying in the next hour are miniscule compared to his, and he’s keeping cool – no one’s even trying to gun you down.
But I digress – what I was trying to say was that, despite him being as hard as nails, Roberts’ prose is as beautiful as poetry and full of the wisdom of experience. So many times when I was reading this book I wished I had had a pen so I could underline a phrase here or there and remember it. Had I done so there would have been hundreds of quotes. As it is, there is just one, marked with a star drawn in liquid eyeliner (messy – I don’t recommend it) where he says “We can deny the past, but we can’t escape its torment because the past is a speaking shadow that keeps pace with the truth of what we are, step for step, until we die”. Haunting words from a man with quite a past.
Looking back on Shantaram, now I’ve finally returned my dog-eared, tea-stained, water-rippled copy to the shelf, I feel the book had everything – action, wisdom, beauty, laughs, sadness…I could go on. Just like with War and Peace (yeah, that again), you find yourself becoming attached to certain characters – you’ve been reading about them for long enough – and suddenly their lives take an unexpected turn and you’re shocked, horrified – just as you would have been if you’d known them. Roberts is very skilled at drawing his friends and acquaintances – he’s clearly someone who loves people and is fascinated by them and, as such, he takes everything in.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about what happens in the book because I do think that a lot of the excitement hinges on the twists and turns of fate in it. I will say that I loved Prabaker, the cheeky, earnest guide who becomes Roberts’ closest ally, and I never warmed to Karla, his complicated, mysterious love interest. As for Roberts himself, in his various incarnations as Linbaba, Shantaram and Gilbert Parker, I admired him from afar – never entirely feeling that I understood him (I’ll never be a knife-wielding, down-for-anything outlaw with a heart of gold) but always finding truth in his words.
For me, the key feature of this book was how often a phrase or paragraph made me pause, look up and think “that’s so true, even though I’ve never thought to or known how to articulate it”. Would I have wanted to live his life? No. Picking lice from my skin in filthy prisons, being beaten, stabbed, betrayed, seeing my friends die in violent and tragic ways, becoming a fugitive and leaving my entire life, including my child, behind, trading black market medicine with disease-ravaged lepers, starving in a freezing cave in Afghanistan, living in a Bombay slum during a cholera epidemic – none of those appeal to me. I don’t even like to watch wounds being stitched up on TV, never mind having to stitch them up myself on a mountainside with bullets flying all around.
But did I read this account of Roberts’ life – hell, not even that, just a short portion of his life – and think: god, I’m boring? Undoubtedly. If ever there was a man whose life deserved to be published in memoir form, Gregory David Roberts is that man.