“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
As far as the first line of a book goes, I have yet to find anything that matches the opening line of Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, and from the moment I read the above sentence, I knew I was in for quite the ride. While I love a good page turner, it is rare that I find a book that literally keeps me up at night because I can’t stop reading, but once I started Shantaram, I did little else but steadily make my way through its pages, and in mere days, I had devoured the nearly 1000 of them. Now, whenever anyone asks me for a book recommendation, I point them in the direction of this novel, but always with the warning that once started, they should be prepared to give their lives over to reading for at least a week. During the seven years I’ve been giving out this recommendation, I’ve yet to get one complaint, as nearly everyone I know who has picked up this book has ultimately fallen under its spell.
Set in Mumbai, Shantaram tells the story of Lindsay, a man on the run after escaping from an Australian maximum security prison, who lands in Mumbai en route to Germany, but ends up staying in India for 10 years. During those 10 years, Lindsay, nicknamed Lin by one of his closest friends, Prabaker, lives in the slums of India, opens a free health clinic to treat the poor, appears in several Bollywood films, gets involved with the local underworld running currency and passport forgery businesses, endures a stint in India’s notorious Arthur Road Prison, smuggles weapons out of Afghanistan, falls in love, becomes fluent in both Hindi and Marathi, and receives the title name Shantaram from a friend’s mother, meaning Man of God’s Peace. All of this unfolds alongside extraordinarily evocative descriptions of life in India, including the ethnic diversity of the people found in Mumbai, the places that few tourists dare to venture, and the customs and culture that Lin discovers and comes to embrace while making this city his home.
While the book is written as fiction, in reality it is a fictionalized account of the time Roberts actually spent in India as a fugitive from Australia, and the personal connection to the story is apparent on each and every page. The emotion and vividness with which Roberts infuses each character and situation reveals a genuine love for the country and people who sheltered him from the law for nearly a decade, and Roberts writes with an urgency that the reader understand that this is not simply a story. This is his story, one of intense personal, spiritual, and emotional journeys, and while the events and characters may technically be fiction, his awe and respect for the people and culture of India remains true.
While its page length may prove daunting for some readers, Shantaram is well worth the investment, because while it is brutal and unflinching at times, its narrative beauty is unlike anything I’ve ever read. According to Roberts’ website, he is currently hard at work on a sequel, and I know I for one can’t wait to get lost in this world again.