Friday, May 08, 2009


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 in 2004, 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, along the lines of,say, Gone With the Wind. 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' 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 Indian name, Shantaram; 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); 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; and Roberts' falling in love with Karla Saaranen, a mysterious, beautiful and thoughtful American lady of European extraction... (you have to read the novel to know what the mystery is about).

Some of the scenes in the novel will stay with me for a lifetime. On one occasion, Roberts and a small boy (Khan's nephew entrusted to Roberts in order to experience slum life) find themselves attacked by a whole horde of dogs in the slum at night time. They try to fend off the pack with bamboo sticks but it's a losing battle. Then, Kader Khan's bodyguard materialises out nowhere, iron rod in hand. He's a trained martial arts specialist. He leaps into the air in true martial art fashion, swirls and strikes. Two dogs have their brains shattered. The entire pack, stunned at somebody taking the attack to them where Roberts was merely defending, flees.... Roberts is saved.

Then, there is the Colaba police station where Roberts is held for a few weeks. The lucky ones are those behind bars. The others are herded into a small corner leading to a toilet where shit is overflowing.... the weakest have to stand for days in a heap of shit until they drop dead....

One day, the detainees are led out and taken to Arthur Road jail (home to Sanjay Dutt for a while). Roberts is motioned to a corridor. There, the convict warders are waiting with lathis.... Roberts has to run the gauntlet but choses to walk in a gesture of defiance as the blows rain on him. He lands in his cell bloodied. The jail itself is hell with the warders showering blows on inmates at will. It makes your blood boil to think this is what the Indian system has been reduced to. One gets a sense of the daily brutality visited on the weak and the defenceless by the Indian law enforcement system.

What, one wonders, is the IPS brass doing? The only thing you could say in extenuation is that things are not much better in jails elsewhere. In his jail in Melbourne, Roberts was subject to the same kinds of senseless beating and cruelty. Recently, during the G-20 meet, the cops in UK, considered to be more civilised than the rest, were flailing their batons at harmless protesters. I guess it goes with the uniform, the sense of power it gives you. The power to ill-treat and also the power to extort huge sums of money.

The Afghan expedition is a story in itself. It takes weeks of trekking through the mountains to get there, with a maniac as escort. This man has only one mission in life and that is to catch hold of Russian soldiers and torture the life out of them. The return journey is a horror, with Roberts and a few survivors holed up in a snowy cave with no food or water for several days. Roberts makes it to a hospital in Pakistan and then finds his way back to Mumbai. With his heroic role in the Afghan expedition, he becomes a privileged member of the gang, specialising in counterfeit passports. He makes good money out of it.....

I won't narrate more. I will leave you to find out for yourself. Shantaram is being made into a film by Mara Nair. I can't wait to see it (I understand work on the film has stalled because of some problems in Hollywood). 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 of the two books 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. I doff my hat in humble salute to the man.


Abhishek said...

ermm, you mean "Mira" Nair?

T T Ram Mohan said...

Thanks, Abhishek, I've made the correction- TTR

Mahesh said...

I too found the dog pack attack scene an amazing one.

Another of my favorites is when Shantaram takes Karla out for a tour of the slums, when she visits him for the first time at his slum, and the rats pass through. Nothing else captured the squalidness of the place as well and how measured and filled with empathy the response to the situation was.

Thanks for the review, been a long time since I read it, fondly remember how I enjoyed the book.

T T Ram Mohan said...

Mahesh, Yes, I did remember the rat scene, didn't mention it because I wanted to leave something for the future reader....


Andy said...

Thanks for posting your thoughts on Shantaram. I thought you captured the feel of the book incredibly well. I couldn't have said any of it better myself.

I run a website for fans of Shantaram, the Shantaram-Forum, and everyone is invited to join.

best wishes!

T T Ram Mohan said...

Thanks, Andy, I would love to visit your website on the novel.


Paddy Killimangalam said...

Sir, it's an incredible novel indeed. Do also check out Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. Quite long but the narrative is gripping.


Partha Pratim said...

I loved every bit of the novel but couldn't digest the part on "Standing Babas".It seemed a bit too exaggerated to me.

pen-kutti said...

Hi! you are so right! I loved reading Shantaram too and just cannot wait for the movie.First I heard the project has been shelved. But now I hear that's not the case. My favourite chapter is where Roberts describes losing Prabaker for ever. It was heart-wrenching.

pen-kutti said...

Oh no, I stand corrected. Shantaram shooting has been stalled coz Johnny Depp is refusing to come to India. And why? Coz Brangelina had a tough time in India shooting for A Mighty Heart. Their bodyguards were arrested over a tiff with journos. Ridiculous!.

Shagun Gupta said...


Am a little new to your blog, hence the late comment.
Shantaram is my favorite book, but i guess you missed one important facet of the book: Love, for oneself, for strangers, for Karla, for Abdullah, for Kaderbhai, each different, each much maligned yet each respected and each revered.


Sushil Prasad said...

I just managed finished reading “Shantaram”. Word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, all 933 pages of the book. It has so many howlers that Mr. Roberts basic credibility is in doubt. It has very little resemblance to what is life in Bombay like now or in the 80s. For example,

- Where in India are only sweets served along with tea? In the novel it is mentioned in at least three places.

- Bombay suburban trains run on very high voltage electricity drawn from overhead electric cables. It takes a mighty big stretch of imagination and a lot of fool hardiness for a young man to serenade his lady love on top of a moving local trains without being burnt to death in a manner of seconds.

- The description of the take out lunch shared with Vinod and his family (page 395) seems to be copied down from the menu of some road side eatery rather than an actual meal which ordinary people eat.

- Khalid Ansari seems to be a pretty unique Palestinian, since I believe he would be one of the very, very few Palestinians with “Ansari” as part of his name. I wish Mr. Roberts had done a little bit of research in this matter.

- Saurabh Restaurant is said to serve Bombay’s best masala dosas. When Lin is having his meal there with Khader, he mentions that Khader is having dosas while he finished his pea flour roti. Does he mean missi roti? I would really love to find an authentic, great dosa joint which also serves missi rotis even in Bombay!

- I know that in India Ganges & Jamuna are considered holy rivers. I am yet to come across any river with the name “Jamner”.

- I did not know that spoken Hindi is so different from spoken Urdu (for me they are indistinguishable) that speakers of one language have difficulty in understanding the other. Novel is literally strewn with such incidents.

- I never knew it gets so cold in Bombay (even after living there for 2 years) that people have to take hot water baths. Why does Shantaram need to have hot water for his bath (inspite of coming from a much colder clime) beats me.

- Khader is referred to as Khader‘ji’ at least twice during the Afghanistan episodes. Once by Lin and then by Khalid. Sounds a little strange.

- Sikh named "Anand Rao"?

These are just a representative sample and any serious reading would show up many more such howlers.

I feel that the book is nothing but a collection of tall tales picked up at random in course of long chat sessions (adda baji describes the situation better) at Leopolds and other similar haunts in Colaba and Fort areas along with regular visits to C grade Hindi movies. No doubt the author is helped by his fertile imagination and practice of keeping notes.

Mr. Roberts seems to have a more than nodding acquaintance with a few selected areas of South Bombay such as Colaba, Cuffe Parade, Flora fountain, Fort and a slight familiarity to Bandra & Juhu. But there is much more to Bombay than these two areas. It is surprising that he shows little knowledge of vast areas of Bombay and its culture, a city where he claims to have worked and lived for such long years. There is no mention of the typically Maharashtrian localities of Girgaum, or the Ganapati pujas, the Dahi-Handi festival, the typically Maharashtrian fish based eating joints, or even the Koli fishing village all of which are within a few kilometers from the locale in which most of the novel is set.

The language, the description of situations or build up of characters are mediocre at the best and at various points the thread of narrative is lost, before totally petering out in the end.

sujatha said...

There is no doubt Roberts is an engaging storyteller and a great writer.
What touches me most is the triumph of human spirit in adverse conditions. The magnanimity of the inmates of the slum is heartwarming. The portrayal of characters is realistic; the awe that a foreigner will experience is well brought out.
The mafia and underworld makes my hair stand. It also makes one think what drives people to crime with end so violent. The war in Afghanistan and latter part of the book drag .
Some prisons have courses on yoga for inmates but I think such courses should be made compulsory for those on right side of law to cut out on brutality.
What stands out is Roberts is able to see the good side of people and is committed to his friends under trying circumstances.

Rajesh Kaligithi said...

Totally agree, brilliant read - especially some of the quotes on love, God, fear, living and death.

Going cold turkey after locking himself for 3 months with his favorite addiction is one of my favorite bits.