Book review: Shantaram


“This is not England, or New Zealand, or Australia, or wherever the fuck else. This is India, man. This is India. This is the land of the heart. This is where the heart is king, man. The fuckin’ heart. That’s why you’re free…. Two hundred fuckin’ languages, and a billion people. India is the heart. It’s the heart that keeps us together. There’s no place with people like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart.”

I dedicate Shantaram to the word “yaar”. Feck off pirates. When it comes to a simple, single word that combines pleasure, excitement and frustration, India’s got this one solid, yaar.

The heart of life beats strongest in India, and it beats with every range, end and extreme of all possible human conditions. I had the good luck to travel India in 2003. Now, I’m just another white male Yank who likes to wander the world as he can, yaar. I’ll never win any contests for worldliness, travel divinity, or getting my metaphysical on. But my main takeaway from India was this: India is far too ancient, robust, adaptable and complex a culture for a non-Indian to do it justice. It is an amazing country, and it is full of bliss, tragedy, hope, violence, love, and brutality.

Extremes, contradictions and no wheatgrass nirvana crap

Here’s my 2-second definition of India: extremes and contradictions. India is packed with them. The trouble with non-Indians writing about India is that they too often pick one extreme and run with it, often to incomplete and melodramatic results.

So it was with some hesitancy that I picked up the 936-page Shantaram, by Australian David Gregory Roberts. Was I to be subjected to nearly 1,000 pages of lyrical waxing about Bombay’s slums? About the gods on every corner and in every third eye? About majestic bliss and transcendental New-Age-California-organic-sprouts-and-wheatgrass nonsense?

Luckily, no.

In Shantaram, Roberts gets about as close as you can get to capturing a glimpse of the power and depth of India’s culture, and how immersing yourself in it can both change you and just bring you face to face with who you are, and with what your life is.

A fresh start in the heart of life

Based loosely on the author’s life, it took Roberts 13 years to set down this sweeping, grandiose tale of an Australian fugitive who flees to India for a fresh start. Fresh starts don’t necessarily mean you have a clean slate, though. This first-person tale takes us through many errors and mistakes, brought about by circumstance and by character flaws. We see India mainly through its underbelly: the slums, mafia and expats of Bombay, the shadow trades and economy that defy understanding and control.

We meet a varied cast, including the sage mafia don Abdul Khader Khan, the always-there-for-you assassin Abdullah, the soul-wounded sharp-witted Karla. We go from the lovely comforts of a nice hotel to the filth and honor of an illegal slum. And on every page, we encounter, we are confronted by the vast heart of India. Always there. You do not have to say yes to the heart of India, to the soul of this culture; you do not have to abandon yourself to its hard yet loving ways. You can be as you are, and you can be as our hero: flawed but trying, scared but believing, never fully alive, but always trying to live on. India will be itself; who you are, well, be it choice or destiny, India will change you, and let you do as you well, and let you think you are.

Shantaram is painful, joyful, and endlessly moving. Reading this book is like traveling India. You cannot just be a spectator, idly wandering by and seeing what’s around. You might as well stay home and read the back of a cereal box.

No armchair travelers on this literary ride

If you want to live—and face all that has to offer, good and bad, joyful and painful, honest and treacherous—then you can go to India and touch the heart of life itself, and be changed by that touch. Reading this book can open your eyes to the possibilities of life, the limitations of self and circumstance, and how there is honor, love, respect and joy in trying to do more, to be more, despite all that may have come before in your life.

Reading this book is a challenge. It is a visceral read, no spectators allowed. Shantaram demands your heart and your mind, demands your presence and your empathy.

Read it, and you will itch for a passport and a ticket to India.

See? I’m no better. Shantaram is a tough, amazing book about a tough, amazing country. And I’m just another white guy who can’t help but wax lyrical and a bit melodramatic writing about both. That’s the trouble with both Shantaram and India. They’re beyond description, they’re bigger than words.

They can only be experienced, and whether one or both, I encourage you to experience them.


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