Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
This is the second 900+ page novel this year. It's cutting down on the number of books I finish!
It’s an autobiographical novel by an Australian who, after divorce and descent into drug use and armed robbery to support the habit, broke out of a maximum security prison and ended up in Bombay. What’s unclear is how autobiographical the book is—I suspect vary. The author was eventually captured in Germany and returned to prison in Australia where he finished his term. He began writing the novel in prison. It’s a unique combination of violent adventure story and novel of personal learning and development.
The opening sentence draws the reader in and tells amazingly much about the book: “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.” It’s a rip-roaring adventure tale, hard to put down, but unlike most such tomes, the violent character who goes from one adventure to another, in this case is always focusing on his emotional state: on the past loves and securities he has lost by his violent actions, on the loves and hates of his current life, and on the fate that he sees working itself out in his own life. Had he called the book Love and Fate, it might have been less attractive to readers but certainly would have highlighted the themes the narrative always comes back to.
Instead the novel’s name is taken from the name given to him by his friend Prabaker’s parents when he goes to live with them for six months in a small and primitive village in the state of Maharastria (which includes Bombay). Lin is the name he generally went by though, from the last name, Lindsey, on the fake New Zealand passport he used to enter India. Prabaker, with his generous nature and unique smile, was the tout who offered to help him find cheap lodging when he arrived and who eventually became a close friend. You know from the adventurer’s openness to Prabaker, whom fellow tourists take for a scam artist, that he is “open to Bombay” as few foreigners are ever open to foreign places.
Lin became the epitome of what we used to call “going native”. He not only came to love Bombay, but he learned to speak two of its languages fluently. After a robbery that wiped out the funds he’d come to India with, he moved into one of the illegal slums of Bombay where Prabaker lived and became the unofficial medical officer, based on first aid training he’d had in Australia and medicines acquired from the lepers who supported themselves selling contraband medical supplies. Early on he attracts the attention of Bombay mafia king, Abdul Khadar Khan, Khadarbai, as he’s known to his followers. A philosophical Afghan who runs frauds in the currency market and sells fake passports, visas and documents of all kinds, but refuses to trade in drugs or prostitution, Khadar becomes a father figure for Lin who is influenced by his unique theory of the universe. Joining Khadar’s mafia, Lin struggles to find a place for himself in the Bombay he’s come to love as well as, for want of a better phrase, “to become a better person”—an interesting ambition for a professional criminal in an organization whose motto is “truth and courage”.