Shantaram: An Ex-Con, a Bombay Slum, an Experience Unlike Any Other
One of the many differences between a good book and a great book is that a great book isn’t just a great read; it’s a great experience. It sucks you in every time you turn your eyes to its chapters, keeping you fully engrossed while the outside world fades into a muffled din. You cease to see your surroundings — whether sand or subway or sofa — in your periphery. Your personal thoughts dissipate, leaving no room in your mind for anything but the story before you. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is a great book.
From the first sentence — "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" — Lin Ford has our attention. Our narrator is a fleeing convict, escaped from a maximum-security prison in Australia, making his way through Bombay. It is in Bombay that he meets Prabakar, an indispensable man who becomes his friend and guide through the slums of the city.
To continue to delve into the plot of the sprawling novel here, in this small space, would not do the book justice. Instead, simply know that it is a story of a search for friendship, for meaning, for love and for identity. It is a search that leads our protagonist through Mumbai, into war in Afghanistan, along the shores of Goa, and beyond. It is the kind of book from which you’ll extract passages worth highlighting and sharing and referring back to. And in addition to all of this, there's an element of autobiography.
Roberts is, in fact, an Australian ex-convict and a recovering heroin addict. He escaped Pentridge Prison in 1980, where he was serving time for bank robbery, and settled in India, remaining there for ten years. Ultimately, Roberts landed back in prison and finished serving his time. In spite of the parallels between Roberts’ life and Lin’s life, however, Roberts insists his book is fiction — and so can take creative and linguistic liberty, which only adds to the book’s beauty.
Ultimately, readers, Shantaram is a book that gets you unstuck. It is likely a different kind of book than most everything you’ve read and different than the kind of book to which you usually gravitate. It’s the book that grabs you and takes you on a journey unlike any you’ve heard of, down a different path than you’ve ever been on, expanding your willingness to read outside "your" genre, as it's done for many. Upon finishing Shantaram, this reader wanted more. Immediately, thoughts of travel to Goa and Mumbai started drifting in; research about the ever-ongoing movie rumors was undertaken. But nothing — nothing before and nothing since — has satisfied in quite the same way that Shantaram did. Enjoy it.