I recently finished Gregory David Roberts’ legendary work “Shantaram.” The book is first and foremost a semi-autobiography about Roberts’ time in India but it reads like a novel. Roberts went to India as an escapee prisoner from his native country of Australia. The 900 or so page book tells of his battles with addiction, his relationships and how he eventually found a way to be at peace with his past and present demons.
The first thing that struck me about the novel is Roberts’ excellent way of conveying his experiences through a first person style of narration. Generally, as a rule I am not a fan of the first person narrator but Shantaram is one of the few exceptions that I have made. The book conveys a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary Indians living in the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai). Shantaram has dozens of characters with each having depth and hopes and dreams, this is especially true of Roberts’ friends Prabu and his fiance Karla. However, the book also has some unbelievable characters, like Didier Levy a French assassin which Roberts befriends and Abdel Khader Khan/Khaderbhai, an Afghan mafia boss, later turned Mujaheddin.
During the novels later chapters the story goes down an unbelievable turn of events in which Roberts goes with the Afghan mafia to fight against the Russians in the Soviet-Afghan war. This part of the novel sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the story and if people who knew Roberts at the time are to be believed, he never went to Afghanistan to fight in the war as he was still battling his addiction when the war ended in 1989. Shantaram has been criticized for many alleged untruths, one of these claims is the part of the novel Roberts spends as a “slum-doctor” treating people in the slum he lived in for their various illnesses. However, these allegations don’t take much from the story itself which has obviously been embellished at parts to make it more interesting. I definitely recommend Shantaram to anybody who is not afraid to sink into a long tale of friendship, crime, passions and actions in the streets of Bombay in the 1980s.