In the midst of World Cup fervor, as Pakistan gets geared up to face its old opponent, India, I feel like I know our cricket rival a tad bit better, and its in part thanks to my recent reading of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It is only recently that I have developed a desire to connect with India, a land that always felt so foreign, despite my Pakistani ethnicity. Perhaps, naturally, as Pakistanis we tend to perceive India as a place we left long ago and a place that is inaccessible to us now. Perhaps we even, to a small degree, begrudge our Indian neighbors their wider appeal to the world, a world that has cast off Pakistanis as terrorists and fundamentalists, while accepting the colors, sights, and sounds of India with love. Whatever the case, the truth is that my grandfather (who is still alive and well) spent much of his life, his childhood, his youth, in India. And lately, this has been an inspiration for me to explore that mysterious country that is so close yet so very far away.
Shantaram is one of those epic type books. It takes you to another time and place and introduces you to characters you become attached to. It shows you a world faraway, different, complex, both loathsome at times and beautiful at others. You feel shocked after certain sections and roll your eyes after others. You laugh out loud at some of the dialogue and feel like retching after others. Yes, it’s one of those types of novels, the type that is consumed voraciously. Gregory David Roberts was a convict who escaped from an Australian prison and sought refuge in India in the 1990s. While Shantaram is a work of fiction, Roberts has claimed that many of the experiences described in the story are in fact, based on his real life experiences. It is obvious from his writing that either he actually endured the harrowing experiences described in the book while living in the slums of Mumbai and while working with the Mumbai mafia, or he has a magnificently wild imagination.
While it may not leave you gasping for air in awe of the lyrical sentences crafted by a literary genius, or his mastery over the use of language, it will leave you in awe of the human condition and how people learn to cope, even through the most arduous of calamities.
Shantaram uniquely captures the colorful diversity of India as Roberts’ main character, Lin, moves from village to city, occasionally traveling to a seaside resort, and even crossing the border into Pakistan at one point. It is through the eyes of a foreigner, an Australian refugee, that we see the striking realities of India at a local level. Roberts’ character, Lin, takes us to meet with the charismatic Don of the Mumbai Mafia (in pure Bollywood fashion), a man of Afghani origins, who casts his net beyond India, reaching through Pakistan, as he tries to impact a war in his homeland, Afghanistan. Through Shantaram we meet a slew of characters, many locals, just as many foreigners, mostly Europeans, mostly criminals, prostitutes, or thugs. Yet, somehow, they become old friends, and you look forward to seeing them again and again over a hot cup of tea.
I would recommend Shantaram to you, readers, but only if you are ready. Ready for a book that will transport you and perhaps even transform you (I’ve certainly heard so from other readers). It makes you very aware of the depth and breadth of the world out there. A world we can only be so lucky to see.