This book is like step on the gas then slam on the brakes followed by a step on the gas followed by a step on the breaks. I was watching the Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks and he’s trying to teach his kid how to drive a car so he can be the getaway driver. The kid steps on the gas them slams on the breaks and continues down the road…steps, slams, steps, slams. The “step” part is all action and shoot’em outs and cruel prison guards and evil “madams” while the “slam” part is all Eat Pray Love pap. All philosophical and mystical and mumbo jumbo. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. That is what Shantarum is like. Let me set the stage. Now keep in mind this book by David Gregory Roberts is based loosely on his life. Read more…
He was a writer. He had been married, had a nasty divorce and lost his little girl in the custody battle. He gets hooked on heroin and becomes Australia’s “gentleman” bandit by robberies using a toy gun. He always wore a suit when he did these crimes. He is caught and sentenced to 17 years in prison. After two years, he breaks out and heads to Bombay/Mumbai. He stays there for ten years working as a “doctor” in the slums but also “working” with the local mafia. He was trying to smuggle cocaine into Germany when he was caught and then sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. There is a punishment unit, like in the book, and he also spent two years in solitary. While in prison he began writing this book. The warden and the guards destroyed the manuscript 3 times. I guess 17 years in prison gives a man a long time to think and philosophize which then leads to a 944 page tome.
Roberts really does a terrific job of characterization. He has some very evil, wicked people in this novel but at the same time, he tries to show the humanity of the hundreds of thousands of Indians living in the slums. The novel is rich with all types of characters from expats trying to hide from someone or something, to refugees escaping the horrors in their home countries, to the sub life of people simply trying to make a living in the dark underbelly of Bombay’s black market. His prose can be very over the top. The golden sun dipped below the purple haze of the sari that clung to the bosom of Jeenethra as she slowly sipped the sweet aromatic chai. But you get through it because of the story. The main character’s real name we never learn. But when he escapes from prison in Australia and comes to Bombay, he says his name is Lindsey. The locals begin to call him Linbaba. And then, because he learns the locals’ language and doesn’t shun their hard life, they name him “Shantarum”, man of God’s peace. But, he is anything but that. To hide, he lives in the mass of slums in Bombay but he does become quite well known to the expat community where he meets and falls in love with the beautiful but VERY mysterious Karla. As in real life, Linbaba does become involved in the Bombay mafia and does become a devoted medic to the dwellers of the slums. Here’s where the two parts come in. Roberts gets the story really going. I mean some really good individual story lines that are heartbreaking, wrenching, violent, while others are so uplifting and warm and caring. Then comes in the Eat Pray Love pap. Page after page after page of philosophizing and mysticism. I know. It’s India but he could have cut the book in half without going into the big bang theory and I’m not talking sex here. So, slam, halt, slam, halt. My Kindle’s “next page” button got a work out. But if you want to read about what life is really like in the slums and the underbelly of India including some great characters, this is a great read . There are some good twists and turns and red herrings. Plus the character of Prabaker, Prabu, will warm and devastate your heart.
As far as Roberts is concerned, the book was published in Australia in 2003. He lives in India and still works at helping the dwellers of the slums and has won several humanitarian awards. The book’s rights were bought by Johnny Depp’s company and he was to play Linbaba. But it seems like the movies is on hold.
Going on a long trip or a long stay at the beach? Take this book. It will engross you.