Shantaram is one of those books that I’ve meant to read for years. I don’t remember when I first heard about it, simply that it’s been recommended to me a number of times, particularly since starting my blog. Yet, up until recently, it remained on my shelf, gathering dust like my hundred-or-so other unread novels, while I patiently waited for the perfect time to begin this novel of epic proportion
It was only when I was a hundred pages into a novel that I wasn’t really enjoying that I finally decided to begin Shantaram, a fact for which I will forever be thankful. At 944 pages, Shantaram is by no means a quick read – certainly its size was the main factor for my reluctance to begin it. However, I needn’t have worried; from the first page in I was hooked.
There’s been much debate over where the boundaries lie between fact or fiction. Indeed it’s a matter of public record that, as depicted in the tale, its author, Gregory David Roberts escaped from Melbourne jail and then spent a number of years in India – many of which in a slum – before being caught smuggling heroin in Germany, and extradited to Australia, where he carried out the rest of his sentence. It was while in jail after the alleged events of Shantaram, that Roberts wrote this book, though twice the manuscript was destroyed by prison guards. Roberts has maintained that Shantaram is a work of fiction, though has certainly implied that much of the events that lie within the novel were heavily influenced by his experience in the Bombay underworld.
The tale follows Roberts from his escape from a high-security Melbourne jail to the slums of Bombay where he sets up a medical centre and befriends the locals, impressing them with his knowledge of their language. Perhaps the most memorable character Roberts meets during his time in India is Prabaktar, who is described with such love and such flair, that it’s almost impossible to believe that he wasn’t based on one of the many slum dwellers that Roberts would have come to know and cherish.
A fusion of both memoir and travel writing, much of Shantaram reads like a thriller as Roberts’ propensity for getting into numerous dangerous situations becomes apparent. The prose is poetic and vivid, and Roberts depicts the slums of Bombay and his time in India as a whole in wonderful juxtapositions as we witness the enormous highs and the all-consuming lows Roberts experiences on his Indian adventure.
Whether fact or fiction, truth or tale, Shantaram is a novel that will stay with its reader for many, many years after the final page is finished. Beautiful, heart-breaking and wild, it is epic in every sense of the word.