After literally months of stealing a few minutes here and there, I finally just finished reading the 936 page novel called Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. The book is already an international bestseller, and was recommended to me by my Australian friend Phil after I’d related to him my joy at reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. While the latter is a non-fiction account of life in Mumbai (Bombay), Shantaram is a novelization of the true life story of Roberts, a New Zealander heroin addict serving prison time for armed robbery, who escapes from prison to Mumbai, where various circumstances compel him to become a slum doctor, a mafia soldier, a counterfeiter and a gun runner to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
It’s a very large story, replete with intricate, fascinating detail about multilayered life in Mumbai. But, at its core, it’s a study of the nature of love and freedom, in the sense of those words that Plato would have most enjoyed. Before his downfall, Roberts had been on an academic path to become a professor of philosophy. His study of violence and meaning, intertwined with the poetry of pain, both psychic and physical, is in many ways a masterpiece of meditation.
The book is rife with laughable purple prose at times, such as this description of a sex scene: “My body was her chariot, and she rode me into the sun.” But more common are somewhat profound studies on the essence of free will, like the book’s powerful opening:
“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. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when its all you have got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving,can become the story of your life.”
If you’re interested in an honest and intimate portrayal of the Indian ethic, and/or a unique perspective on the motivations and fragilities of masculinity, I recommend the book to you. You’ll be inundated with talk of it soon enough, though, since Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan are making the motion picture version pretty damn soon… unless, of course, rumours that the film has been shelved are to be believed.
During my traditional post-read research, I came across some interesting lectures and interviews by Gregory David Roberts. First is a five part interview with the dizty Indian hostess, “Sexy Pooja”. Part 1 is here. Here is part 2:
And here are links to parts 3, 4 and 5. They’re sort of worth it just to see a white dude speak streety Hindi and Marathi.
The next three videos (parts 1, 2 and 3) are of Roberts giving a lecture to some social group. He tells a good story or two.
For those who’ve read the book, I think you’ll really enjoy this four part interview with Roberts on CNN Asia, in which he takes us on a tour of the slums in which his book was set:
In Other News
My review of James Cameron’s new science fiction movie Avatar is now up at Skiffy.ca. Go have a look.
And because I’m sick in bed and sort of bored, here’s a great photo I found on the Interwebs. Is this not the definition of elegant?