Friday, July 04, 2008

Shantaram


This is not a book review. Else there would have been some fat description of the plot, some detailed appraisal of the characters peppered with criticism. This book is beyond such mortal blogger treatment. Borrowing the words from another review - 'Shantaram is not just a book; it is a sojourn, a spiritual journey into life that shows that even the most complex and powerful systems have at their core a simple and beautiful pattern.'

For those who haven't heard about it - the author of the book is Gregory David Roberts, a convict from the Australian Prison who escaped in the early 80's, landed up in Mumbai en route to Germany. But somehow he felt like staying back in the city for a while. This turned out to more than a decade long adventure - which he transformed into the book Shantaram. The author says that it is not an autobiography, but more of a semi-fiction.

Why is the book called Shantaram?
Why is it 944 pages long?
When did he manage to write all this?

I'll just answer the third question. After staying in India, he left for Germany in early 90's. He managed to join a rock band there! (this isn't a part of the book). Soon after that he was caught and served prison time till 1997. He managed to create 'Shantaram' in those years in prison (1991-97). The prison guards trashed his first two versions (and not through acidic reviews, but by actually destroying them!). He still persisted and completed the book by 2003.

The fact that someone would take pains to capture such details, scribbling experiences on diaries, napkins or small scraps is a testament to the richness of the story. The author caresses even the most mundane aspects with his words, lending some vivid imagery for the reader. For those who have not experienced India, this is as real a description as possible. I am pasting a few short excerpts from the book to prove this point.

A hotel room description : Each of the walls was painted in a different shade of headache green. The ceiling was laced with cracks. The cement floor sloped downwards, with mysterious lumps and irregular adulations, towards the street windows.

He (the waiter) let the bottle tops bounce on the table and fall to the floor, then swished a grimy rag over the wet surface of the table, forcing us to duck and weave as the moisture spilled in all directions.

Bar Description - Mirrors on those pillars, and on much of the free wall space, provided the patrons with one of the bar's major attractions: the chance to inspect, admire, and ogle others in a circumspect if not entirely anonymous fashion. For many, the duplication of their own images in two or more mirrors at the same time was not least among the pleasures of the pastime. Leopold's was a place for people to see, to be seen and to see themselves in the act of being seen.

Railway Station - There was an announcement. It might have been in English. It was the kind of sound an angry drunk makes, amplified through the unique distortions of many ancient, cone-shaped speakers.

On the taxi dashboard he'd installed a plastic shrine to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The gold, pink and green plastic figure of the goddess blazed an alarming fierce expression through the bulbs in her red eyes whenever he hit the brakes of the car.

I'd lost my closest friends in the same week, and with them I'd lost the mark on the psychic map that says You are here. Personality and personal identity are in some ways like co-ordinates on the street map drawn by our intersecting relationships. We know who we are and we define what we are by references to the people we love and reasons for loving them.
The book is a window to life in the slums, to the mafia world, to Bollywood, to religion and philosophy, to an undying spirit. It teaches one how to earn people's trust, their love, the meaning of friendship and the consequences of defying it. I'll end with the opening lines of the book. Being the poetic masterpiece, these few sentences somehow sum up the entire book:

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 realised, somehow, through the screaming of 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 it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is an universe of possibility. And the choice you make between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

Related Link:
Youtube Interviews of Gregory David Roberts

2 comments:

  1. One of the most powerful books I've ever read. Very ironical that it took a foreigner to show me what the real India looks like.

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  2. heard a lot about this book..
    but first time reading quotes from it.

    my next read

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