Shantaram

Gregory David Roberts

First Sentence: 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.

That’s a long first sentence and I suppose it’s quite fitting because this is a long book. Based on the real life experiences of the author, and not an out-and-out autobiography as some people believe, this book is a novel based on one man’s life after his escape from an Australian prison. Arriving in India with a false passport, ‘Lin’ soon meets Prabaker, or Prabu, an irresistibly lovable local. It is when Lin and Prabaker go to visit his home village that Prabaker’s mother gives Lin the name Shantaram, which means ‘man of God’s peace’. After this brief visit to the countryside, the protagonist is thrown from one seemingly preposterous scenario to the next including; living in the slum and setting up a medical clinic, falling in love with Karla, being imprisoned and tortured for months on end, going to Goa with Karla and living peacefully, acting in Bollywood movies, fighting the war in Afghanistan and returning to India to become a drug lord. Phew! What annoyed me most about this book was that, after a while, I began to realise it would have made about seven better standalone books dealing with each of the different phases of his life. I found his observations on prison life to be quite compelling:

Patience and obsessional focus are the gems we mine in the tunnels of prison solitude.

Likewise, his relationship with Prabu was utterly engaging and I enjoyed his descriptions of him:

…rumbled and roared in a voice that he’d found in a bear’s cave, and cured in the barrel of a rusted cannon.

I just felt that this quality, which appeared only fleetingly, was not sustainable for the entire book, and it suffered as a result. One for young, impressionable backpackers perhaps. Enjoyable nonetheless.

* * *

Last Sentence: We live on.

Last Sentence explained: The book ends with a return visit to the slum where ‘Lin’ set up his medical centre. Prabaker has been killed and it is here that ‘Lin’ meets Prabaker’s son, also called Prabaker, for the first time. In a way the book  simply ends by saying that all we can do in the face of adversity is to keep going. Life continues ever on…

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