India at its finest. The magnificent, vibrant, colorful and mysterious home of more than 1.2 billion people, 21 languages, nearly 9 religions and 212 scheduled tribal groups. The dangerous, dirty, violent world, where thousands of people die each year from poverty, contamination or crimes. The smiling and generous country, where people like to sing, laugh, and help each other. It is impossible for me to imagine a place of such diversity, where the lowest instincts coexist with the highest virtues, and more often than less in the same body. I have never been there physically but now I feel I have been their spiritually. Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram is a tribute to a country that doesn’t conform to any rules. India seen through the eyes of an escaped convict and felt through the heart of a dangerous man is the most beautiful and controversial world I have encountered. And ever since I picked-up Shantaram, I fell in-love – with the idea of India and with the opportunity to visit it someday.
The story behind Shantaram is as fascinating as the novel itself. Gregory David Roberts, known as the Building Society Bandit and the Gentleman Bandit was a heroin addict and convicted bank robber in his home country of Australia. In 1980 he managed to escape the high security Pentridge Prison, where he was serving a 19 years sentence. He fled to India, where the events in Shantaram took place. In 1990 Roberts was captured in Germany and returned to Australia. Back in prison he started writing the script of Shantaram, which was destroyed several times by the prison guards. After leaving prison, Roberts published Shantaram, which quickly became a bestseller. Currently, the ex-convict manages his own website devoted to his philosophical beliefs (he IS quite philosophical as the novel shows), he has established several charity foundations in India and is writing the script for the movie (rumored to be played by Johnny Depp).
Gregory David Roberts’ life on its own sounds unbelievable but wait just to read the recollection of his adventures in India. Many doubt all of the events that he describes have happened and as the author himself says, this is not his memoir but a fictional recall of a convict’s life on the run. I have always been a fervent defender of the embellishment of real life events with fiction, so whether or not everything has happened or not doesn’t in any way ruin the quality of the novel for me. And indeed, Roberts is as skillful a storyteller, as he was a convict.
The convict Lindsay arrives in Bombay planning to stay for a short time and at the end spends a couple of years, attracted by the vibrancy of the city and eventually becoming more Indian than the Indians themselves. He dives in the culture completely – from living in a slum with the poorest of the citizens and running an improvised health clinic to joining one of the most powerful mafia dons and travelling with him to Afghanistan.
The diversity of India is represented truthfully by the people Lin meets. Prabaker, the tourist guide and taxi driver with the big smile and the even bigger heart, is probably the most likable character. His innocence and inherent goodness, his undying desire to help and his optimism revive a belief in the good in people:
Optimism is the first cousin of love, and it’s exactly like love in three ways: it’s pushy, it has no real sense of humor, and it turns up where you least expect it.
A visit to Prabaker’s parents in a remote village, where people share love and suffering in a nearly fantastical way for my cynical self, gives Lin his name – Shantaram, or Man of God’s Peace.
Khader, the most powerful man in Bombay, runs the organized crime in the city. Dangerous but fair, his philosophy of life, his erudition and his will of power attract Lin as a father figure might. Not the typical gangster, Khader introduces the ex-convict to a world, where one can do wrong for the right reasons and where you must focus on the crime in the sins rather than the sin in the crimes. His explanation of the world, of ethics, and of the distinction between good and evil is probably one of the best I have read:
The universe began about fifteen billion years ago, in almost absolute simplicity, and it’s been getting more and more complex ever since. This movement from the simple to the complex is built into the web and weave of the universe, and it’s called the tendency toward complexity. We’re the products of this complexification, and so are the birds, and the bees, and the trees, and the stars, and even the galaxies of stars. And if we were to get wiped out in a cosmic explosion, like an asteroid impact or something, some other expression of our level of complexity would emerge, because that’s what the universe does. And this is likely to be going on all over the universe. […] the final or ultimate complexity – the place where all this complexity is going – is what, or who, we might call God. And anything that promotes, enhances, or accelerates this movement toward God is good. Anything that inhibits, impedes, or prevents it is evil. And if we want to know if something is good or evil – something like war and killing and smuggling guns to mujaheddin guerrillas, for example – then we ask the questions: What if everyone did this thing? Would that help us, in this bit of the universe, to get there, or would it hold us back? And then we have a pretty good idea whether it’s good or evil. What’s more important, we know why it’s good or evil.
And then there is Karla – the mysterious Swiss woman, whom Lin meets during his first days in India. There is some inexplicable force that draws him like a magnet to her. That is some love that can’t be really explained:
The ancient Sanskrit legends speak of a destined love, a karmic connection between souls that are fated to meet and collide and enrapture one another. The legends say that the loved one is instantly recognized because she’s loved in every gesture, every expression of thought, every movement, every sound, and every mood that prays in her eyes. The legends say that we know her by her wings – the wings that only we can see – and because wanting her kills every other desire of love.
But Karla is bruised. So bruised she can’t love. So bruised she doesn’t want to love or like anything. Still, Lin’s feelings and emotions are beautiful and the way he conveys them, makes it a believable love story – one that doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending but one that is a happy ending itself – because it happened:
One of the reasons why we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.
Shantaram is more a collection of stories than a smoothly flowing novel with a beginning, a climax and an end. And yet, all the events and all the people interact to form a coherent picture of what life is and what life should be. Gentleness is found in even the most violent murderer and betrayal comes from the people you trust the most. And in between the lines, if you are careful, you will come upon truths so simple, so perfectly rational that you never came to think about them:
Truths about life:
The facts of life are very simple. In the beginning we feared everything – animals, the weather, the trees, the night sky, everything except each other. Now we fear each other, and almost nothing else. No-one knows why anyone does anything. No-one tells the truth. No-one is happy. No-one is safe. In the face of all that is so wrong with the world, the very worst thing you can do is survive. And yet you must survive. It is this dilemma that makes us believe and cling to the lie that we have a soul, and that there is a God who cares about its fate. And now you have it.
Truths about love:
You can’t kill love. You can’t even kill it with hate. You can kill in-love, and loving, and even loveliness. You can kill them all, or numb them into dense, leaden regret, but you can’t kill love itself. Love is the passionate search for a truth other than your own; and once you feel it, honestly and completely, love is forever. Every act of love, every moment of the heart reaching out, is a part of the universal good: it’s a part of God, or what we call God, and it can never die.
Truths about the past:
The past reflects eternally between two mirrors – the bright mirror of words and deeds, and the dark one, full of things we didn’t do or say.
…and truths about the future:
I think the future is like anything else that’s important. It has to be earned. If we don’t earn it, we don’t have a future at all. And if we don’t earn it, if we don’t deserve it, we have to live in the present, more or less forever. Or worse, we have to live in the past. I think that’s probably what love is – a way of earning the future.
And most probably the most important – the truth about justice:
…justice is not only the way we punish those who do wrong. It is also the way we try to save them.