Shantaram, the first novel by Gregory David Roberts, has been thrust at us by every expat or traveling gora we’ve met since arriving here. They love it or they hate it, but they all insist we read the story.
Shantaram is almost a thousand pages long and I’ve just finished reading it. Despite the implied mysticism of its title, it is no incense-and-enlightenment hippie tome: it’s a rollicking good ride, a sweeping, quasi-autobiographical slice of contemporary India as seen through the eyes of an escaped Australian prison convict hiding out in the slums of Mumbai. And that’s just how the story begins.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable journey, but even setting the action and character-driven plot aside, it’s easy to see why this is such a popular piece among travelers here. Every page is written with the authority of someone who has been here for a very long time and has every detail just right. Roberts’ prose validates our moments of insanity and insight, illuminates everyday opaque phenomena, and prepares us for eventualities we could not otherwise foresee. The urgency of the story burns these details into our brains far more effectively than any non-fiction travel guide could ever hope to do.
After finishing it, I find I miss the characters and the universe they inhabit. Still, I can relive some of it, every time I take out the Enfield; Roberts’ protagonist rides an Enfield Bullet through the Mumbai nights throughout. I can also look forward to more: though stalled at the moment, Johnny Depp has the rights to the film version and is keen to play the lead; rumor has it the film is to be complete sometime in 2011.
So I will say to you exactly what everyone has said to us: if you are traveling in India, or if you are planning to do so; if you wish you could but can’t; or if you just like a great, fast paced novel to get lost in; go grab Shantaram and fall in love with India.