I actually read Shantaram a few months ago but delayed writing about it. Partly because I needed a break from thinking about this epic novel after I’d finally finished it – I’ve had relationships that required less commitment than it took to complete the 933 pages – and partly because I feared the wrath of the Shantaram groupies (and they are legion) if they found out that I didn’t think it was the life-altering read it’s cracked up to be.
Don’t get me wrong. Although Shantaram is not a book I would ever have bought for myself, it’s not that I hated it. It was ok. Some bits were even enjoyable, and in parts it was quite suspenseful. But my overwhelming feeling while reading it was irritation and dislike for the main character (the author).
For the five people out there who haven’t read it yet, the book deals with the life of Roberts after he has escaped from prison in Australia and legged it to India. Almost instantly he falls back into a life of crime and drugs, and over the course of the book essentially becomes a leader in the Indian mafia and a gun runner to Afghanistan. The book is not all skop, skiet and donder (although there is plenty of that), and the relationships he develops with Karla (the love interest), Prabaker (the side kick) and Abdel Khader Khan (the mentor) are crucial to the story. And just so we don’t think he’s all bad, Roberts also lives in a Bombay slum for a fair portion of the book, and runs a free clinic for its inhabitants.
I’m guessing that the reason this book is so beloved, particularly by backpackers the world over, is that Roberts comes over all philosophical and spends a lot of time learning about the nature of the universe and the concepts of good and evil from his mentor. And of course it’s fairly anti-establishment. Some would argue that it’s beautifully written. Personally, I prefer to exercise my imagination a tiny bit when reading, and found the style overly descriptive and long winded – hence the 933 pages. And to be honest, I didn’t really buy his holier-than-thou attitude. That, I think, is the crux of why I will never feel that this is the life changing book it’s purported to be – I was constantly annoyed while reading it by the author’s desire to make the reader feel pity for the fact that he had had such a tough old time in prison. His crimes were not minor, and it’s not as if he turned over a new leaf after escaping, yet he portrays himself as a victim of the system at every opportunity. Maybe I’m just not anti-establishment enough. But I couldn’t accept the heroic persona and zen “I am so spiritual I find beauty in the slums” attitude that just didn’t tie up with his actions. Basically he really irritated me. But I felt better when after finally finishing the book, I googled him to figure out how exactly he was still running around giving motivational talks (vom) after escaping prison, and found out that eventually he did get caught again, although not without a fight. Apparently his spirituality didn’t extend to recognising the need to pay for his crimes.