Shantaram is the novelization of author Gregory David Roberts’ experiences in late 1980s Bombay, India. It was a city on the cusp of many things, including the official state-sponsored name change to Mumbai. Roberts’ character is Lin Ford, an Australian expatriate living under that assumed name. More correctly, Lin is a fugitive, having escaped from prison in his home country.
As soon as he reaches Bombay, he connects with taxi driver, guide, and new friend Prabaker. Throughout the novel, Roberts introduces many characters. They’re a motley crew of Indians and foreigners from various countries. If you break down the typical epic story, Roberts throws just about every archetype into Shantaram. And of course, Lin is the deeply flawed, but admirable, hero.
Lin is a philosopher and student of people. This gives Roberts the opportunity to create incredibly detailed supporting characters in his first-person narrative. Lin does plenty of thinking about his friends, and life, while getting himself into hundreds of close calls and crazy situations.
He learns Marathi, which is one of two local, native languages. (Marathi speakers have always called Bombay Mumbai, so Roberts uses both interchangeably.) That Marathi language skill saves Lin time and again. And it endears him to the locals, which is a huge advantage.
Despite the assumed name, Lin seems comfortable in his own skin. You can’t help but root for the guy. At the same time, Lin’s basically a criminal. As a fugitive, he can’t make money in the typical way. The ventures he pursues are black market, back alley, and highly questionable. But that made Shantaram all the more interesting to me.
Lin is sometimes improbably naive, given the world he inhabits. He’s quick to love, both romantically and platonically. It’s his Achilles heel, and Roberts makes it dangerous and painful for Lin. I’m a sucker for a well-drawn antihero, though.
Roberts also makes Bombay come alive. He takes Lin from the slums to the richest quarters. It’s entirely obvious that the author spent many years in this locale. The characters, both main and supporting, are detailed. He mixes English with Hindi, Marathi, and other languages and accents. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated expertly by Humphrey Bower. It helped to have the plethora of unfamiliar words pronounced for me!
Shantaram is a commitment at 900+ pages and over 40 hours of listening. The story moves quickly and demands a lot from the reader. This is a novel with heart and soul, but also not a little violence. Roberts balances the action sequences with the quieter moments, which keeps the pace strong.
I loved the layers and complexity of the characters and the story. Every character has a back story that Roberts reveals in pieces. The descriptions are lush, and yet the language is accessible. I loved the quotable philosophical moments, where Lin analyzes his experiences and friends.
Shantaram has become one of my favorite books. When the last chapter closed, I was already missing characters and Bombay itself.