By Gregory David Roberts
This was one of those books that was so good I found myself overtly slowing down the pace at which I was reading, or going back to reread and fully take in the way the author so eloquently worded portions of his prose. Shantaram is based on a true story, which makes it all the more compelling. Before you know it, Roberts has you falling in love with India and rooting for every one of the characters he interacts with while he’s in the country.
There are so many parts of the story that not only caught my attention, but pulled at the heart strings. The author touches on philosophy, friendship and honor while taking you through years of time spent in Bombay. He treats people with the utmost level of care and love. Throughout the whole tale you’re reminded about the beauty of life that can be found in joy and suffering.
During his time in India the author made countless close friends along with starting a free medical clinic in the slum in which he lived for a time. The way he discusses the trials and tribulations of the very poorest of the country, how they unite, and how they find happiness is nothing short of divine. This was definitely a book I would carry around with me so I could read whenever I had free time. More than any other one I’ve done that with since being here, Shantaram elicited the most responses. The feedback was unanimous, people loved it. It was an eclectic and unique crowd as well. I never knew who would be next to say something when they saw me reading, but everyone was always ready to talk about it.
Below are a few examples that drive home his surreal ability to describe what was occurring but also transport the reader to another place using imagination combined with emotions.
One of the scenes made me think back to trips abroad and American’s incessant belief that you need to bargain with locals and ‘avoid getting ripped off’. Whether you’re buying a pack of Chiclets on the street in Mexico or art work from a local in Central America, should you really be negotiating? I’ve always felt that of all the times in your life to be frugal, that was the worst. The dollar or two you save, or mere cents in the case of Chiclets, doesn’t affect you. However, it can drastically affect the person you’re dealing with. In one instance the main character, Lin, is fresh to India and looking for a place to stay. He’s linked up with random travelers to share the cost of a room and notices they are haggling with the proprietor of a cheap hotel as they felt the price per night was too high. In the grand scheme of things, they were looking at saving the equivalent of only a couple dollars per day. Lin didn’t negotiate, he accepted the rate as it was. As time carried on, he developed a close and lasting relationship with the owner of the hotel, the seed of which was his genuine and thoughtful initial interaction. “The little victories haggled by foreign tourists cost locals their daily bread, and can cost them the chance to make a friend. You’re heart always guides you more wisely than your head.” At this point, I’m here for the story and rooting for Lin. You see this part of him shine through constantly.
On the flip side, he has a sincere and understanding manner when he writes about anger. Anger is a toxic emotion – you drink the poison and expect the other person to suffer, but as we know, it doesn’t work that way. Anger only hurts the one who is angry. In the below passage he is writing about someone who appears later in the book, but instead of simply saying “he had a rough past, and due to this was quite jaded, upset with everyone and himself” or something akin to that he writes “He was the kind of man who carried his past in the temple fire of his eyes, and fed the flames with pieces of his broken heart.” I mean, what!?! The tale of his trip is so mind bending, but then he finds ways to share details of the people he meets along the way and he does it like that.
Early on, Lin takes time to visit a small, extremely remote village with a friend he made in Bombay. The village locals hadn’t seen a foreigner in something like thirty years. They were dumbfounded not by the physical differences between him and them but by how someone would leave the country they live in and travel around to see the world. Why would you willingly be away from your family, your people, and your community? The villagers had such a profound level of concern for Lin’s potential loneliness that a group of them held a vigil and sat around him at night until he was in a deep and peaceful sleep. Welcome to not America. Can you picture someone in your neighborhood housing a weary traveler and all your neighbors come over in the evening to make sure the guest feels welcomed and sleeps well? Back to “Homo Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari – maybe we were all happier in simpler times when instead of focusing on acquisition and material possessions most of what we had to gain and give was our love and care for one another.
“They sat on the ground around my low bed, Prabaker and his parents and his neighbours, keeping me company in the warm, dark, cinnamon-scented night, and forming a ring of protection around me. I thought that it would be impossible to sleep within a circle of spectators, but in minutes I began to float and drift on the murmuring tide of their voices; soft and rhythmic waves that swirled beneath a fathomless night of bright, whispering stars.”
What a surreal experience. To think, how lucky I am that every night I get to float and drift to sleep on the murmuring tide of federal inmates voices and the loud and rhythmic clanking of correctional officers keys that swirl between the painted cinder block walls and metal bunk beds of range one. So while I may not be lulled to sleep by the murmurs of peaceful Indian villagers, I can at least take the idea to heart. None of us are really alone here, we’re all in it together and that’s what you realize about Lin and everyone he interacts with. At least that’s my perspective, the one I’m choosing to live, as wrong or right as it may be. The great thing is that learning to deal with all this and to grow weary of complaining makes you complain about next to nothing and appreciate everything.