By Sunil Kumar

Back to Bombay; the sultry city of “je ne sais quoi”. After I have exhausted all the tried and tested adjectives and epithets I could use about the place; there came “Shantaram”. Although I had heard about this book; never got down to actually reading it.

So, after some free time; here’s my review. Gregory David Roberts comes with the usual baggage about India; but in the end manages to convince us that he’s got some empathy with the natives. Prabhakar could be Prabaker; and everything else about India the usual sugar and spice; with things not so nice. If; I could paraphrase some BJP functionary; “keechad” mein kamal(for the people unable to understand Hindi;(not many in India); “kamal” is a lotus and “keechad” is the mud; a synonym for the glowing transcendence of the country’s civilization despite all the muck all around.

Apparently based on a true story; although I’ve read many views asserting the contrary; Roberts is a felon; or what the British dub “recalcitrant”. Poms And Aussies; you’re all mates; in’it? After escaping from a maximum security prison facility in Australia; Gregory arrives in “Aamchi Mumbai” in the 80s and pretends to be from New Zealand.

The book is a novel; according to the author and the publishers; so there’s a fine line between fact and fiction. In terms of the long philosophical monologues; the author was very interesting. Literary inspiration may come through cocaine, mental derangement or plain old normalcy; but Roberts has brought in elements from “desi” culture and mixed them up with the West to make a fine mocktail.

The area around Sobo’s Colaba comes across as hippie “sin” city; with people running around with such frequent blood-letting that I could almost believe it was a wholly different place from what I’ve personally witnessed. Hanuman temples and Kailash Parbat; the more sanitized Hindu version of life. Our protagonist; Roberts gets his Indian name “Shantaram” when he’s hangin’ with Prabaker in the real boondocks; a Maharashtrian village one can visit anytime one steps right out of Bombay.

Being Caucasian; Roberts is enamored with the enigmatically named a “Scandinavianish” Karla; who’s tied in the narrative in the usual mix of sleaze and violence that seem to characterise Western fiction. Green eyes; sultry legs; svelte dresses and tattoos.

My imagination; so it’s not your place; it’s mine. (Even the Indians these days; in case any of you wogs are feeling offended. We all love bhelpuri and “garam” dancing; in the time-tested version of an affront to life). Munni Malaika hui; Darling Sabke Liye!

After living in a Cuffe Parade slum; Roberts shows his altruism. This may or may not be true; as according to some versions and the real relatives of Prabhakar Khare; the author of Shantaram lives in a plush Bombay five-star due to his ensuing fame and popularity). The book largely revolves around his life in Bombay; pimpy “Madams”; the mandatory underworld nod and the description of the grime and squalor of “Maximum City”. He also acts in Bollywood; and with Shantaram’s supposed contacts in the dark side; can arrange for everything our honest policemen, actors or directors desire.

To all the people who may subscribe to this Anurag Kashyap version of life; we also need the drag queen of over-the-top kitsch; Karan Johar. If it were not for the “Punjabi” fied version of Hindi cinema; the country would have gone into a national depression a long time back.

Scorcese and De Niro are all right for “open season” in a very rich country; but for a nation that is (materially) poor and rich(Modi”ji”; we were always affluent in spirit); India needs“song and dance”; in our own unique inimatably melodramatic way. Roberts seconds this thought when he compares the Indians with the Italians or some other people who celebrate life through loud music. This is a comparison I’ve often read before; but he seems to assert this in his uniquely Euro-Centric perspective on things.

Another starkly obvious fact narrated time and again during the course of Shantaram; the ease with which a “gora”(Roberts in his own words) is subjected to zero checking in India. Even when he knows he’s breaking the law; Shantaram(the NZ Aussie) is never checked at all.

Seems that my beloved country reserves all its strictest checks for its own citizens; and often gives even the criminal “outsider” free passage. If an Indian were to do something similar in a “phoren” land; there would be the law taking its own course.

If you see what I mean; then you know the world’s rather unfair. In a “desi” setup; we can have Westernized Indian emcees actively encouraging “goris” to proudly tell the audience that they can enter this country on “wrong” documents right in the middle of supposedly some of the best educational institutions in the land. Try that elsewhere; stony opposition.

It’s alright mate; we’re like this only. Curries taste wonderful. From Mumbai to Kolkata; Hare Hare Hare! Hare Rama; Hare Krishna! In the non-sequitur of my blog post; I’m trying to see divinity interspersed in everything. The sun; the moon and the stars. Roberts often talks about the metaphysical in this book; and the most unlikely character of all; the “don” talks to him about quantum physics; singularities and resolving complexity.

Mumbai (Bombay) Gateway of India

Visit Mumbai (Bombay) Gateway of India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe it’s the author indulging in his own personal wish-fulfillment or the truth may still be out there. And we can be pretty sure that whenever Karla makes an entry; Roberts(Shantaram) ke dil main ghanti(bell) baji. If I were to rate this novel honestly; readable; gripping at times; but definitely unbelievable as the truth. The movie version is supposedly in the pipeline. Signing out for today!


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