Those of you who remember me from the early days of Twitter and Facebook know that reading is one of my passions. Yes, I’ll admit, I do have a bit of a tabloid magazine habit. But I’ve given up my subscription to National Enquirer, and I haven’t read an issue of People in weeks now. I have no idea what’s going on with J Lo or Brangelina. Believe me if you will. Or not. I have, instead, been engaged in some quality reading of late. My friend Steph Keach and I trade books back and forth, and one of her standout faves is this one, Shantaram. I must admit, it’s a lengthy book at 900+ pages. But hey – I was an English major. If I can read Joyce’s Ulysses and not run from the room screaming, this will be a piece of cake. And it was…
Shantaram is a semi-autobiographical tale of an escaped convict from Australia who flees to the streets of Mumbai in an effort to blend in with the crowds and avoid capture. Upon his arrival in Bombay, Lin has the good fortune to meet up with Prabakar, who becomes both his guide and his faithful friend. It is the first of many fortuitous (and a few not so fortuitous) occurrences for Lin.
With Prabakar as his guide, Lin enters Bombay’s shadowy world of gangsters, prostitutes, sadhus, Bollywood directors, and expats. He suffers some existential angst due to his life on the lam (he must be on guard at all times lest his true identity be uncovered), but finds love and acceptance amongst both the slum dwellers and the mafiosi alike. He goes on to run a medical clinic for his fellow slum dwellers, visits Prabakar’s childhood village (where he receives the name Shantaram, which means man of God’s peace), goes to prison, is tortured there, becomes a gangster, makes a few enemies, makes a few friends, and goes to war in Afghanistan. Whew! He’s a busy guy!
This novel is all-encompassing. It would have benefitted from a little editing, I think. And the plot and characterizations were a bit predictable. But the big takeaway for me is Lin’s (and the author’s) abiding love for Bombay and its inhabitants. If you want to learn more about India (especially the underworldly side) or have a hankering to visit Bombay, this book will slake your thirst. And the other good news is this: this book is part one of a proposed trilogy! So, if the first book is any indication, that means 1800 more pages of larger than life adventure of a larger than life guy who’s on the lam from prison in India. Jai Ho!