Monday, May 21, 2012

Shantaram -- a book review

This is only my second book read for the South Asian Challenge. I'm getting a late start, na? But I know I can catch up.

Title: Shantaram
Author: Gregory David Roberts
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, New York
(first published in Australia and New Zealand by Scribe Publications)
Release Date: 2003
Genre: literary fiction
5 out of 5 stars

Summary: An escaped prisoner from Australia hides in Bombay. He starts a medical clinic for slum-dwellers, lives in a slum, makes friends, watches friends die, falls in love, and works as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner and street soldier for the Bombay mafia.


I learned so much about Indian culture in this book. I want to read it again and again, as a sort of reference book.

Gregory David Roberts actually did a lot of the things his character Lin did, but because it's a novel, there is no way of knowing which parts of the novel are autobiographical and which are fiction, and that tends to create more interest for me, actually. I loved this hugely epic 933 page novel because of the character arc. Because of the character dynamics. Because of the in-depth descriptions of things that I will never know about, and therefore fascinate me.


I'm not saying that cold turkey heroin detox is fascinating, like I want to do a report on it, but the scientific detail he put in the account of Lin's coming down off the drug was interesting in a car wreck sort of way. It wasn't gruesome, it was ... medical.

I loved observing the local's response to Lin's learning their state language and the glee and surprise that they continue to have throughout the book. Apparently there are tourists of Bombay that learn some Hindi, but no one ever bothers with Marathi. And the simple effort he puts in delights and endears him to all the Maharashtrians he meets.

I love love loved the personable cultural things Lin learns when he first gets to Bombay. His first train ride is a whole month's worth of knowledge right there. That alone gives him insight to the head waggle, the "doctrine of necessity," and the Indian gesture of apology.

And just so you are not left hanging, the head waggle (according to Roberts' ... or rather Lin) is, of course, Yes, I agree with you, Yes, I would like that, BUT "the universal message attached to the gesture, when it was used as a greeting, ... was a signal to others that carried an amiable and disarming message: I'm a peaceful man. I don't mean any harm."

The "doctrine of necessity" involved doing what was necessary to, say, get on the train (kicking, punching, slapping, shoving), and then transforming into a calm and polite bunch of people all needing to peacefully share space on the train and travel a great distance.

Or when Lin offers his seat to an elderly man because Lin can't bear the rudeness of it (in Australian culture), Prabakar, Lin's friend, explains: "That is easy -- only you don't look at that old fellow, Lin. If he is standing, don't look at him standing. That is his business only, that standing, and nothing for your seat."

To say you are sorry in India involves a minuscule gesture involving touching the person you've offended, and then touching your own chest with the fingertips of your right hand.

I love love the dialects that Roberts' writes in. Sample: "Yes, baba. A few bruises I will have on all my bodies, but nothing is broken. If it is absolutely must be a beating, I will shout even more loudly, and you can rescue my bruises in the nicks of time. Are we a deal?"

The friendship Lin has with Prabakar highlights loads of interesting tidbits. Such as, the severe modesty that Indians have regarding the naked body. In one scene Lin is instructed to bathe, so he strips off his clothes. It is a hilarious account where Lin learns that nobody is ever naked in India, "And especially, nobody is naked without clothes." And that "In India, the men are wearing this over-underpants, under their clothes, at all times, and in all the situations. Even if they are wearing under-underpants, still they are wearing over-underpants, over their unders."

Prabakar acquires a pair of over-underpants for Lin so he can take a shower, but the modesty is such an issue that the man he gets the shorts from requires an explanation as to why anyone would ever be without over-unders. Prabakar, to save Lin's reputation, tells the man that Lin had "loose motions."

In every new situation in which Lin finds himself, Roberts' carefully describes the event for his non-Indian readers.  How to eat with your right hand, how to shower without offending the neighbors, how to tie a lungi, and how to interact with the black marketeers. And then, the Bombay mafia.

The novel is broken up into five parts, each one culminating in a life experience that India has taught him. The emotional arc of Lin's character is incredibly deep, and while the majority of the world's population will not encounter half of the things that Lin did in the course of the book -- therefore not having enough commonality with his character to actually be friends with him in real life -- the reader can't help but like him. Respect him. Applaud his works and thoughts. I never thought I would care so much about an escaped prisoner working for the Bombay mafia, never mind he's fictional. The contrast between the criminal acts and the humanitarianism has you rooting for him throughout the book.

The themes of forgiveness, self-loathing, love, friendship, father figures, transformation and redemption are all woven within Roberts' superb writing style. If you like character dynamics, Indian culture, and ... I didn't even come to the action! -- you will like this book. Give it a try. All 933 pages of it.

p.s. Shantaram means "man of peace."

No comments: