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Book Review - Shantaram: A Novel

I’ve had a fascination with India for a while now so when a friend suggested I read Shantaram, which is based in Bombay, I jumped at the chance. She loved the book and thought I would too. The author, Gregory David Roberts, loosely bases the story on his own life. And he led quite the life! What sparked my interest from the book cover were his discoveries “about love and fate and the choices we make” while he “was chained to a wall being tortured.”

Born in Australia, sentenced to prison from which he escapes, Gregory Roberts lands in Bombay and that is where he chose to start Shantaram. It moves through Bombay, out to the village of his friend, into the slums, and even as far as Afghanistan. We see the story from the point of view of his main character Lin, and we meet Parbu his tour guide; Karla, the love of his life; Abdulla, the one who he loves like a brother; and Abdel Khader Khan who becomes Lin’s father figure.

The characters in the story span all walks of life and they all feel believable. Parbu is from the slums and the way he speaks English is quite amusing. He says to Lin, “You need a bath because you must be smelling unhappy.” The opposite of Parbu is the strong character of Abdel Khader Khan who is a leader, philosopher, and a lay astronomer pontificating on life, the cosmos, and how it all fits together.

The themes of love, and fate, and choices made run throughout the book as we see Lin start from a place where he begins to understand what he has lost, the wasting away of his life, and how truly lonely he is. The plot drives Lin to new beginnings; he is given a new name, Shantaram, and finds a new place to live. In order for Lin to survive on all levels – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually - he comes to accept that he must learn how to forgive, letting go of the hate he felt for the prison guards who savagely beat him, for instance. But it is only when Lin finally realizes that he must accept responsibility for his part in the drama that started his path to prison that his heart finally expands and unfolds, ultimately releasing “its burdens of fear, resentment, and self-doubt.”

I can see the change in Lin as the story unfolds within a writing style that flows gracefully, drawing me in. The story moves at a good pace with the circumstances and people around Lin showing him, and us, that “the only kingdom that makes any man a king is the kingdom of his own soul. The only power that has any real meaning is the power to better the world.” Realism is mixed in with the descriptive scenes of Bombay of the 1980s, the national political strife in India including the death of Indira Ghandi, and the war in Afghanistan that affects the characters around Lin based on choices they have made.

The drawback for me with this story is the amount and level of violence. It is the underworld that Lin inhabits so I should not be so surprised I suppose, and I’m sure that many people actually do live that kind of life. Death comes from disease, beatings, guns, knives, and a tragic, violent car accident. It is in stark contrast to the lessons of love that Lin learns through all these incidences and I think that is what makes it work and kept me going to the end of the story.

I would recommend this book though it looks like a big book in your hand, I found it easy, and mostly enjoyable, to glide through the story.

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