I must admit I may be biased a bit when I write the review of this book. For, during all these years of my reading, I have not come across a book that has been so unique.
It all started when I read that Johnny Depp has bought rights for some book called Shantaram. I first though what would Depp would have to do with V Shantaram the Indian film maker. Then when I read more, I found out that it is about an unbelievably amazing story about an Australian Criminal finding a new way of life in Mumbai. It roused my curiosity and as usual, I forgot all about it just like several other things. And one fine day I found the book again on Amazon and then the first few sample pages made me order that book. Of course, I am not rich enough to pay in Dollars so I ordered the book through Sapnaonline (Sapna is one of the most trusted bookstores in Bangalore that has been operating for several decades now. They also have online store that has given me excellent shopping experience in terms of delivery, prices and payment options).
I was expecting a James-Hadley-Chase type of suspense thriller of a book that I could read in a few hours. But my heart sank when the guy delivered a 900+ page brick of a book. But little did I know then that it would be one of the most enjoyable and fast paced 900 pages I have ever read. So let me reassure you here not to be intimidated by the size of the book.
Let me sketch the outline of the book a bit here. Gregory David Roberts (GDR), the author, once was convicted in Australia for armed robberies that he had been undertaking in order to feed his Heroin addiction. He breaks out of the highest security prison in Australia and escapes to India on a fake New Zealand Passport. He lands in Bombay, becomes associated with local people and makes lot of friends. Fate takes him through several turns in life in which he becomes (mostly by choice) a slum dweller, a ‘doctor’, a Cholera warrior, a Passport faker, a black market currency exchanger, a smuggler, an gun runner.. just to name a few roles. He sees the real India starting from Mumbai till a remote village in Maharshtra. He is put in an Indian jail, survives hired assassins, survives road accidents and survives one more heroin addiction. Of course, all 900+ pages are full with lot of such incidents.
What makes this book special however is that it is (mostly) biographical. I would assume fiction has been used to a good extant but still most of the story really took place with the person. But going through a tough life is one thing, and putting it down as a book to which readers can relate to is other. This is exactly the place where GDR’s writing career before his Heroin days in Australia comes to help. Hence there is this book that is at its best in telling a true story, in a way that stirs you. Several times in the book you identify yourself with one or the other characters making it an extremely interesting book. Of course the portraying of characters is so well done that Didier, Khader, Prabhakar, Karla, do not seem like strangers anymore after a few pages. You would start relating to those people independent of the other characters and I am sure you will map them to people you have known.
The book is also unique because its one of the rare books in which a foreigner has taken a deep plunge into the deepest of Indian society’s complexities and also done a successful job of understanding the underlying unifying theme. Of course he admires Indians for what it is but never hesitates a moment before showing things that are obviously wrong.
The other aspect of this book is the details you get about the systems that operate most of the world. The police, currency, gold, drugs, prostitution etc. At no point in the book they overwhelm the main story though. Let me say this book also serves as a Crime-101 J
And the best of all are the one-liners from several characters in the book (especially from Karla and Didier) that leave you pondering over them for hours or years depending on your own shallowness or depth. I think most of the credit for making the book ‘great’ goes to these random notes that appear to be so original and fit as much in the story as they do in your own life.
Yes, there are flipsides to this book. At least in my opinion it becomes too ‘poetic’ at places. Several times in the book you will find sentences like ‘the ocean of her eyes had the freshness of first rain over the dryness of my heart’. (I made this line up but you get the idea ;) )
There are several such metaphors and other figures of speech that could have been done away with. Well, you may like them though. Then I think the book could have been trimmed a bit by a couple of hundred pages. Not that the book gets boring at any point of time, but a tighter editing would not have hurt.
So read this book if you are looking for an excellent literary work that takes you through so many aspects of life that you could possibly not have been able to go through on your own.
This is among one book that makes you feel that all your effort invested in reading habit worthwhile in spite of so many mediocre work you come across.
Happy reading and watch out for the movie release in 2007.
Here is the official link.
PS: This book is vaguely in the league of Papillon by Henri Charriere . So if you liked that book, chances are that you will like this one too. I have read that book and well, liked it a lot. May be I will write a review some other time.