Saturday, May 30, 2009

Good Read: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts


I normally write my thoughts on the books I’ve read on the sidebar. For this book, it was not possible to add all my thoughts adequately on a small space.

So, I’ve decided to start a new category called Good Read. It’s not exactly a book review because I don’t think I’m qualified to provide expert opinions on literature and authors. It will be just my story and thoughts on the book.

Shantaram was given to me as a Christmas gift. When I first saw the book cover and the volume (more than 900 pages), I thought Oh my God, would it be interesting enough for me to read the whole book?

I do tend to judge a book by its cover, if I haven’t heard of the author before and I’ve definitely not heard of Gregory David Roberts. The cover didn’t attract me. It looked boring.

Nevertheless, the friend who gave it to me insisted that it’s riveting and I simply must read it. She told me that the story is about a man who escaped from prison in Australia and made his journey to India where all sorts of things happened. Apparently it’s partly based on his own life story.

Hmmm….if it was another Prison Break kind of story, I didn’t think I would be interested. Too dramatic and unrealistic. Plus, I always thought that criminals should never benefit from their crimes and I wasn’t sure whether I would like to contribute to that.

Anyhow, I packed this humungous giant of a novel with me to Cambodia, hoping to have enough courage to read it one day. (It’s a present after all and it would be rude to have it ravished by dust in my apartment in Kuala Lumpur).

And so I finally picked up the book last week and found myself turning from one page to the other, often reading into the late hours of the night.

Shantaram is not just any kind of book. There are reasons why it’s that thick. It has all the essential elements in a story; romance, drama, action, thriller, suspense, mystery, philosophy, culture and politics. It was indeed riveting enough to sustain my interest.

Nearly all parts of the story is based on the author’s true life story, perhaps being dramatized quite substantially.

Roberts did escape from a maximum security prison in Australia. He did live a life as a fugitive in Bombay (where a huge portion of the story is based). He did turn native by learning the local languages and love Bombay and consider it as home. He did live in the slum and worked as a “doctor”. Finally, he did join the mafia and become fully engaged in the black market trade.

Everything was apparently not figments of his imagination, except for the part when he went to war in Afghanistan.

Shantaram is really a story about a man who becomes the worst person he thought he could ever be due to unfavourable circumstances. He commits a series of armed robberies to feed his addiction for heroine, gets caught and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. The moment he escapes from prison, he starts a soul-searching journey in Bombay where he is constantly challenged to question and find the ultimate answer to the meaning and purpose of his life.

I think, one of the book’s attractions and success lie on the fact that most of the events did happen to the author. Roberts eventually returned to Australia to serve his remaining sentence and it was during this period when he wrote the book.

However, when I was reading through the book, I couldn’t help but regard it as a novel or even a compelling story for an action movie where the protagonist always comes out alive from every single life threatening situation, no matter how impossibly dangerous it is. It’s hard to imagine someone who is that lucky and invincible in real life.

If not that, the protagonist seems to personify Mother Theresa during his free time by attending to the poor and vulnerable. He is always counted on by others to come to their rescue when things get rough.

I think Shantaram is written to provide hope and inspiration to those who have strayed so far away from the path of righteousness but also to dispel judgments made by the righteous.

Shantaram has been compared to A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, one of my favourite books. I can see the similarity between the two where both the protagonists went through series after series of tremendous hardship and spiritual tests (the human spirit as oppose to religious spirituality) but it ends just there. The style of writing is very different. A Fine Balance is more literary while Shantaram has that raw and open approach.

I would still recommend Shantaram to anyone. It has the ability to cater to everyone due to all the elements it represents, including a strong and colourful line of characters.

The protagonist isn’t really my favourite character but there are others who reached out to me, particularly one. You just have to read it to find out who. :)

P/s: For more information about the author, please refer to his official website,

No comments:

Post a Comment