Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shantaram - My Review

For me, books are broadly divided into two simple classifications. One, those which span generations and have a canvas wider than the reader's imagination. Two, those books which only deal with one narrow chunk of the protagonists' lives. The latter are often just mindless reads, and make up most of the books published.

But once in a while, there is a book that is utterly grand in its thought and execution, and engages all the faculties of the readers intellect.Such books usually happen only once in a writer's lifetime. Midnight's Children happened to Salman Rushdie. A Thousand Splendid Suns happened to Khaled Hosseini. One Hundred Years of Solitude happened to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And Shantaram happened to Gregory David Roberts.

The book isn't new; and if you're fond of reading, you probably have already completed this. Or atleast have heard about this. The plot line is quite fantastic. Narrated in first person, Gregory David Roberts tells us his story of escaping from an Australian prison, ending up in India on a fake passport, of making a home in Bombay slums, joining the underworld, rising to a position of prominence, finding love, becoming Indian, ending up in the Afghanistan guerilla war, and through it all, finding himself and the meaning of life.

Every book is a canvas in the hands of its creator. And as an undercurrent, every piece of writing is about finding the meaning of life. Some writers approach it as a subtle lesson, some do through a series of events, and others enthuse their own persona on one of the characters in the story and speak to the reader. Roberts does all three. There are experiences he goes through, people he befriends, through which the fundamental questions (Why, What, and How) are answered for him, even as more complex questions keep cropping up.

But the greatest character in the book is Bombay. There are several books in which cities are central to the theme. Cities which have permeated the thoughts of the writers so deeply that they take on an identity of their own. Bombay is probably unique in the fact that it has inspired the maximum number of books when counted against other Indian cities. But Roberts, or Lin Baba as he is called in the book, is not just inspired by this great city. He is in love with it, in awe of it, and Bombay is the first city he can truly call home. Often, writers, while writing about India, get carried away by the poverty and the graphic representations of it. Lin lives in a slum beside the Bombay Trade Center, and nowhere does his love of the city get affected by its masses and the poverty. His love for Bombay is unconditional, and that, for me, is one of the most endearing aspects of Shantaram.

All the great books of the world have one thing in common - Words flow effortlessly. In Shantaram, words have that ease. Every page paints a picture for the reader - which only happens when a writer is truly at the top of his game. Or when a greater spirit is guiding him. Whatever be the case, Roberts has that gift of words in Shantaram, and his choice of words is truly outstanding. Look at these gems. Yes, I actually annotated them on my Nook while reading!

'Poverty and Pride are devoted Blood brothers until one, always and inevitably, kills the other'

'I don't know what frightens me more, the power that crushes us or our endless ability to endure it'

'We live on because we can Love. And we love because we can forgive'

'It is impossible to despise someone you honestly pity, and to shun someone you truly love'

'Pity is the one part of love that asks for nothing in return and, because of that, every act of pity is a kind of prayer'

Profound, right? Imagine them interwoven with the story. Each chapter has something profound coming up, and 'profound' is a word that will often jump up from your consciousness while reading Shantaram. Suddenly, from the most innocuous narrative will spring up a sentence that will cause you to re-read it and pause for a little while before going on. This is not a novel you will steam through; and such books are truly rare. Precisely what I meant in my two-bit classification theory :)

Another amazing feat Roberts achieved with Shantaram is that of a satisfying ending. When the canvas is huge, the climax becomes insanely difficult. For all those characters to culminate in an ending that the reader is satiated with, is no mean task. Many books that have taken the 'many years' route suffer from this phenomenon, where the ending isn't really conclusive. Shantaram, however, has a beautiful ending, and one doesn't feel left in the lurch. For a genuine reader, after living with the characters for 950 pages, a botched up ending is a terrible frustration! But that is not the case with Shantaram. Well done, Writer :) Yes, it is obvious that you have fictionalized a part of the story - as it should've been. No, your descriptions of India are not entirely accurate But you're forgiven!

A story is truly successful when the characters remain with you long after the book is complete. Lin Baba, Prabaker, Khaderbhai, Abdullah, Didier, Khaled, Karla, Nazeer, Johnny Cigar, they all stay on with the reader long after the book is put away, and that is no mean achievement!

The book was originally published in 2004. And I got around to reading it only ten years later. But I'm glad I did. Thank you, Sonia, for the recommendation :) After reading a hundred novels which each took two or three days to complete, it was immensely satisfying to read one which took close to three weeks.


Sonia said...

Love your review about as much as Anna, you are a wonderful book critic :) Like I must have told you a zillion times,I love the book! Like you said, a true writer is considered to be at the top of his game when readers can live through the protagonist's life as their own. Its beautiful how profoundly and deeply the characters are etched, and yet Roberts did not seek to impose perfection onto them or even justify them, as most writers make the mistake of attempting. A vivid story line that stays with you for long after - no mean achievement indeed :)

Vikram Venkateswaran said...

Profound anna.