A true novel about Bombay in the 80s

I just finished a long book that I really loved, Gregory David Roberts’s 2003 novel, Shantaram.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Truth is I didn’t read it, I listened. And the Audible edition is beautifully brought to life by Humphrey Bower. Although in the midst of listening, I ended up buying both the paperback and Kindle edition to make it easier to take notes.

Shantaram is the very nearly true story of an Australian, Lindsay, who flees to Bombay under a phony New Zealand passport after climbing over the wall of an Aussie prison. I say “very nearly true” because, even though he insists Shantaram is a work of fiction, Roberts’s real-life story closely mirrors his protagonist’s. Roberts also escaped Australian prison where he was serving time for armed robbery and fled to Bombay in the 80s before becoming a novelist.

He insists that he invented the vivid characters that populate this epic, but even if they never existed they become flesh as the story winds on. And none more captivating than Prabaker, the first Indian Lin meets, and our guide to the steamy, fragrant, crowded streets of Bombay.

There was something in the disk of his smile – a kind of mischievous exuberance, more honest and more excited than mere happiness – that pierced me to the heart. It was the work of a second, that eye contact between us. It was just long enough for me to trust him – the little man with the big smile. I didn’t know it then, but it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Lin ends up falling in love, living in a slum, acting as a medic to its denizens, becomes a gangster, is shockingly beaten in an Indian jail. runs guns, money, and fake passports, and even joins the Mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan. But the most memorable part of the book for me is the idyllic months he spends in a remote Indian village with Prabaker’s family, where he earns the Marathi name, “Shantaram,” man of peace. It’s the calm before the storm in which Linbaba proves he’s anything but a peaceful man.

The second half of Shantaram becomes more of a pot-boiler, but Roberts redeems the overheated prose with surprising insight into the human condition. I was moved many times to jot down an observation or epigram from the story. Roberts has a way of cutting to the heart of any moment. It’s an inspiring as well as an engaging first novel.

Apple has optioned Shantaram and is planning to make it into a mini-series. I’m sure it will be good, but, as usual, I recommend reading the book first. Thanks to the TWiT listener, Jim Edwards, who recommended it (and even sent me the Audible credit for it). After 45 hours (or 936 pages for you dead tree lovers) in the world of Shantaram I was very sorry to see it end.

Next up, Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, the story of Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz.