Book review: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

March 22, 2008

Title: Shantaram
Author: Gregory David Roberts
Pages: 936

Shantaram is a novel based on the true story of Gregory David Roberts, who escaped from an Australian jail and made his way to Mumbai, India’s largest city.

Soon after landing in Mumbai on a fake passport Gregory meets Prabaker, a Mumbai guide who eventually becomes his best friend and constant companion. After a while Gregory is forced to move into the slum in order to avoid the cops (he became one of Australia’s most wanted men after breaking out of prison). In the slum he starts a free clinic although all his medical knowledge is restricted to what he learnt at a First-Aid course.

Being a man of violence, Gregory soon gets mixed up with the Mumbai underground. He leaves the slum clinic to some young men he trained himself and starts working for a leading gang whose head, Abdel Khader Khan is an Afghan. Khader, or Khaderbhai as he is respectfully referred to, uses Gregory’s white skin to great advantage. Gregory undergoes training in the various underworld operations like money laundering, smuggling,  etc.

Khader makes a great impression on Gregory who begins to look up to him as a master, at times admitting his willingness to die for the mobster. Khader dazzles Gregory with long lectures on philospophy, ethics and religion. I find it hard to beleive that the Mumbai mafia sits around discussing philosophy when they could be butchering rival gangs or whatever it is they do for fun.

Gregory’s grammar isn’t perfect, for example he says “clinks of sound”, if i’m not mistaken (which I usually am) that’s tantamount to saying “booms of sound”. However I should point out that most of the grammatical errors were too minor to affect the narrative.

The India potrayed in this book did not seem authentic and familiar like one in A fine balance. I think one of the reasons this book is so popular is that people are expecting a true story, which it is not. Large parts of it are obvious fabrications.

This book is worth reading for the descriptions of Gregory’s incarceration in an Indian jail and the war in Afghanistan.

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