Shantaram

Gregory David Roberts Published by St. Martins Griffin, N.Y ( 2005)

Shantaram is the best novel by an American that I have read in decades. It is an autobiographical sprawling, chilling, educational, sometimes brutal and gripping story, depicting the author’s love of India (and Bombay, now Mumbai, in particular), its people. It is a monster (about 1,000 pages and 13 years in the writing) that compels even the impatient reader to linger over the endless stream of beautifully turned phrases slowly and to keep reading – and learning and feeling the resolute hope, the spontaneous love and indomitable human spirit that can survive abject poverty, the rat-infested slums of India, the death-grip of heroine, the cruelties of prison, the endless tragedies and gut-wrenching lows of slum-life in Bombay today. Yet, it reveals an inner-pulse and the human intrigue of India on an epic scale – as Gone with the Wind stripped bare the beauty of a decadent South and the brutality of the Civil War and as Dickens’ dissected the social malaise of 19th Century-England and 18th Century-France and as Tolstoy or Pasternak taught us to love Russia under siege.

Shantaram’s prose sporadically border on divine, with their graphic descriptions, inspirational metaphors and similes, thought-provoking observations and even the rare treat of anachronistically commendable syntax. For anyone who wants to experience modern India (“the land where the heart is king”, as the author repeatedly observes) and to feel the vibrations of its pulse and the soul of its people, or who loves an exciting adventure-story, all based on the author’s first-hand experiences, Shantaram (which means “hero” in Hindi and is the nickname given the author by his slum-dwelling beneficiaries) is a must read. “Everyone in the whole world was Indian in at least one past life.” You owe it to yourself to read Shantaram -- and find yourself.

This surreal, terrifying and compassionate story of the author’s life again demonstrates that axiom truth is more bizarre than fiction. Born in Melbourne, Australia, the author, Gregory David Roberts (Roberts), was a journalist who cultivated a drug habit that led to a series of armed robberies and a 19-year prison sentence and likely one of the most severe lives ever recorded (by one who lived to recount it). He escaped from prison (where he was beaten nearly to death on multiple occasions) by going literally “over the wall” in 1980 and fled to Bombay, where he lived for ten years in ghettos called “hutments” (containing thousands of tiny sheds made of cardboard, tin, plastic and scraps), where he established a free medical clinic of sorts for the poor, whom he came to love, while having intriguing dealings with the Indian mafia, including a vendetta-caused return to prison in India (where he was inhumanly tortured), followed by a breathtaking stint as a soldier against the Russians in the frozen, raw forests of an unforgiving Afghanistan-winter. Then, after being recaptured again, he served the rest of his first sentence in Australia and later established a successful multimedia company and then returned to his first love, writing. In spite of inscrutable and unrepeatable hardships, he survived; he survived – and, despite it all, he could still love mankind and be forgiving, defying all odds. His beneficent prose is the erudite, blood-stained progeny of his crippled, bleeding hands, and we are its beneficiaries.

There are many messages in this literary masterpiece, but the dominant theme is “Love is all that matters… [and that] without forgiveness, there can be no love…The only power that has any real meaning is the power to better the world.” That Roberts can be forgiving, after the monstrous inhumanities imposed upon him, makes us blush at the trivialities that make us unforgiving. Roberts reveals little about his religious leanings (defining God in obscurities like “the Universal Destiny”), but his moral code paraphrases Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) and his Sermon on the Plain (Luke) or similar, earlier Hindu teachings as found in the Baghavad Gita, or the Eastern philosophies of the Analects of Confucius, the Taoists, et al. Roberts, however beaten and abused, remains positive and good natured to the core.

We do the author an injustice by removing snippets of his prose from their context, but we must to provide a flavor of the ebb and flow of his work. For profundities, consider these: “Live as if every minute is a short story with a happy ending…The past reflects eternally between two mirrors – the bright mirror of our words and deeds and the shadowy one of the things that we didn’t do…Love survives in us precisely because it isn’t wise…Love, like respect, isn’t something you get; it’s something you give…Justice means punish, forgive and save [redeem]…If you make your heart into a weapon, you always use it on yourself…I smoked, like everyone who smokes, because I wanted to die as much as I wanted to live…There are no good men or bad men [only good and bad deeds]; men are just men…Every human will has the power to transform his fate…no matter how good or bad the luck, you can change your life completely with a single thought or a single act of love.”

His endless word images transfix and elevate the reader. A few samples: Who ever thought of tears in these terms: “…Her tears slipped from her eyelids like beads on a prayer charm…Some cry with tears that fall as gently as fragrant raindrops, leaving the face radiant; others cry hard and all their loveliness collapses in agony, the terrible anguish written in rivulets of tears and torment that crease the face…I couldn’t cry then, those tears, and I felt that I was drowning in a sorrow that was bigger than the heart that tried to hold it…” Or who has considered a woman in quite these terms: “No flower, feather, or fabric can match the velvet whisper of [a woman’s] flesh.” Or a star-crossed love like this: “Nothing grieves more deeply or pathetically than one half of a great love that isn’t meant to be…I still love you, and sometimes my [dead] friend, the love that I have, and can’t give you, crushes the breath from my chest…even now, my heart is drowning in a sorrow that has no stars, no laughter, and no sleep, without you.”

Contemplate these immemorial tributes to love: “I never believed in love at first sight until it happened to me; when it did, it seemed that every atom in my body had been changed, charged with light and heat; I was different forever just for the sight of her…from that moment on, my heart seemed to drag the rest of my life behind it; I heard her voice in every lovely sound; I saw her face in brilliant mirrored flakes of memory…my hunger to touch her clawed at my chest and crushed the air in my lungs…until the sun rose each morning with my love for her..” (Ch. 18) “When our lips parted, stars rushed through that kiss into her sea-green eyes; an age of longing passed from those eyes into mine and an age of passion from my grey eyes into hers; all the hunger, all the fleshed and hope-starved craving, streamed from eye to eye, that moment we met, our love reflecting shadows into the glass, on the last night before the war.” “Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope; sometimes we cry with everything except tears. In the end, that’s all there is: love and its duty, sorrow, joy and their truths. In the end, that’s all we have – to hold on tight until the dawn…” (Ch. 16)

For metaphors and other word images, what artist’s hand could paint with oils more vividly than this: “She was as beautiful as a blush of summer sunset on a sky-wide stream of cloud…the press of her lips, like sweet grapes swollen by summer sun…lips radiating a luxuriant garden of smiles…lips like soft ridges of desert-dunes at sunset…eyes alive in a foliant blaze, opaline, like the warm shallows of island seas, emeralds made luminous by the gold sunlight dancing intermittently…” And consider these sensorial similes and metaphors: “…a suffusion of aromatic sweetness posses my mouth…I danced until my shirt clung to me like seaweed in a shallow wave…jeans tight enough to be anatomically explicit…the brains of fleas on a pariah-dog’s balls…a prairie-fire of discontent and long-nursed grievances…the acid burn of tears…My cries were locked in the prison of my throat…eyes curved like the sword of Perseus, like the wings of a hawks in flight, like eucalyptus leaves in summer – Indian eyes, the world’s most beautiful eyes…Their arms moved with the grace of a swan’s neck and rolled and swirled like scarves sailing in the wind…a smile as big as a child’s biggest wish…the eruption of laughter followed by a cloudburst rattle of applause…”

There are hundreds of worthy morals in this triumph, but the core message is that our own peace of mind and even sanity hinge on our ability to reject hatred and to forgive, even those who brutalize us in every possible way: “To cut the mooring rope of grief, we must forgive and even say the sacred words ‘I forgive’ aloud; only then can we free ourselves of the killing grief.” And, further, that, in the end, only love matters. Love does what God should do; it gives us a reason to live and to love the world. “Love goes on forever…It is born in that part of us that does not die.” (Ch. 26) “Every work of art is in some way an act of forgiveness…Every act of love is a promise to forgive. We live because we can love, and we love because we can forgive.” (Ch. 17)

Is it a perfect book? The author loves India and Indians, and he has grown to appreciate their customs and beliefs. After reading the Koran, I still must reject the author’s kindly view of the Muslim faith and certain of his philosophical views, but I found no flaws but, rather, sublime excellence in his plot, characters, morals and prose. I’ve read more fully developed characters, but these suffice and their variety and quantity is daunting. In sum, Shantaram is an overwhelming autobiography that sucks us into its swells like the after tow of a tsunami; like life itself, it bombards us with desultory, exhilarating highs and denuding lows; yet, like the great classics, it offers absorbing prose, artistic descriptions, a mesmerizingly terrifying plot, an education about India, a believable, almost Shakespearian, if sometimes unilateral love story beyond the experience of most, and a veritable odyssey of Homeric proportions – all of which hold the reader in a viselike grip.

This one-book-author (like the immortal poet-Pasternak of Doctor Zhivago-fame) has proved that giants like Dickens, Tolstoy, Cervantes, O’Henry, Poe, Dreiser, and Hemingway exist and will pass our way again, albeit rarely. Roberts’ triumph, Shantaram, is an eternal contribution to the world of fiction; it revolutionizes our view of India, of love and forgiveness and of life itself, and it improves our powers of observation, sharpens our self-expression, and inspires our compassion for all sentient creatures, and, thus, helps us love life more passionately. Yes, to revel in its Elysian joys and suffer its piteous depths, we must ignore its Gothic size and resolve to savor every page, phrase, word and innuendo, and willingly take this inspirational voyage and thus allow ourselves to sob and laugh freely – and feel our lives be changed forever. I am indebted to fellow English lit aficionado, Donna Livingston (the renowned Beverly Hills interior designer whose work is so often celebrated in Architectural Digest), who gave me Shantaram.