Shantaram: On the Run with Lin Baba
By John Day Barnett
The premise of Shantaram is simple: a man on the run from the law for escaping from prison finds himself in India again on the wrong side of the law. What complicates the story is Mumbai itself – poverty, corruption, expats, and religion crammed onto a small, overcrowded peninsula.
Lin, the protagonist, describes himself in just the second paragraph on the first page:
“In my case, it’s a long story, and a crowded one. I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum-security prison.”
Throughout the novel, Lin meets drug dealers, hustlers, guns for hire, warlords, expats, addicts, artists, slum-dwellers, taxi drivers, and a cast of helpful and harmful men and women. He falls in love, and unwittingly under the spell of a puppet master who will eventually send him to war. He gains and loses friends at an alarming rate over the span of the many pages.
Roberts expounds philosophically while creating scenes of vivid excitement, love, tragedy, war, and spirituality. For some, his writing may seem long-winded, the exact opposite of the sparse Hemingway style. His prose is poetic, forcing you to read every word rather than skimming across the lines to hurry though another book about India:
“The contrast between the familiar and the exceptional was everywhere around me. A bullock cart was drawn up beside a modern sports car at a traffic signal. A man squatted to relieve himself behind the discreet shelter of a satellite dish. An electric forklift truck was being used to unload goods from an ancient wooden cart with wooden wheels. The impression was of a plodding, indefatigable, and distant past that had crashed intact, through barriers of time, into its own future. I liked it.”
Rather than write a quick, airport-worthy story of crime in India, you can tell Roberts truly loves India. His characters (depending who you ask are actual individuals, composites, or conjured to help tell the story) pull you into the events, whether it is the people crammed into the slums, the crime boss, or the rare manifestation of love at first site.
I recommend Shantaram to anyone with an interest in India, a love of great writing, experience living abroad in a strange country, or a desire to begin an adventure somewhere new (even if not escaping justice). It is a fascinating read, especially given the author’s background and journey. Maybe it will even inspire someone to begin their own journey.
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