Sunday, October 15, 2006

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts - Impressions.

Some time back, Bombay Addict announced a Bad English Competition. I dropped off an inspired entry, and discovered a little later that he had adjudged mine as one of the three best entries. He was also very generous with the prizes - he mailed me a Crossword voucher worth Rs.500. So I hopped over to Crossword and got myself a copy of Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram.

And I read it.

When I read an interesting book, I hate to get halfway through the book. I love the feeling that there is a lot more to read, as yet. The same thing happened to me with this book initially. But around mid-point (the book is nearly 1000 pages long), I suddenly wanted the book to get over. I couldn't take it anymore. All I could think was - if I cannot bear to read this, how could this man have actually experienced all this?

For it is supposedly a true story. I say "supposedly" because I cannot imagine how one person could have done so many things. It seems almost fantastic, and I am inclined to think that half of it is fiction. That might seem unkind to the writer, but remember, this is just my impression.

Just think. Here is a guy, an armed robber and a heroin addict, who is serving a prison sentence in Australia. He escapes from the prison across the front wall in broad daylight, comes to India with a false passport, and lands at Bombay. He falls headlong in love with the city, and makes it his home. He lives in a slum, establishes a free health clinic with his limited knowledge, and joins the Bombay underworld. He also lands in an Indian jail, and experiences a few gruesome months there. He also goes back to heroin for a while, and then gets out of it again. Then he also does a bit part in Bollywood, and even goes to Afghanistan to fight a potentially deadly war with the MUjahideen, starving himself and getting badly frostbitten in the process. In the midst of all this, he manages to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and make scores of friends and enemies along the way.

What is perhaps, most apparent, is his love for India and Indians. It is fascinating to see the Indian character through the eyes of an unbiased foreigner. What he basically believes is that India is a land of love. As one of his friends in the story puts it, "Love might not have been discovered here, but it was certainly perfected in India........ A billion people living in such close proximity - if it had been any other people - French, Spanish, German, Americans - they would all have killed each other by now. It is love that keeps India this way" (or something to that effect). Thought-provoking bits about the country that we all know so well - makes this novel that much more interesting.

The book has been written very well. Parts of it is almost poetry, which should have been incongruous with the gory descriptions which surround it, but which, strangely, are not. With dollops of philosophy(some of it a little too profound for my taste) and insights into life, and long ramblings about love, this book has it all. What I appreciated the most about his writing is the way he describes his feelings - you can almost feel what he is feeling.

And to think that he had to write this huge bulky story thrice - because prison officials trashed his first two drafts! I don't think I would write this blog post again if I lost it! ;)

So - if you think you can take it, do read this novel. I don't ever skip pages in novels, and the last time I remember doing that is when I read the unabridged version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations as a young kid. But I did it in this novel. Skipped some pages because it was too stark for me to take. Also, it would do you good to select a time when you are not too depressed or lachrymose!

All in all, an engrossing read. Thank you, Bombay Addict! :)


Anonymous said...

good one akkz... P

Supremus said...

This book still lies in my bedside bookshelf - and the bookmark still stays stuck at page 102 (Yeah yeah, I checked before I wrote this comment :D ) - and frankly speaking I dont think I will ever read this book.

I just got way too bored by page 102. I agree, his love for India and Indians came through nicely, though at times it was sugary and diabetic hehe :). Last heard, Johhny Depp is going to play this character of the movie by the same name - I will probably wait for it.

And of course, i am also of opinion that unless absolutely and must required, writers should be able to express themselves in 500 pages or less :-)

Nice writeup - u've been missing since long I think!

Bhargav said...

There are some books with me in the same state. Altohugh, I don't skip pages; I read them through, or just return them back. No regrets that I didn't complete them. I guess 1000 is a lot of pages, and you have done well coming half way. Do you intend on finishing it?

Kishore said...

Shantaram is one of the most breathtaking books ever written.. What does add to the sensation is that its - true!

Shastri said...

Nice to read your impressions on the book. I too did skip a few pages but never admitted that when I wrote my own review long ago here

But I liked the uniqueness of this book which mixes a good writing with an interesting life story (fiction at times may be)

And of course, the love towards India makes me proud.

I would have loved the book to be about 500 pages as supremus says.

Papillon by Henri Charriere is one other book that comes to my mind whenever I think of Shantaram. There too the author gets into a prison, sees lot of torture, escapes prison several times, lands up in strange lands, marries to some women in a polygymous tribe, makes several friends and foes. But for my taste reading some of the descriptions of the prison were too disgusting. One where all the prisonors try to hide money in their anuses. Then there is a description of a leper-prison where when a prisoner offers the author a cup of tea, a finger comes along with the cup, detached from the body.

My stomach is already sick from the memory of reading that book :(

Rk said...

If you have time, you could hop over my "on the go" bits about the book. On the go is, I wrote something just as I was reading the book and not all after finishing the book. It was actually an email conversation converted to post..
As you guessed, its not "all" true. I mean, the incidents are mostly true but with lot of fiction and drama added to make it a good novel. I am not trying to take away anything, just pointing it out.
There is a dialogue by Karla that I like most.
Also the post has many links at the end,if you manage to read it all through!, one of them that says 3 more books were in pipeline. Also, its gonna be a Hollywood film (was supposed to be over by 2006 december but not yet started I guess).
Recently heard Deepa Mehta is going to direct it.
Also there was a mumbai mirror coloumn, which had tracked the real Prabhaker - who is alive - and most of the story was true. Also he was a hero by himself having fought something (a social taboo, I dont remember now).

Bombay Addict said...

Hi Shruthi - lovely post and thank you. It was my pleasure to give you the voucher. Your entry was a winner. I've not bought Shantaram and going by what you said, I doubt I will in the future.

On the other hand, I completely identify with this bit you said - "I love the feeling that there is a lot more to read, as yet."

I'm currently reading "Sacred Games" -another near 1,000 pager, but a completely brilliant book. I have no regrets its so long.


Shruthi said...

P, Thankzz ;)

Supremus, and I opened my copy to see what point Page 102 is, and why you got bored ;)
I agree with you totally - a book should be as short as possible. But sometimes, like now - when I have a lot of time in my hands, a 1000 page book is such a blessing ;)
Yeah I haven't been well for a while!

Bhargav, oh did I give the impression that I am just half way through? I have finished the book!

Kishore, ha ha, yes! :)

Shastri, that was a fantastic review. Must be from the time before I started reading your blog. I concur with most of what you have said - tighter editing, etc - and the remarkable resemblance to Papillon. I loved Papillon - and though some of the stuff was pretty gory, I thought Shantaram was more gruesome. Maybe just my frame of mind, don't know.

RK, Read a few paragraphs of your impressions - absolutely riveting! As soon as I am done with the rest of my work, I am going to read it fully.
And thanks for the info that Prabhakar did not die! That's such a relief :))))

Bombay Addict, thanks again ;) The book is not bad, really - just that I could not take a few parts ;) Perhaps you should try borrowing a copy and give it a shot ;)
And seeing your praise for Sacred Games - makes me want to try it out! Thanks!

Shyam said...

I read it too... it was a tad too long, and yes his love for India/ns was obvious. But I thought he kind of glorified poverty rather a lot, and the philosophy was VERY heavy at times. I just kept getting the impression that he wanted to be seen as a good, caring, thoughtful guy despite being firmly on the side of the not-angels! :) This story might basically be true but I prefer to take it with a pinch of salt.

PS. Glad to see you're ok again. I kept almot obsessively checking your blog for new posts :)

Anonymous said...

[resisting the urge to rush out and buy the book, reminding self that self had promised self that self shall not be pushed esp. wrt this book, no matter how good the review!]

Howdy! Amen to Shyam's PS - one more stalker confesses. ;)


Emma said...

Shruthi, It is good to hear about your opinion on this book. I bought this book because I was very intrigued by what I read about the author and his experiences. But somehow the book really put me off - and I couldn't even finish it. I don't know but my impression of the book was not the same as yours. Maybe because to me a lot of the things he talked about didn't seem really true or even plausible. You are right - it is very good writing; the couple of hundred pages that I read, I know there were moments when I thought it was very gripping. But there was something missing - I still can't put my finger on it. Maybe I should just finish it and see :).

Manasi said...

HI! Looks implausible that one person can experience or have doen so many things! Have been hearing a lot abt the book, havent had time to read it though. Think it will be postponed even further..... when i have nothing else to do but read it! ;)

SwB said...

I totally agree .. this is one book I just couldn't finish. I left it around page 600, when I read the introduction and learnt it was not an autobiography!

If it was an autobiography, things might have been different. But GGDR's concoction of real life and fiction gets to you after a while.

Also I think he's overdone the philosophy bit - you know, Kaderbhai's lectures and all. Philosophy should be simple - not stuff running into pages and pages.

Saltwater Blues said...

Oops, it was me who left that comment above.

Nice blog, btw.

Shruthi said...

Shyam, I agree with you totally!! Gosh - you said it perfectly! :)
Thanks so much *blush* :)

Ano, heh heh, you can tell your self to relax and read somethin brighter ;) - and thank you too - I am honoured ;)

Emma, I guess if I did not have a lot of time on my hands, I would have abandoned it - hard to say. But what kept me going was curiosity! :) Yeah maybe you should finish it after all - and do let me know what you thought was missing!

Manasi, heyyy where had you been all this while??! Yeah do read the book when you have lots of time on your hands!

Saltwater blues, yeah the philosophy went overhead a little, but then that was tolerable ;) Yeah I agree - you don't know where reality stops and fiction takes over - that gets bugging! :)
Thank you!

Viky said...

I will reserve the book for some other time. I really am not in a frame of mind to read anything except weeklies.

By the way, I thought books were so many pages thick and not long. Whaddaya say?

Sigma said...

You have presented your assessment very nicely. I had heard a lot of praises of this book (though I had not read the reviews in detail, and so I did not know the theme it was centred on). I have been considering whether to buy it or not, but your opinion and that of many of other blogger friends here have helped me make the decision (no). Not to say that I no longer have the patience to read books that thick :-((.
Like some of the others, the outline of the story reminded me of Papillon,which I actually loved. There are parts that are rather repulsive, but what I admired was the author's determination to live and to be free, to make 9 daring escapes in 13 years. Had I not been warned that it was an autobiography, I would have concluded that it was a thriller!

Shruthi said...

Viky, ha ha! Ok do read it in the right frame of mind!
If you consider the material of the pages, then yes, it is 1000 pages thick. If you consider the writing on the pages, then it is 1000 pages long. What say?

Sigma, I loved Papillon too. One of my all time favourites - unbelievable story. At least that was a true story ;)
As for Shantaram, maybe you should wait for the movie ;)

Kirtan said...

Though I also found the philosophy in some places in the book too cliched, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.

On a related topic, read Suketu Mehta's Maximum City. And I hope you enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Nice review. Sounds interesting. But a 1000 pages is a long way to go. I remember I had a tough time getting through Vickram Seth's A Suitable Boy.

Usha said...

I read it in several settings over 15 days and loved it. It is tough to understand how a person who has such a good understanding of human mind and philosophy can actually get involved in criminal activities of that order.
And bits of it seem straight out of a 80s Hindi film - about the same period he spent in Mumbai. But then as they say life is sometimes stranger than fiction.

GuNs said...

Have heard a lot about this novel. The size is a nit inhibiting though. I will put this on my list of to-read novels. I have got a long backlog of novels lying around my cupboard now.



mysorean said...

Hey congrats!

Long time since I have come here!

'Shantaram'...hmm... I need to read this one. Too many recommendations! :)

I have seen it somewhere in the stands and noticed that it's too fat a book. Let me see if that helps me reduce my weight! :)


Sujatha said...

Shruti, I read the book obsessively and finished it sad that there was no more to read. Wonderful writing and fantastic observation of people, events and places. The guy must be so disciplined (apparently he writes down everything everyday). And yeah, I'm sure everyone must wonder at all the things that he goes through/happen to him.

BTW, the book is classified as literary fiction.

Shruthi said...

Kirtan, you found the philosophy cliched - meaning you understood it? Hats off! :)) Have heard about Max City. Will look out for it, thanks! :)

Swapna, But did you like A suitable boy? I want to read that next!

Usha, that was very well put. I had the same thought going around in my head - but I hadn't actually given the thought a shape. And ha ha.. yeah.. it is like a movie :D

Guns, the Time Machine is good fun, isn't it? Haven't read "Plain tales.. ", though. Let me know how you like it!

Mysorean, ha ha, yes, if you use a couple of copies as dumbells ;)

Sujatha, if I had a life as eventful as he did, perhaps I would have written it all down too! ;) Or on second thoughts, maybe I wouldn't have - I would be too awed about what's happening ;) You really need discipline, yes! "Literary fiction"? Oh I see....hmmm..hard to say where the fiction begins!

Viky said...

See what I found

Shruthi said...

Viky, Interesting! So since we don't know if this book is fiction or non-fiction, both of us are right, huh? ;)

Viky said...

Not only us, but Adi also, since he says it is fat.

Dr. Prema Seshadri said...

I live in the Middle East and am making my annual pilgrimage to Melourne. My girl-friend gave me this book to read (I had never heard of it!). I am almost finished and I must confess I am zapped! For me it isnt a book; its a journey that I am following and taking at the same time. I have also been listening to Gregory's public talks and he is as phenomenal a speaker as he is a writer. I am actually looking forward to meeting him!

Anonymous said...

This is the best book I've ever read. People who did not read it or find boring means don't know anythnig about life. I totally love this book. My friend recomnended this book to me, and when she told me it was 1000 pages long i was like oh hell. Why woul i read it? but when I started reading it, 1st 150 pages i found little boring, but then I totally love it. Then i got sooo addicted to this book, i stopped watching serials and only read this book.
Now I've started this book again reading for 2nd time.

Anonymous said...

try listening to the audio version read by humphry bower
best media experience ever
over 40 hours of joy

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