Shantaram is a story shrouded in mystery. One that is partly true and partly false. The characters are created, yet records of them existing can be found in various documents. Gregory David Roberts escape from jail and arrival in Bombay is all true, but when does that truth end? Roberts unbelievable story describes his escape from an Australian maximum security prison in broad daylight, his life as a doctor in the slums of Bombay and his experiences with the friends he made and the enemies he created during his life of crime in India and in Australia. Shantaram is a seemingly impossible, movie like story that could be mostly made up, but does that really matter? I would recommend this book to young adults keen to explore the world, reading this book may change their perspectives and see the hidden beauty of India that Roberts saw in his years as a fugitive from the law.
Gregory David Roberts (aka Lin) has lived a hard life, a life beginning in the gang occupied suburban neighborhoods of Australia where he quickly learnt to fight and defend for himself. This adversity shaped and molded Lin into a person able to deal with immense pain, and a person with the will and determination to leave his home forever to have another chance at freedom, even if it meant escaping prison. Lins life was so busy, hectic and chaotic that he did not have enough time to enjoy the more simple things. For me it felt as though traveling to Bombay was not only necessary for the continuation of Roberts new found freedom but also for the preservation of his sanity. India is a bustling and busy country and home to over a billion people but to the Author and main character of the story it was a quiet and simplistic haven where he could live day to day in peace. One of the aspects of Bombay that draws Lin in is its smell; “That smell, above all things – is that what welcomes me and tells me that I have come home”. The smell of home often conjures emotions in people after returning back to the place they grew up as a child, yet as soon as he arrives, Lin gets the same feeling that he is already home even though he had never been to Bombay before. After escaping prison Lin had to leave his original home, the home that he was born in which must have been a huge upheaval for him knowing he could never return. I see something similar to the main characters situation in my friend whose family chose to leave their home in Chile due to dangerous riots happening in the streets, now living here he misses his country everyday, however New Zealand has become a second home like Bombay has to Lin.
For the majority of people living in Bombay, life is a constant struggle. Many people live on the streets or in tiny makeshift houses embedded in huge slums, they work in appalling conditions all day just to scrape together enough money for a meal. Yet everyone appears happy and content with their lives and their situation. When Lin arrives he is initially shocked at the state of peoples living conditions, but soon becomes at ease seeing how happy, beautiful and generous the people are. “There is no act of faith more beautiful than the generosity of the very poor,” This line said by one of Lins friends perfectly reflects the slum dwellers souls. They appear dirty and malnourished but inside they are so pure, beautiful and their unwavering generosity shows the reader their true form. Sadly in the chaos of a place like India, beautiful people can easily be corrupted. Sometimes out of greed but mostly out of shear desperation. Lin noticed this very soon as he began to work and live on the streets of Bombay, children were being sold to slavery to pay for owed money and fake passports were issued to mass murderers and tyrants in order for them to escape their countries. I felt shocked that seemingly innocent people would ignore their morals and help terrible people, but with the constant need of money just to live day to day I could somewhat understand their position. These examples also showed me how the prospect of wealth can corrupt and change ordinary people, similar to the corruption of the German people with the prospect of a “pure” Aryan race which instead of happiness and freedom brought nothing but destruction and overwhelming sadness. I believe Lin saw the effect money was having on peoples minds and thus decided to live a life not focused on its accumulation but the accumulation of experiences.
A lot of people believe that the horrible treatment endured by the Jews in concentration camps and the prisoners of war held by the Japanese was a despicable thing that could never happen in the world today, that it is a thing of the past. Before reading this book I thought the same until I saw the atrocities that were occurring inside Indian prisons away from the eyes of the public. In the prison Lin was sent too after being mysteriously picked up by police, he was thrown into a prison cell the size of bathroom covered in human feces, lice and rats along with 40 other men, all the while being beaten fiercely by the prison guards. Although obviously on a much smaller scale compared to the holocaust these atrocities were things that simple thieves and the homeless had to endure as well as murderers. I felt disgusted after reading about Lins treatment that people like the prison guards could do that to others without feeling remorse. “Prisons are the temples where devils learn to prey. Every time we turn the key we twist the knife of fate, because every time we cage a man we close him in with hate”. This quote shows how much Lin (a very tough man) was effected by his time in prison. This shocked me as other people were in for life sentences, I cannot even imagine their pain knowing they have to endure the rest of their lives in the hell of a Bombay prison.
Although Lin is technically free to go wherever he pleases, in Bombay there is always the threat of him being captured by Interpol and sent back to carry out his 20 year prison sentence. Roberts tries his best to ignore this fear by making himself busy helping others, yet he is never able to escape the constant tension felt in his mind, like somebody is watching him; “the fact of the fugitive life is that you have to keep on escaping, every day and every night”. It must have been hard for Lin to be always on the run even when he is standing still. Even though he has escaped the authorities, his mindset of running continues to pursue him, and it is much, much harder to escape from than any government. Lin’s constant fear of capture reminded me of the post traumatic stress disorder than can develop in people and cause thoughts of their horrible experiences to linger on in their minds. In a way Lin is experiencing a similar thing in that memories of his escape and the fear of capture always plague his thoughts.
In conclusion Gregory David Roberts amazing story is one that is full of triumph and immense determination. Where others may have given up and turned themselves in, Lin struggled on against the world knowing full well of the consequences. His determination earned him the respect of many locals and his time in India changed him from the heroin addicted bank robber that he was in Australia to a caring and strong person who had new and more healthy hopes and dreams. Lins escape from jail could have been another type of sentence to a life of paranoia and loneliness, but by traveling to India Lin managed to change this and create a new life for himself amongst the beautiful friends he met. The line between truth and fiction is blurred in Shantaram but to me weather it is an autobiography or an amazing made up story does not matter, because the lessons the characters teach you are more profound than any real person could imagine.