Summer was a time for early morning reading outside with bird song, sunshine, a cup of coffee and a dog. Now that darkness and cool air have moved in, my reading time seems to have dwindled. Well, I guess that having to work might have something to do with it too…
And read I did. Lots of books – big thick ones the height of fluffy pillows and the weight of small elephants. And Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is no exception. In fact, this was probably the longest book of the summer with its 920 pages or so!
I’d resisted the pull of the book for ages as I’m allergic to screaming headings like ‘A publishing phenomenon’ or ‘A remarkable achievement’. Or even ‘A literary masterpiece … it has the grit and pace of a thriller’. (Thanks Daily Telegraph!)
But then I started reading it – and realized that, for me, all of the above comments were true. The book is the fictionalized life of the author and reads like James Bond meets Indian philosopher. The protagonist, Lin (or Roberts’ alter ego if you like) is one of Australia’s most wanted men (in the 1980s): he escapes from a high-security prison there and ends up in Bombay. Where he sets up a free health clinic in a slum, works for the mafia, gets tortured in jail and learns Hindi and Marathi. And that’s just for starters. (Apparently Roberts really did do all of these things.)
The book begins like this:
“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming of my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is an universe of possibility. And the choice you make between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”
Apart from the high-octane pace of the prose, the book is lyrical, poetical and spiritual. He sees beyond the squalor and poverty to the soul of the Indian people, whom he portrays with love; he ponders about his own personality and how imprisonment can turn men into monsters; he philosophizes on the nature of good and evil; and amidst the violence and sadness, also reveals the beauty of life. Because, as he says, “Every human heartbeat is a universe of possibilities.”