“So it begins, this story, like everything else—with a woman, and a city, and a little bit of luck.“
Quoted from the novel, this gives a bit of idea what the story is all about. Shantaram is a story about Shantaram and his exile life in Bombay. The life involves his role in Bombay mafia, his love for the girl Karla, and his philosophical journey with his Boss-cum-saviour KhaderBhai.
What is most remarkable about this novel is that it has been written by a convicted Australian criminal who escaped high security prison of Australia and entered India on fake passport. The author, “Gregory David Roberts” has based the novel on his real life, so the initial part of novel is taken from his own life. But after that he surly has mixed it up with lot of fiction.
There are three main characters in this novel- Shantaram, Karla and KhaderBhai. The Novel revolves around Bombay mafia headed by KhaderBhai and stories of people working with him. There are a few more highlighted characters like- Prabakar and Abdullah. The chief protagonist, Shantaram enters India on fake passport, reaches Bombay and tries to mingle in there. Initially, he does some petty criminal jobs like currency exchange and drugs selling, but slowly he gets dragged into the KhaderBhai’s Bombay mafia gang. In the initial days when he finishes up with his money, he starts living in slums, where he helps people with his basic first aid skills, opening his own small clinic there. Prabakar was the Bombay tour guide he had hired on his first day in Bombay, and Prabakar becomes one of his best friend in Bombay. The slum dwellers love this foreign guy so much for his simplicity and willingness to mix.
A significant portion of novel describes his life in slum, his willingness to mix with poor people, his compassionate and kind nature for people in suffering. He also eagerly learns the Marathi language. Prabakar takes him to his native village in Maharashtra, and there Prabakar’s parents give him the name- “Shantaram”. Prabakar himself had given him a short name “Lin”, and the slum dwellers used to call him “LinBaba” with respect.
Paralally, the story moves in three more dimensions. First is his hangouts at the famous Leopard cafe, where he makes 4-5 great friends. Second is his love relationship with the girl Karla, who happens to be another foreigner on the run in Bombay. And third is his life in the companionship of KhaderBhai.
His life with KhaderBhai, is what takes major part of the novel. KhaderBhai’s mafia used to have a council system where all the privileged council members used to meet at regular intervals to discuss mafia things, and more so, to discuss philosophy- which was the favourite hobby of KhaderBhai! So Shantaram, even though not a council members, used to get invited there for philosophical discussions. And slowly, he grew closer to KhaderBhai. They used to have long spiritual, philosophical discussions many times, and those part of books are really fascinating to read. Like this quote by KhaderBhai-
“In order to know about any act or intention or consequence, we must first ask two questions. One, what would happen if everyone did this thing? Two, would this help or hinder the movement toward complexity?’
Even otherwise, the novel is full of philosophical quotes which make you stop and think about the deep meaning intended to be conveyed. Like take this one-
“One of the ironies of courage, and the reason why we prize it so highly, is that we find it easier to be brave for someone else than we do for ourselves alone.”
Things take a sudden turn in story when KhaderBhai prepares to leave for Afghanistan to help Afghans in the war with Russians. He was an Afghan and his villagers were involved in the war with Russians. He was going to smuggle arms and money to Afghanistan. He had contacts in Pakistan and so, he left with his entire gang, for Afghanistan, via Pakistan. Shantaram too left along. Somewhere along the journey, he came to know of a very bitter reality about KhaderBhai which made him fight with him. KhaderBhai was like a father figure for him, but he felt betrayed and broken.
Things moved on, he came back to India, but KhaderBhai got killed by Russians in the journey. After his death, the story takes a downhill. The equation in KhaderBhai’s Bombay mafia changes. It becomes “Sanjay Gang”, and the story gets rolling fast. Karla gets married to someone else. Shantaram moves in with another girl Lisa. Life slowly moves on for all… till the next series of novel in the sequel.
The uniqueness of this novel is in it’s style of story telling. The story is such a perfect mix of love, betrayal, suspense, thrill, and philosophy. The story gives such an immersive experience to the reader. You get completely involved with the narrative. You will start wishing that everything happens good between Lin and Karla, that their heart comes out of the pains inflicted by the past. You starts wishing well for all the characters. When Shantaram gets a feeling of betrayal by knowing about the reality of KhaderBhai, you also feels the equal amount of shock and surprise. Even though most part of the novel is fictitious, it appears so real. Even though the novel is just too thick- almost 950 pages- it hardly bores you. This is a perfect novel for someone who likes philosophical discourse, as well a love story full of struggle and mystery. Highly recommended novel, if you haven’t already read it.
P.S.- This novel has several, wonderful quotable quotes, and I have put up another blog-post compiling them all. You can read them here.