Saturday, June 23, 2012

Shantaram - A Review!

I have what I would like to call a writer’s block. Blogger’s block would probably be more apt. Some may just brush it as pure laziness while others may give a condescending smile on yet another blogger who lost the steam. Whatever it may really be, but it is true that I can’t bring myself to write any more. Lots of people have asked me why I stopped. I have thought about it a lot and the best explanation I can come up with is that life doesn’t happen to me the way it did 4 years back. I am not as sarcastic as I used to be and I enjoy making fun of people and myself only occasionally now. My life has moved on quite a bit, the people in my life are not the same anymore and times have really changed. It isn’t that life is boring or anything. Infact, there is much more going on. I am busier than ever. But most of my writing now happens in the personal journal rather than this space which has been my venting zone for far too long.

However, every once in a while I do visit this blog as a visitor. Ironically, I have to apply one of the illegal motivations that I used on most of the regular people here on myself to visit my own blog. (FYI, a bribe to self of two plates of panipuri is what usually works). Yeah, its come down to that! I read the stuff and wonder. Sometimes it feels like I am reading a stranger’s life, maybe, even intruding someone’s private space. But then, here I am writing, maybe venting a little bit too, again about something which I don't mind sharing with www at all.. J

So, I just finished reading Shantaram, a magnum opus by Gregory David Roberts. It is an epic autobiographical yet fictional story, running over 900 pages, of an Australian convict who escapes a maximum security prison and finds himself in Mumbai living in a slum, speaking fluent Hindi and Marathi, setting up an illegal clinic for the city’s poorest, spending months in an Indian prison, working for the Mumbai mafia and in some Bollywood movies, going on a war in Afghanistan, beating opium addiction and trying to redeem himself in the midst of many lost loves.

It really is hard to separate fact from fiction in Lindsay Ford’s tale. As per Greg himself, most of the events that find a mention in the book are real but the characters and story are fictional. Lindsay meets a local city guide, Prabaker who becomes his best friend without either of them realizing the depth of the bond. The unusual friendship takes Lindsay or Linbaba, as lovingly called by Prabaker and eventually everyone he knows in Mumbai, to a small village called Sunder in Maharashtra where he actually gets a new name – Shantaram, a man of peace. But it isn’t until Lin goes through an adventurous and brutally tumultuous life marked by faith and philosophy, freedom and betrayal that he comes to measure the full meaning of this name and why he was given the name.

The book deals with detailed description of life and challenges in slums, the brutal yet surprisingly honorable working of the mafia, the innocence and generosity of people who have nothing more to share than a home cooked roti but a heart big enough to encompass the whole world. One of the endearing themes of the book is how Lin falls in love with Mumbai herself. It is a beautiful account of the great city I fell in love with the first time I saw it. The famous Mumbai monsoons, the Leopold's cafe and numerous other places to eat, Ganapati and Haji Ali, the dabbawallas and the Zaveri Bazaar - they all find a mention. But the most beautiful thing about the book, perhaps even the most emotional one, is to see my country and my people through the eyes of an outsider who in the end is no different than one of our own. It is true that Indians, the middle class Indians, not the stinky rich or even today’s information technology junta, are one of the most loving, accommodating and hospitable people in the whole world who somehow make tradition and modern work together in spite of, sometimes because of the contradictions, with a sense of humor like no one else has and a smile and happiness that bubbles forth from the core of existence in spite of everything that goes on in and around them. And when Linbaba tells the tales of these wonderful people, you sometimes find tears making their way into your eyes from the deepest corner of your heart.

The book isn’t without its flaws. It is too long for one and sometimes you just know what is going to happen next. Some of the characters and events are just one too many. Some of the names are made up without any thought or research (like a Sardar named Anand Rao!!). Greg succeeds supremely when he is accounting his facts in the fiction but fails more often than once when it comes to fiction itself. Another thing that I find a bit hard to believe is when Lin says and emphasizes that he never killed another person even when he was in a war engaged as a soldier in one of the most hostile war zones in the world. But the description of Afghanistan and the war is beautiful and heart wrenching at the same time.

It is a very good book. I strongly recommend it. But you will have to give the book a chance. Maybe after the first 100 pages, you will see the big heart of all the characters and the amazing, miraculous life of the author himself.

Is it a masterpiece? Maybe not. But who cares, yaar? No, Linbaba? J