Saturday, January 12

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

In 1980 Australian Roberts, less than two years into a nineteen-year sentence for a series of armed robberies to fund his heroin habit, broke out of Melbourne’s most secure jail and became Australia’s most wanted man.
Using a New Zealand passport, Roberts travelled through Europe, Asia and Africa, but he spent most of the following decade in India, primarily in Bombay. From his first day he felt a connection with the city and its people, and over time he became one of them – he became fluent in Hindi and Marathi, lived in five star hotels and had a hut in one of the slums, was a street soldier for a branch of the Bombay Mafia and set up a free medical clinic, found Western tourists to work as extras in Bollywood spectaculars and almost died in prison.
Roberts identifies as a writer and he kept notes throughout his journey, capturing with extraordinary vividness the characters he met, the friends he made, and the chaotic, mellifluous, aromatic, joyous, desperately poor cacophony of the city and its people. I was captured from the paragraph:

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 in 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 a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

The language is considered, descriptive and poetic, and philosophical themes emerge frequently throughout, but at 935 pages I began to weary of it, and of Roberts. Maybe, if I'd taken a break, I would have felt differently, but toward the end finishing the book felt like one of the Herculean labours - clean the stables, slay assorted, unslayable, creatures, capture uncapturable other creatures, finish Shantaram...

I found the lack of a clear timeframe, both in sections and over the length of the book, irritating. And the ending doesn't indicate any kind of resolution or significant event (like Roberts being discovered or captured), it just... happens. Well, there is a sequel in the works. I think I'll wait for the movie. - Alex

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