I must have been asleep to have missed this one. A novel published in 2003 that is 350,000 words off the pen of first time novelist Gregory David Roberts. I found it while shopping for Christmas gifts for others. I often buy books at random, if only to expand my reading horizons. In randomly selecting them I have to confess to having to make a conscious decision to ignore the cover design – cover art can attract or repel in equal measure. This one repelled – my snob meter went off the scale, having decided it was an “airport novel”. But something else also caught my eye and ear. The word “Shantaram” meant nothing in itself but it had a ring to it, and with the Satanic Verses currently infusing me with all things Indian I found myself picking this up and idly checking for any details of the author.
At which point I discovered the author was a one time fugitive, heroin addict (which is neither here not there), and who had spent nearly two decades in prison. Of more appeal was the fact that he had escaped maximum security, fled Australia and lived in the slums of Bombay for a period of time, where he set up a free medical clinic. And then found himself living as a smuggler, counterfeiter and street soldier for the local mafia. Suddenly this 900 page book had a lot of appeal and into the bag it went. I have started and have a way to go yet but it is powerfully biographical in nature – I wonder if declaring it a novel is not some way to avoid the pressure to insist it is confessional in any way. And of course I am intrigued to see how this first time author has managed to put his tale together.
A search of the web has turned up any number of interviews with the author, including the video of what looks like a lunchtime presentation by Roberts. They are linked here (only the first, although there are four parts altogether). Here he speaks about the nature of love and the compassion and depths of feeling humans have for each other in the most dire circumstances. Spoken with a resonance of sincerity and insight that puts the rest of us to shame. I am looking forward to reading his journey and discovering what all these experiences turned Roberts into. And into what stock all this living was grafted to produce the fruit it has.
Amazon collated editorial comments can be found here .
Footnote: I see that Jonny Depp will be starring in a movie of the same name (Shantaram).