Shantaram is a book that sat on my book shelf for a very long time. At 946 pages, it’s certainly not a light literary snack! For a commuter, lugging such a heavy book around is not ideal. However I decided to start reading it while I was on Christmas holidays. It ended up taking me the entire month of January and by the end my hands ached from holding the heavy book!
This book has well and truly secured itself a spot on my list of favourite books of all time.
After reading a lot of reviews online, I can see that there are many people who got quite sick of the author and his tales, in the same way many people (me included) really started to dislike Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. However with Shantaram, for me, the more I read, the more I loved Greg. I think I’ve now watched every single interview of him on youtube.
I learnt a lot from this book, which I’ll share below, however a quick summary for those who don’t know the back story:
Gregory David Roberts was an Aussie journo in the 80s, whose life fell apart after his wife had an affair and ran away to America. He raised his daughter alone for 18 months before his wife came back and managed to win full custody of their child. She took his 5 year old daughter to America leaving Greg completely alone. On the night she left, a group of friends came over to console him and one person brought along heroin for comfort. Some friend…
Greg became an overnight junkie, numbing all his woes in heroin. After he’d sold everything he owned to pay for his habit he started robbing banks. He used a toy gun, and became known in the 80s as the Australian Building Society Bandit. People actually described him as the Gentlemen bandit because despite stealing money from them, he did so with good manners and many apologies.
Eventually he was caught and sentenced to 20 years in jail. However only 2 years into the sentence he escaped in broad day light from Melbourne’s maximum security prison and he stayed on the run for 10 years. For 8 of those years he lived in Bombay.
While in Bombay, he worked in a slum, acted in Bollywood movies, got sent to prison again and was tortured (this part was actually really hard to read) and he also got involved in the Bombay Mafia which saw him work as a drug runner, counterfeiter and also go to Afghanistan.
So why did I love this book so much? There were two main reasons.
1) Gregory really captures what I imagine to be the soul of Bombay (now, Mumbai). I’ve read a lot of books about or set in India. But none have made me want to go there as much as this.
2) I realised how judgemental I am.
This book made me think long and hard about how I look at total strangers. I’ve looked up pictures of Gregory and in some of the photos of him from before all these experiences, I see a hard man who I’d never have had anything to do with in real life. He’d be exactly the kind of person I’d cross the street to avoid. He’s the kind of person that I’d have once believed had earned his place in jail.
But. After reading Shantaram I have been confronted by my sterotypical mind set about criminals. Before I got to ‘know him’ there I was, judging and blaming.
Obviously his book is just one side of a long, complicated story. And Greg himself does not wish to be forgiven for the fear and stress he caused others.
But I guess what I took from this book is that I now want to try harder to understand why some people’s lives take such a dark turn. Why is it that people turn to crime? Often it’s because of drugs and alcohol, but what is it that makes people develop those addictions in the first place? And after reading how Greg was treated in both an Australian jail and an Indian jail, I now wonder whether it’s really the right place to treat troubled people. Is there any other place? Any other way? Sure, he broke the law and did some horrible stuff. But he’d also been through some horrible stuff. Maybe all he needed was help? Not punishment. Maybe it could have all been different.
I really think that if someone had helped him break his drug addiction and someone had helped him see his daughter, the rest of his story could have been very different.
I hope that I can now be a more empathetic person.
For me, Shantaram is reflective, intelligent writing. I loved it. I demand a sequel! Don’t be daunted by its size. Read it.