I thought this was an autobiography, but according to the Australian author it is a novel influenced by real events in his life. In 1978, Roberts was sentenced to 19-year imprisonment in Australia after being convicted of a series of armed robberies of building societies, credit unions and shops. In July 1980, he escaped from Victoria’s Pentridge Prison in broad daylight, thereby becoming one of Australia's most wanted men for the next ten years.
The protagonist Lindsay (according to the book, Roberts' fake name) arrives in Mumbai carrying a false passport in the name of Lindsay Ford. Mumbai was supposed to be only a stopover as he planned to go to Germany. However he decides to stay in the city.
One day he is robbed and with all his possessions gone, Lin is forced to live in the slums which shelters him from the authorities. He grows fond of the slum dwellers and sets up a free health clinic as a way to contribute to the community. I particularly enjoyed this part of the book and the descriptions of the health care, stench, rats, feral dogs and how the close knit community dealt with fire and cholera and their day to day struggle to survive.
The author describes the rich diversity of people he meets in Mumbai with the different lifestyles, culture and customs, the huge disparity between the rich and poor, the corruption and squalor. He tells of various criminal operations he is involved with after his recruitment into the Mumbai underworld and the traumatic time he spent in Mumbai’s notorious Arthur Road Prison where he suffered brutal physical abuse and starvation. Once released from prison he gets involved in smuggling weapons into Afghanistan for the mujahideen freedom fighters. There are so many instances in the book where Lin is badly beaten up, shot, stabbed and tortured it seems impossible for a body to sustain such injuries and survive. I’m surprised he had a functioning body left. It seems incredible that a person could survive such horrendous violence and not be totally disabled physically, mentally and emotionally.
It’s things like this that make it hard to get my head around how I feel about this book.I have recommended it to loads of people because for me it is a memorable read and a page turner. I preferred the first half, I enjoyed the author’s humour and grew very fond of some of the characters in the book.
I really felt I was in India although incidentally I have never had a desire to visit the country and nothing could entice me to go there having read the book. Roberts has stated the characters in the story are largely invented, and that he merged different elements taken from true events and people into the plot and characters in the book. It’s impossible to know where the boundaries lie between fact and fiction, either way, it sounds pretty grim.
I didn’t like the the criminal activities Lin got involved in, he was a counterfeiter, smuggler, gun runner and street soldier for the Bombay mafia. I found it all pretty sordid and distasteful and don’t see how he could justify his activities especially the horrendous violence and murders he or his mafia colleagues perpetrated. He says he never killed anyone - but he didn’t seem to balk at stabbing and beating or kicking people half to death. It often seemed like he was boasting about being a hard man and the fear the gangsters instilled as they swaggered around.
In 1990, in real life, not recorded in the book, Roberts was captured in Frankfurt after being caught smuggling heroin into the country. He was extradited to Australia and served a further six years in prison, two of which were spent in solitary confinement. During his second stay in Australian prison, Roberts began writing the novel Shantaram. He claims the manuscript was destroyed by prison wardens, twice, while Roberts was writing it.
On completing his prison sentence, Roberts established a small multi-media company and was finally reunited with his daughter. He is now a full-time writer living in Melbourne. Since then Roberts has lived in Melbourne, Germany and France. He returned to Mumbai where he set up charitable foundations to assist the city's poor with health care coverage. He got engaged to Francoise Sturdza, who is the president of the Hope for India Foundation. You can see images of him on the internet. So he seems to have turned over a new leaf, putting his talents, energy and intelligence to good use including helping the impoverished and vulnerable of India - hopefully that’s true.
I had a certain sympathy with one reviewer’s moan which was:
The author's relentlessly inflated opinion of himself. Every other page we're meant to be in awe of the fact he learnt some of the local languages, and is therefore the most amazing Westerner to have ever visited India. Ever. (And every Indian thinks so too, of course.) As another reviewer said wearily: Everybody loves Lin. Simple villagers love him, slum dwellers love him, beautiful ex-prostitutes love him, gangsters love him, Afghani drug lords love him, taxi drivers always love him at a glance and so on and so forth. As a character, he's just unbelievable. And that's without getting into the fact he's absolutely The Best at Everything - from fighting to lovemaking, medicine to philosophy.
This view point was shared with another couple of reviewers who wrote:
Every page of this book is about how everyone loves the author: he is respected by all, is talented at everything, a great judge of character, all Indians respect him for his superior knowledge and experience and of course he is fantastic in bed.
Shantaram is written by the type of person that you would dread getting stuck in a lift with; 'So enough about me. Tell me what you think of me...'