Gregory David Roberts, the author of this semi-autobiographical novel, is an ex-junkie and an ex-con. A one-time gun-runner; dealer in drugs, black-market currencies, and forged passports; favored associated of a Bombay mafia don; escapee from an Australian maximum security prison, Roberts gives us a novel based closely on the events of his remarkable life and calls it Shantaram, "man of peace." You are right to be skeptical. The story's narrator is not a peaceful man and the book is loaded with enough violence to propel the modern Bollywood-styled blockbuster that it's slated to become (starring Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan, directed by Mira Nair, 2009). But then, to get caught up in that is to miss the point; Shantaram is the story of a violent man's search for the man of peace within himself.
The story begins in the early 1980s, with the narrator already a fugitive from the law. Having jumped from the towers of his Australian prison, where he was serving a 19-year sentence for armed robbery, he escaped with the help of friends to Bombay, where he hopes to stay out of trouble and lose himself from the law. He has no plan and little money, nor has he been to India before. But he is almost immediately in love with Bombay and within hours of being in the city, he meets the comically affable, young cab-driver, Prabakar, who, in the course of a day, helps him escape from a scene of mob violence, finds him a cheap hotel, and sets him up with a little dope to smoke. When Prabaker asks to know his name, the fugitive instinctively fishes for a false one and suggests "Lin," short for "Lindsay." Prabakar is tickled by this name, gleefully remarking that it sounds like an Indian word for "dick." Thus, it becomes the appellation for the man who struggles to know himself through the course of the narrative, faltering and stumbling, even as the earnest and loving Prabakar shines ever more brilliantly as the foil to Lin’s depravity.
Within a few days, Lin finds himself settled in Prabakar’s slum, living cheek by jowl with 25,000 of India’s destitute who have migrated from every corner of India to live in this city of dreams. He finds himself cast as the slum “doctor,” dispensing first aid to the stream of humanity that flows past his shanty door, and is quickly drawn into the lives of his neighbors, learning Hindi, making friends, and fully participating in the life of the community. He remains among them for two years, but he never reveals the truth of his past to any of his fellow slum-dwellers.
It is through Roberts’s observations of and attachment to the life of the slum that this book plants its foundation and Lin gropes for his own moral ballast. In vivid detail, Roberts lays out the lives of the slum-dwellers, the everyday mechanics by which they live, aiding each other in times of want, coalescing in a moment into efficient squads to combat floods, fire, and cholera. Justice is reckoned by a headman, who rules solely through the respect of his constituency, and dispensed by the community at large. As Lin is immersed in this cast of characters of every condition and persuasion, each one fully textured and brought to life as individuals with their own aspirations, needs, choices, he marvels at the miracle of it, at its inherent peace. That such a tangled mass of humanity, representing such a multitude of languages, beliefs, and lifestyles, could function as this chaotic, unified whole awes him. It’s only possible, he surmises, because of a kind of love, born of necessity, that fills up the wretched gullies, and spills out on all who come near, even a low-life such as himself.
And this, ultimately, is what Shantaram comes to be about: Love, in all its forms and degrees. The love of our fellows, our parents, our brothers and sisters and friends and mates. The love of ourselves. That most human engagement which drives us, completes us, injures us, heals us, ruins us, saves us. Never pure, simple, or clean, often untrue, it is nevertheless our unavoidable condition and our only hope. For such a tough guy, surprisingly, Roberts never flinches from his subject.