Shantaram

by on May 17, 2007 at 2:37 pm in Books | Permalink

This 936-page romantic canvas of the Indian underworld, and the adventures of one scoundrel therein, is one of the best bad books I have read.  Try this passage:

It seemed impossible that a modern airport, full of prosperous and purposeful travellers, was only kilometers away from those crushed and cindered dreams.

It is a must for all lovers of Bombay.  Here is information on the author, who was an anarchist, escaped criminal, and heroin dealer before hitting it big.  Most of this tale draws upon his life.  Buy it here; if you think you might like it you will.

a guy May 17, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Would you mind differentiating between what is a “best good book” and a “best bad book”?

happyjuggler0 May 17, 2007 at 7:31 pm

Airports are often (usually?) located next to some of the poorest neighborhoods. Who wants to live next to all that noise and rattling?

Which isn’t to say anything about the book one way or the other, I’m just saying there is nothing ironic there.

eriks May 17, 2007 at 11:28 pm

I’m with a guy here. I think that needs more explaining, Tyler.

Rahul Bhatia May 18, 2007 at 2:53 am

Forget the airport, Happyjuggler. Bombay’s full of noise and rattling wherever you go.

Russ Nelson May 18, 2007 at 10:17 am

Mumbai is pretty quiet at 4am.

Michael May 18, 2007 at 12:45 pm

For me, as a former peace corp volunteer who lived in Mumbai for a couple of years and worked in its slums, the book brought back the sights, smells, and sounds of Mumbai in all its complex glory. And yes, it’s clearly a novel not an economic treatise or fact filled autobiography. I think “best bad book” is an apt description.

Vasco May 29, 2007 at 6:05 am

I guess not all books need to be a literary masterpiece to be great pieces of fiction. Even if some sections of the book are dreadfully pretentious(particularly the descriptions of his love for Karla) Shantaram reads great and plunges you into a world not really exposed everyday in the western world. I’ve spent some time in India 10 years ago and it felt like yesterday as I read through Shantaram.

bobbie July 9, 2007 at 3:42 pm

this is the best book i have ever read, it’s an amazing piece of fiction drawing on real life events. some may say it’s pretentious in parts and they may be right but it is an honest book and honesty is a depressingly pretentious trait. it reads like poetry in many parts and all the best poetry is pretentious. anyone who has ever been to india will love this book almost as much as they must love india-its reflective of the intensity, brutality and beauty of india. i love it!!

Richard August 14, 2007 at 12:15 am

This book should have won the Booker Prize. Of course it didn’t, and it won’t, but that is
a reflection on the literary establishment, rather than the other way around. For all the sentence
tuners out there, look for the force behind the plain language and simple writing, and compare
it to the mindless garbage that sometimes hides behind a thesaurus re-written as a literary
novel.

Leny September 6, 2007 at 12:18 am

It’s a wonderful book. If you have not written a masterpiece that could
stand in the same ranks then you are not in a position to criticise.
To say it is not the truth, than you must somehow believe you are close
to the story and know what the truth about Gregory’s life is, and
unless you are, than you are the person who is not honest. It’s credibility
as an autobiography is not something a passionate reader would have
considered, but rather the message that can be found within his novel.
I’m glad some people were touched by this read and it made a
difference to their lives as it did mine, maybe for others the message
was not so obvious. Who here as ad the chance to share their life
philosophy with the world. I wonder if people questioned your honesty.

gazpop October 19, 2007 at 10:48 am

hmmm, some good points made people, some a little more bitter? All this talk of real-life experiences
and is it really autobiographical, or semi-autobiographical, maybe we’re missing the point somewhat…
I dont think Oliver Twist’s story of early life reflected that of Charles Dickens, nor do I believe that
the plot twists and machinations of Macbeth had much relevence in relation to the Bard himself (The Bard?)
but I equally dont love or hate those pieces of fiction (ancient novels? pre-Robinson Crusoe? anyone?)
more or less because of it….you take or leave what you so decide to from most pieces of written work;
the special ones are the ones that force something inside of you, regardless of ur thoughts on the work.
examples anyone?……and in that I believe the author has succeeded……..just like Papillon did….
i better leave it there for now……whats with the next chapter anybody? :)

Kristy January 13, 2008 at 5:17 am

I also adored reading Shantaram. I know it is easy to get bogged down in the little faults, but I feel that ultimately the novel is a fantastic read, and we should be able to admire it as such without holding onto the little things that could have been better. It was, of course, very melodramatic, but, as others have already commented, I am sure this is purposeful, giving the novel the heightened reality and drama of a Bollywood film. The language Robert’s uses makes the story a joy to read. It’s not often you read a novel combining an extraordinary story with beautiful language.
And, like you Josh, it was good to miss it so much you punch the title into Google!

Stacie January 21, 2008 at 1:48 pm

I also agree that the book is fantastic. The book is fully of artful use of language and I dare say the quote at the top of this page doesn’t do his work justice. A better example might be, “…the moon was shining silver medal pinned to the chest of the sky…”

Anyway, for you doubters, you know it’s gotta be good if they’re making a movie out of it and I heard Madonna is going to be in it.

I highly recommend this book (or the audiobook as Chicago recommended).

sabine mackinnon February 15, 2008 at 7:48 am

Hear, hear, I fully agree with you Jim. I still have not quite finished reading the book but I love being transported into this different world. I am glad someone else lived it , real or not – as I would never have had the courage myself. Why is it that people cannot just enjoy an easy but riveting read without feeling the need to critise and disect?? I bet they also underline passages in library books and write critiques into the margins.Ghastly. I think its a great read.

barbryn March 19, 2008 at 9:39 am

Melodramatic, occasionally unlikely, very long and with a tendency to hammer home the author’s philosophical ideas… but enough about “War and Peace”. I’m in awe of this book. The passage above may veer towards cliche (though I quite like ‘cindered dreams’), but the actual descriptions of living in the slum were a real eye-opener – and, like so much of the book, felt entirely authentic, which surely matters more than the author’s biographical details. Have to disagree with the criticism of Prabaker’s dialogue, too – yes, it was done for comic effect, but with such love – it certainly didn’t seem to me to be laughing at.

鑽石 April 2, 2008 at 8:18 pm
john July 2, 2008 at 7:34 am

900 plus pages but no mention of the guts of India,that is,caste

Kiran Sasikumar August 23, 2008 at 6:39 am

“I am sometimes disillusioned with the critics of any literary work. Sometimes it seems they lack an inherent taste and are incapable of recognising beauty. Criticism is mostly surrounded around writing styles and formats and a good piece of writing according to this school, is expected to be a testament to the style that traditionalists endorse.

But shouldn’t writing be all about freedom, freedom to nonchalantly express our depest thoughts, in a tempest of emotions, in the seemingly unnoticeable corner of our hearts? Thus, it is only when the writer exudes the confidence to break the shackles that tradition adorns one with, can true beauty be associated with the literary work, a work that is coruscating with the resplendence of a timeless classic, for history shows that as far time is concerned there is nothing more fickle than tradition.”

I felt so while reading a few reviews above. There were even comments like converting a thesauras into a literary piece. But come on give the guy a break. He wrote this book from prison. This was his way to experience freedom while being all locked up. So why care if he has used many rare English words, why care if the book has more melodrama making it novelish, contrary to claims that it is a real life story? Understand the context in which he is writing the book and you must be one heck of a perfectionist to claim that Shantaram is not a nice read.

Martine August 25, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Good comments! My book club read this and (as I am the odd woman out most often) I found curious how well tney received it. Yes, it’s entertaining and occasionally a well-turned phrase. But not great literature. A deep dunk into the subterranean world of swindles, half-truths and danger from the friend you thought you knew — engaging and enthralling plot twists. Good job Mr. Roberts – I had a boyfriend once who had the same obsessions.

Sam September 11, 2008 at 12:59 pm

It’s a great book and I really enjoyed reading.

However I dislike how he is constantly massaging the cliches of moral-goodness.

Also, I just absolutely hate the character of Karla. I found her tedious throughout the book with her crap philosopher-of-the-day persona.

sue September 19, 2008 at 5:03 am

its a great read,a truly gripping NOVEL. interesting how the protagonist endured the extremities of torture, war, violence and each time found a new meaning to life.
As a ‘Mumbaikar’ now living abroad, evoked memories of the city that never sleeps.

Param September 27, 2008 at 3:14 am

A book is not about words and phrases .Its all about meaning they have. Book is a journey that we readers take with the author when we physically cant go there.Learn from his mistakes when we can’t do them. This book is a wonderful read. It deserves booker or not is best left to the judges and they have there reasons. But as a reader it gave me all I wanted from it. Although some part are very much fictional but the overall picture is perfect. I will recommend it to any one who doesn’t fret about the words or literary quality but just loves reading

Gareth November 1, 2008 at 9:45 pm

It’s interesting how many people keep bringing up the fact that the book is “poorly written”, but fail to make any kind of distinction about what specifically is wrong with the prose. It just seems to be a blank card that people are able to pull out to criticize the book, without actually saying anything of substance. I can see why people are grated by Linbaba’s super-hero portrayal. I also can understand people being put off by the somewhat gushy nature of some of the descriptive passages (especially of Karla), but these are subjective – you like them or your don’t. It has nothing to do with the prose.

Of course, everyone has their own opinion and I’m not going to say that anyone who didn’t like the book is wrong and I am right. What I will say though, is that to judge this book on its literary proficiency is missing the point: Shantaram is a book written from the heart, not from the head, which is why it often wanders into the realm of sentimentality, to the point of fault. However, for me, the book was so heartfelt that I was able keep my cynicism in check and overlook these small flaws.

What it boils down to, is that the book should be judged on how it moves you. If Lin’s personal message for Prabu after the accident doesn’t move you to tears, then it has failed, for you – fair enough. There are though, many, many people around the world who have been deeply moved by this book and it seems a little flippant to dismiss it by saying it is “poorly written”, especially given the fact that it took him 6 years in prison to write it, only to have to spend 7 years writing it again after the prison guards destroyed the only copy!

With regards to the biographical nature, most of the major events all really happened (apart from the Sapna killings), but have probably been “novelized”. Most of the the characters, dialogue and minor events were fictitious. I’m not sure though, that this should even come into consideration. It is a work of fiction, which draws upon real events experienced by the author (as all fiction, and indeed all art does), yet it seems that people have taken to obsessing over how much of it, and which parts of it are real. Some people for example, despair to find out that Prabu is not real. The point is, that the love Lin expresses is Roberts’s genuine, heartfelt love. Prabu being a fictional character doesn’t invalidate Roberts’s love, it just gives it an outlet and a point of focus in his novel. Prabu was probably created from an amalgamation of different people whom Roberts met in Mumbai and he poured his love and affection into the character.

One final thought is that the works of Alexandre Dumas, at their time of publishing were considered to be nothing more than good adventurous yarns with no literary worth (much in the same way that Shantaram is viewed) – he was, pretty much the Dan Brown of his day. Now they are revered as some of the 19th century’s greatest works. I’m not comparing Roberts to Dumas, but just noting how fickle the opinions of the literary elitists become over time.

ashok jha February 8, 2009 at 7:20 am

i have not yet finished the book but can’t stop the urge to vomit my thought. certainly a book just not put-downable. has the all the ingredients to captivate and capture you. i have been to bombay but can’t claim i have seen it draped in colors it is popilarly known to it’s lovers. but the images that gregory has forced in the 900+ pages, is to remain etched in memory for ever and may be when i go to bombay next time, i may look at it as has been described by him.isn’t this say all about writer’s strength?

ashok jha

CN May 12, 2009 at 8:19 am

I feel misled by this book. I enjoyed it immensely as a biographical tale, but am left with a sour taste as it appears that it is more of a tale with a mere taste of biography. I think it is intentional blurring of the lines between two neccessarily separate types of prose. I would read these two types quite differently. I recently loaned my copy to a friend with a recommendation. I am now going to retract that. I thought I was reading Charriere, but I was really reading Clive Cussler.

costume fly October 23, 2009 at 6:37 pm

I just finished this book last night. It was an interesting read. Looking forward to the movie.

Lin December 7, 2010 at 9:13 am

What the fuck are you guys talking about?…
dear stupid-to-the-edge-of-being-irritating-DIDIER,
if you found it so very repulsive, why in god’s name did you read through 780-odd pages of torture?…

dear ashok,
nice point!

All i want to say is, read the book. Enjoy it. If you fail to enjoy it, then become human and read it again.

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