Shantaram is the story of a runaway criminal Lin, who manages to escape a high-security prison in Australia and travels to Mumbai by forging documents for a new identity.
The book is reminiscent of an era gone by when the Mumbai Mafia was rising to its glory. When youth from across the country came to Mumbai and did not flinch at the prospect of becoming a hired gun for one of the power gangs in the City of Dreams. Amidst the hustle bustle of drug trafficking, prostitutes, and gangsters, Lin has a mesmerizing journey of rooting himself to this city.
On his arrival, Lin runs into that one man who would remain his friend for life and become his foster brother and acquires his Indian name, Shantaram. As he continues his journey, Lin is lucky enough to attract the right kind of people, who help him survive in the madness of the city. And thus begins a tale of friendship, love, manipulation, and betrayal.
In this exciting journey of breaking free from his past demons and finding a new purpose in life, Lin’s quest for love and association finds satiation from his experiences of living in a slum, having friends, finding employment with his mentor -philosopher- friend who also happens to be a mafia don. Even love finds its way into his life in the form of a beautiful, mystic and dangerous Karla. Yet he relentlessly struggles to get himself a legal identity which he abandoned when he left Australia.
Lin Down the Memory Lane
Though Lin has done a good job of rooting himself in this foreign land, the author often sends his hero down the memory lane, where he misses his family mostly his mother and his kid. Every time he is surrounded by warmth and happiness of new associations, he can’t but help thinking about an almost accomplished life he has long given up hopes of returning to.
The Human side of the Criminal
The story transitions very smoothly amidst a lot of drama and thrill as Lin evolves emotionally. This is noteworthy because Lin has a very practical view to life. Yet he finds himself being tied down by expectations of people around him, who consider him to be a ‘good-hearted man’. There are not one or two but several people who touch upon his life and help him carve a new life in this foreign land.
The Foreigner Hero in Local Land
Intentionally or otherwise, Lin is drawn into situations where his tenderness and urge to help others highlights the kindness in his heart. A series of events even leads him to become the local slum hero which accentuates his sense of belongingness.
Lin the Philosopher
At various points in the course of this semi-autobiographical hard-hitter, Lin is seen getting philosophical while pondering on the purpose of life and meaning of relationships. Most of the philosophical reverie is in line with the plot, yet at times it tends to stretch too much diluting its own essence.
I have read at least 3-4 of Hussain Zaidi’s non-fictional accounts of the rise and fall of several gangsters from the slums of South Mumbai. I have found all of them to be very captivating and intriguing. Shantaram is a welcome deviation as a fictional account of a foreign character in the same landscape. If you wish to experience the Mumbai of the 80s and yet again fall into a love-hate relationship with the city, you should definitely pick it up.
“The ones who betray us are the ones on whom we rest too much of our trust”. This book reinstates my belief in this statement by a learned man and the author’s infallible account of the same makes you live through the turmoil of learning to fly, burning to ashes and then rising up like a phoenix.
This monster of a book with its 900+ pages had been on my shelf for almost 4 years. Finally this year I braved myself to pick it up and read it. The length of the book is so because the author has experienced most of what he has written first hand and has left nothing to chance for the readers to imagine or presume. Though this book is a captivating plot that ensures that you do not leave it mid-way, I would have preferred it cut down by at least 100-150 pages.