by Sam Bright
Gregory David Roberts is no ordinary author. His own life story, much of which is apparently a matter of public record, is quite fantastic: a budding Australian academic with anarchist tendencies, the collapse of his marriage saw him turn to heroin and a rather quaint (if deplorable) spell as ‘The Gentleman Bandit’, politely staging hold-ups with a plastic gun to feed his habit. Needless to say, on capture he was sentenced to a long spell in prison, and after breaking the rules found himself in solitary confinement. Unable to bear the hardships of prison life, he escaped and fled to Mumbai.
This back story sets the scene for his novel Shantaram. Roberts insists that the novel is fiction, and not an autobiography: this is not hard to believe. Lin, the narrator and protagonist, is embroiled in a quite improbable world of poverty, organized crime, Afghan insurgency, love, redemption and, most implausibly, survival. Yet the line between fact and fiction is quite evidently blurred. Lin shares the same background as the author: up to his arrival in Mumbai, there is no reason to consider the book anything other than biographical.
I am no literary critic. For a review considering this book purely as a work of literature, please see elsewhere. For what it’s worth, I consider it a gripping read. Certainly, there are quite a number of clichéd passages of philosophical introspection, and if the author were to claim that Lin fully represented himself then I would agree that he holds himself in far to high an esteem. Nonetheless, a thrilling book.
What critically concerns me is the truth that Roberts speaks about life in one of the world’s most implausible cities, and its relation to the education I received in the few months I spent working nearby when I left school.
Anyone who has visited Mumbai must fully relate to the opening chapters. His description of how he first experiences the city is familiar to us all: the smell. “It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats”. And it is some smell. Aged 18, I spent 4 months working near the city. Unlikely as it seems, I am certain I could smell it even before the plane landed. The stench is quite something: and much of it emanates from Mumbai’s rotting mountains of garbage. The urban Indian seems to have a quite special relationship with rubbish, and the concept of a ‘bin’ is somewhat alien. This gives the life-cycle of litter an essential place in the life-cycle of the city. Rubbish is dumped in the nearest convenient location, be it a food packet dropped to the ground or kitchen appliances tossed onto the nearest scrap heap. This detritus is collected by some of the world’s most necessary and maligned workers. Gangs of children will scour the street and the scrap heaps for anything salvageable. Which is a surprising amount. Bottle lids, scrap metal, electrical parts from kitchen appliances: all have a resale value if you know the right people. A dangerous profession, however. Two children I cared for had been orphaned when their mother was electrocuted whilst scavenging parts from a washing machine, unfortunately still connected to the mains.
On arrival, Lin finds himself living in the slums. No mean feat, for a middle class white man. Working there as a (slightly incompetent, but hard working) doctor, he finds the experience most rewarding. For a man on the run, uncertain whether he will ever see his family again, unable to trust anyone for fear that they will report him to the authorities, acceptance as part of a community is a salve for a broken spirit. Time and again throughout the book, he favourably contrasts his life in the slum with the wealthy and glamourous life he enjoys as a gangster. It is the bond of people living in enforced closeness and who mutually rely on each other’s support that so enriches his life. In monsoon season, he finds himself recruited to work as part of the team of men tasked with cleaning every gutter and drain in the slum. The Mumbai monsoon is something special: the poor waste disposal systems mean that when the water reaches knee height (not uncommon) you can find yourself wading through a filthy sludge, infested with faeces, litter and general grime. There is the constant fear of the spread of water-borne diseases, and as in Shantaram, there can be sudden outbreaks of killers such as cholera.
Yet surely it cannot be the case that a man is happier sleeping in a ramshackle hut, barely big enough to fit his sleeping body, with nothing that we lucky westerners would consider furniture, than in an expensive apartment, with space to think, read, and watch TV? That is to ignore the delights of living in a genuine community. We evolved by way of mutual assistance. We are social animals, who, faced with the opportunity and imperative, delight in working together. It is no surprise that Lin finds this an escape from the isolation of the rest of his life.
And what a life the rest of it is. Roberts takes Lin on a journey to the upper echelons of the Mumbai Mafia, dealing in forged passports, black-market money, and arms-smuggling along the way. Of course, I have no idea whether this is a fair representation of the Indian underworld. But what does strike me is the repeated suggestion that these goondas (gangsters, apparently) are frequently men of honour. It is easy to divide the world into good men and bad. From my (our?) middle class perspective, the good are those who work hard, earn an honest living, treat their family well, and obey the law. The bad are those who fail on any of those counts.
Yet that is to ignore the confluence of social and personal factors that drive a person to ‘fail’ on any one of those measures. As Roberts suggests, you can find ‘honourable’ gangsters, who use their illegally gained patronage and power to benefit not just their own but also those who turn to them for help. Such is the role of Khaderbai, Lin’s Mafiosi mentor who owns a slum of 25,000 and who is regularly seen intervening on the behalf of those who seek his patronage in their disputes with their neighbors and the authorities. Much like Vito Corleone in The Godfather, he refuses to extend his operations to the lucrative narcotics and pornography industries on the grounds that they are particularly immoral lines of work. At the same time, you find policemen who live for the bribe, beating innocent men for fun and turning a blind eye to crime where sufficient money changes hands. Judge the deed and not the man, is the message; one which we might perhaps take heed of when being led by a pantomime media that loves the black and the white, with no acknowledgment of the vast shades of grey that govern most of our lives.
Disappointingly, the most common description of Roberts’ mighty tome is ‘drivel’. Equally commonplace is the suggestion that the author has placed his head a long way up a certain part of his own anatomy. A close third is the accusation that his work is packed with racist stereotypes. There is, perhaps, an element of truth in all of these. Despite this, I would recommend Shantaram to two groups: anyone who wants an honest account of what it is like to first experience India’s most populous city; and anyone with an interest in the myriad of impulses and relationships that shape the lives of those not living in western, middle-class comfort, and the joys that can be derived from their more communal lives.