Monday, April 01, 2013

Shantaram

I think everyone agrees it's a thick book. But how thick a book is has little do with how physically thick it is and more to do with how it's written. The book to me is three parts and an epilogue. A rather long rambling review. But the book is 900+ pages so...



Part one.
This is the most beautiful part of the book. The literary style flows like poetry describing the most intricate details of the lives of people in Mumbai that will be engraved in your heart. It sets the reader through a voyage of humanity and what it really means to live and let live in conditions that would otherwise be uninhabitable. I use the word voyage and not journey because it isn't something solid or tangible, but letting yourself flow through the ebbs and tides of all feelings that rush at you. Unlike many other foreign authors captivated by the Indian poverty, Shantaram actually understands them. He understands why people fight tooth and nail to get a seat in general compartment and understands why after the train starts moving people settle down amicably. Like he says you need to surrender to India, and surrender he did. The slum, the village, foreigners who call Mumbai their home, all of them have that in common, to surrender and to accept, which is not a weakness but are the strength to survive. A simple, loving life that fights for survival everyday without even noticing it. That to me is India and that is why this part of the book I loved and laughed and cried with.

Part two.
Here is there is this random for-what-love-of-god-do-we-need-that-character Madame Zhou woman and the rather obviousness that it was she who trapped Lin (no longer Shantaram) in the jail. And then the prison and the cruelty of it. Rather disgusting detail of the conditions, the fights, the lice and the worm infested water. I'm not sure if it is true or if it is a massive exaggeration. Slum life wasn't really exaggerated so may be this wasn't either but I can't be too sure. Anyhow here the author begins to lose this readers but not entirely because we are still reading through this random life and hoping that there is light at the end of the tunnel and something great will then happen. But it doesn't. Oddly enough Lin gets out in an hour after someone sees him and he does not go back to his simple slum life. He goes on to become a member of the massive black economy that the overlord Khader Bhai runs. But still it's a life that is believable and everyone knows that there is a massive black market in Mumbai whether or not we have encountered it. So it isn't hard to understand but hard to relate to. We still continue to read in the hope of a massive turning point. But about this time I sort of understand where this is going and then comes part 3. (I had hope of the Sapna story leading to some kind of epicness and was majorly disappointed).

Part three.
Like I mentioned, I understand where it's going and I keep expecting Lin (never again Shantaram) to get involved deeper and deeper into the black economy until he is suffocated by it (and hope he comes out). So he does. And our frightful friendly overlord who trades in currencies and fake passports is suddenly party in a jihad in Afghanistan by trading in arms. Now the author completely lost me. And many of my friends who could not finish the book sighted this point is when they closed the book. Not to say it's not an interesting topic to some. But if it were I would be reading another book based on that and not a book called Shataram. So anyway he goes through the journey. On it he feels cheated by some people he trusted. He comes back miraculously alive.

Epilogue.
I call it epilogue because it sounds like it. The writing has the haste in it to quickly complete the book and in order to do that the author ties up the loose ends quickly. Lin's love is marrying another man. The overlord is dead and there are new factions. A dead man is alive again. The Sapna story dies a premature death. Some other couples have happy endings that were not necessary since we didn't know much about those couples anyway. The group of friends have changed. Some people died, some people left and some people just changed. The face of Mumbai has changed. Time to pack up and go. If you hadn't closed the book already you would be glad that you are about to.

I thought the book was about India, or more precisely Mumbai, or more precisely how this foreign criminal on the run found salvation and redemption on the streets of Mumbai. And not from gurus like how most of the west believes but from the collective common people. I was elated when I began the book but soon enough I was disappointed. The book cannot be titled Shantaram. The only reason I completed the book was that I already invested time in it and I did not want to give it the elite status of joining the list of fiction books I could not complete.

There is another thing that irks me. That it's loosely based on the author's real life. That the author was a heroin addict, committed armed robberies to feed his addiction, escaped from a maximum security prison, and landed in Mumbai with possibly some of the stuff in this book being true. And he is famous and rich and most would say successful because of this book?