Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Who do you love?

Shantaram: a novel by Gregory David Roberts

I’ve finally finished reading the 900 plus page Shantaram, but probably not ready to report on it.  I may have to update this posting as time goes on, and the book settles in more deeply.  A friend dropped it off in my mailbox, and it was like falling into a deep well, one that I didn’t want to even peek out of, for the last three weeks or so.  All the while I was reading it, I knew it to be an important book, but for so many different reasons.  I couldn’t decide on a singular, most important reason, until I realized it’s about love.
But it’s definitely not your usual love story.  There is a mysterious woman of romantic interest, but the book isn’t about the main character’s wooing her.  Although this book is referred to as a novel, it’s written in the first person by an Australian who lived through much of what he’s writing about here.  As a young man, the author’s life was seemingly derailed by drugs.  As a heroin addict, he committed enough crimes to receive a twenty year jail sentence.  He got off the drugs in prison, honed his first aid skills, built up his body, and escaped.  With false papers and enough money to carry him along for a little while, he fled to Bombay, where he immediately fell in with his usual crowd.  Criminals, junkies and street people.  It’s difficult to know how much of this story is based on the author’s experience and how much he has created for his narrator.

Although the narrator is much warned against touts, he hires one he trusts, and his world is forever changed.  The tout, Prabaker, isn’t a criminal, although he’s happy enough to associate with criminals, and he shows the narrator around, and teaches him Hindi, and eventually Marathi.  The narrator doesn’t disclose his story of crime and jailbreak to Prabaker, or his reasons for secrecy, but Prabaker gives him a new name, Linbaba, which basically means penis, but in a nice way .  With his tendency to wind up among criminals, his prison experiences, his own criminal background, his linguistic skills and sense of adventure, Linbaba becomes a high ranking goonda, or gangster as we say in the West.
None of this sounds remotely like a love story, and yet it is.  The narrator falls madly, passionately in love with Bombay, mostly with a father figure/head gangster/Taliban supporter and philosopher; but also with Prabaker his first friend in Bombay; a number of other Indian, Afghani and Iranian men; and the people in the zhopadpatti, the slum where Prabaker takes him to live.

You might think that with all the gangsters, there is little morality, honour, or dignity.  But somehow, the opposite emerges.  Irony is one of this author’s driving forces, along with his love of humanity.  Before Linbaba was Linbaba, back in Australia, before the heroin, he’d been a philosophy major, although he never completed his studies.  At times, this book seems a little overdone with the philosophical discourses, but ultimately they move to a measured and intelligent outlook on the human condition.

From time to time Roberts lapses into prose that is purple, amethyst, lavender, not to mention mauve.  If you can bear with some overblown descriptions, if you can forgive that caterpillar of sweat that inched down the groove of his spine, or the mangrove that trembled with his desire for his love interest, you can also appreciate his vivid and often humorous descriptions of Bombay and its people.  He’s at his best when he doesn’t try too hard, and when he makes fun of himself.  In one  scene  Prabaker pays a strongman to get Linbaba on the train, and Linbaba is astonished the fellow was willing to do it, even for forty rupees. Prabaker explains the fellow would only do it because he believed that Linbaba was very, very , very, very stupid, and couldn’t possibly get on the train himself, which of course is true.  (It’s extremely difficult to get on a train in India, especially third class.)

There’s another hilarious scene in the zhopadpatti where someone asks if Linbaba’s bad mood may be caused by constipation.  Suddenly all of his neighbors are cheerfully describing the shape and colour of his every bowl movement in the last few weeks.  Yet he feels loved by them, rather than annoyed or embarrassed.  
Roberts embarks on several journeys in this novel, both literal and figurative.  Acceptance, power as opposed to force*, understanding, love of mankind are notions sought and found.  A bear wears a burka , then agrees to be disguised and paraded as Lord Ganesha, characters sing and dance, even atop trains, like Bollywood filmstars, villagers have Bollywood style gunfights, tourists buy drugs, gangsters philosophise late into the night, crowds maim and kill, a lot happens.  Somehow it’s all very uplifting, and praising of all human kind. 

*Yes, this book struck me as a narrative version of Power vs. Force, by David Hawkins

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