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     Volume 8 Issue 86 | September 10, 2009 |

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Book Review

The Traveller's Tales

Shakil Rabbi

In the early 80s, an armed robber and heroin addict escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forgerer and street soldier. At the same time, he learned Hindi and Marathi, fell in love and spent time being worked over in an Indian jail. And in case one thought he might be slacking, he also acted in Bollywood and fought in Afghanistan.

Shantaram is based on certain facts: Gregory David Roberts was actually convicted of armed robbery and did escape from an Australian jail to India. Although he says that the novel is a work of fiction, one suspects that the characters and stories in it are based on real people and on actual stories Roberts might have had heard or lived through while on the run in India.

The book is a big read, sometimes unnecessarily so. There are passages where the narrator repeats himself in the same generic, stereotypical and hollow profundities about a mystical India, most of which the reader will tire of as they have already heard it said before in much the same manner. At over nine hundred pages it is one of those books thick enough to double as a pillow, but it is still an easy read, a pot-boiler, which one will voraciously eat up simply because it is just so interesting.

It ranges from profound philosophy to visceral and heart pounding suspense; incorporates both exoticized thrills and factual reportage. It is, in large parts, an insightful look at the exuberant India of the eighties; a time when its miracle economic growth and global multinational capital presences were still in the nascent stages and the current headlining topics of Afghanistan and terrorism were still understood as a local rebellion. But Roberts is a good enough writer to recognise and articulate both elements as major shadow presences in the life of Bombay, they are like the unfinished World Trade Center tower which stands over the slums 'Linbaba' lives in and where he sets up the clinic.

Shantaram published by scribe publications, is a novel for seekers, peopled by many characters who are also seekers, those who have ended up in Bombay, either looking for money or on the run or looking for meanings. It is the mother of the modern traveller's tale; it has a cult following and is almost required reading for every backpacker before they set out on their empty-pocket pilgrimages. There is talk that it will be soon turned into a movie to be directed by Mira Nair and starring Johnny Depp. And it is suitable Hollywood material, an epic story with all the glamour and machismo that make a blockbuster. But at its heart it is a story of a man who has lived an extraordinary life through the most interesting of times.


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