Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram

It took Gregory David Roberts thirteen years to write Shataram; and I thought I’d take as many to finish reading it. With sheer force of determination, I finally finished the book today. Phew!

I bought the book from an eager, smart boy on the streets of Calicut and started to read it just that evening. I progressed quickly through the first few pages because the book was about my beloved Mumbai. It was nice to see my hometown from an outsider’s point of view. The book became my companion on the long journey from Bombay to Atlanta; but I did not plow through it as fast as I imagined. Some two hundred pages into the book, the story was going nowhere. Now the book is semi-autobiographical, and if you hear the word biography you know you’re in for a lot of pages. After all, you can’t sum up someone’s life in a few pages. But, this is not the story of the protagonist’s life – it’s merely a part of his life, maybe the most important.

Besides the tiresome length of the book, I had a few other problems with it –

1. After a while, I wondered where the story was going. Now I am all for multi-naratives and a post-modern structure for a book; but it has to have something that ties it together. Around page six-seventy-nine, I had no idea what was happening, and more importantly why?
2. In spite of the fact that Greg Roberts seems to love Bombay and India, I hinted a sense of racism and prejudice in his writing. I could be wrong about this; but I did feel it.
3. What is with all the philosophy? My biggest issue was the character of Karla. She speaks as if she’s! No one speaks like that in real life. What the writer might be trying to show is a very complex character, who is a thinker and the epitome of the twentieth century woman – but what comes across is a self-centered, pompous, conniving woman.
4. The translations of everything that’s spoken in Hindi or Marathi. In some literature class in my undergraduate class, I remember the professor telling us that it was passé to translate local languages into English in post-colonial literature. Greg Roberts might not know that, but his editors should have known. If you’re not going to translate German/French/Italian, don’t translate Marathi or Hindi.

Okay, now that I have all that out of my system, I can move to the better points. I really liked Greg Roberts’ style of writing in general – it is heartfelt and honest. I am not a fan of descriptive narratives, but I enjoyed his lengthy descriptions of Bombay (I skipped those of Afghanistan, but I liked Bombay). The random philosophy his characters are throwing at you is nice to read if you take it with a pinch of salt. Overall, I know many people who enjoyed reading Shantaram, and my experience might not be exactly the same, but I did read it. I’d say it’s a good book; but six hundred pages too long. I also think that Roberts’ life is much more fascinating than the book itself – he has a unique and admirable vision of life, and he does a pretty good job of getting that into his writing. This radio interview of his does not say much about the book, but is good to listen to anyway.

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