Great Indian Novels #3: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

There are as many stories about Shantaram’s author Gregory David Roberts as there are about the novel itself. What is certain is that Roberts has produced one of the most well-known books about life in contemporary India yet published. The author claims that the book was based on real events taken from his own colourful life; others dispute the claim. It is certainly a matter of record that, in 1978, Roberts was given a 19-year sentence in his native Australia after being convicted of a series of armed robberies. In July 1980, he escaped from Victoria’s Pentridge Prison and ended up in India where he remained one of Australia’s most wanted men for the next decade. 

The book, first published in 2003, mirrors this narrative, as it follows a man named Lindsay, a convicted bank robber and heroin addict who escapes prison and flees to Mumbai, India. The novel then describes his subsequent adventures in the country.

I read this book after having lived, like Roberts/Lindsay in the city of Mumbai for a similar period of time – a decade. I was immediately struck by the way that Roberts manages to capture the incredible vivacity of life in Mumbai, and the descriptions of the protagonist adapting to the culture shock he experiences. I went through something similar, having ventured to Mumbai aged twenty-three, with no prior experience of the country. 

The book employs a diverse cast of characters – Roberts introduces us to a cross-section of Mumbai’s population, particularly at the lower end of the social scale. A particularly poignant section of the novel sees our protagonist living in one of the city’s infamous slums. 

At its heart this novel is about the journey that one man makes, spiritually and emotionally. Roberts clearly believes in redemption and this book is his thinly-disguised attempt at informing us that this is something he has sought to achieve.

The novel is a lengthy read (almost 1000 pages) and Roberts has a tendency to become overly rapturous. In this respect, the book might have benefited from a stronger edit. 

The third act of the novel has also been criticised. 

Lindsay’s time in Mumbai culminates with him spending a brutal stint in the city’s Arthur Road Jail, following which he travels to Afghanistan in order to smuggle weapons for mujahedeen freedom fighters. The credibility of this last flourish has been called into question. 

In his defence, Roberts has stated that: “With respect, Shantaram is not an autobiography, it’s a novel. If the book reads like an autobiography, I take that as a very high compliment, because I structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact. I wanted the novel to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it had the authentic feel of fact.”

In spite of the fact-versus-fiction controversy, Shantaram remains one of those landmark novels that has maintained its popularity over time, a touchstone for many travellers to the subcontinent. It is, for the most part, an entertaining and informative read, capturing the diversity, absurdity and human melodrama of life in one of the world’s most populous cities.  

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in the same period in India, the 1950s. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

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