Written by Maddy Miller
There are some things easily distinguishable as fact or fiction – that two plus two equals four, how much kimchi is too much kimchi, that twelve toddlers plus one teacher equals one nightmare, that so-called alternative facts are definitely not a thing – but one thing not so easily discernable is whether the events in the novel Shantaram actually occurred. Author Gregory Roberts did, both in fact and in the novel, escape from jail in Australia and run from the cops for an extended period of time to live in Bombay. After publishing his novel, Roberts essentially disappeared from the public eye, saying he was “moving into a creative seclusion” (http://www.shantaram.com/). Many of the characters that “Lin” (Roberts’ nickname given to him by a friend, and used here to differentiate Roberts, the character, from Roberts, the author) encounters in his time in Bombay are verified as real people with similar characteristics, which have simply been over-exaggerated for the sake of the story. Others, though, such as Roberts’ first friend in India, Prabhakar, are contested to be only very tangentially related to their real-life counterparts. But, regardless of how grounded in truth it is, the book is both an exciting adventure and a thought-provoking read, though informal treatise on what makes a good life.
Several themes stood out to me in this novel, as, like Lin, I am also a stranger to the country I live in – though, to be fair, I’m not wanted by the federal government for escaping a high-security prison. One of the first themes I noticed Roberts touches on is being a free spirit. Lin constantly wrestles with the idea of whether he is truly free from his past life and considers his current friends and various jobs as things that tie him down in varying degrees. But he also recognizes the love that brings value to each of those relationships, even if they are not necessarily present in his life anymore. He has rough encounters in drug dens; fights fires in a slum where he lives and works as the unofficial clinic doctor, defending the inhabitants in the name of social justice; and busts into a brothel to rescue a friend of a friend posing as an American diplomat, hoping his accent will come off as convincing. He falls into a father–son relationship with a mob boss, Khader Khan, and starts working in the various fields the group controls. Then, just to top it all off, he goes on a gun-run mission to Khader’s hometown only to return in defeat after being shot at by Afghans and Russian fighter planes. It is almost too exciting to be true – there are too many adventures, too packed together, and he lives to tell the tale? Surely, everyone is thinking along with me: Why doesn’t that kind of stuff happen in my life?! (Not that I really want it to, I just want to have the story to tell afterwards, I guess).
Another comparison I drew between the story and my life here in Korea is an attempt to embrace my new culture. Lin experiences several moments of frustration in learning about India, especially in relation to communication and expectations about time. People’s sense of early and punctual can be vastly different. Lin’s friends generally expect him to trust them completely, rarely giving him any information about their plans, saying simply, “Come with me.” Lin often hesitates, but his greatest adventures often come from those moments when he reminds himself to surrender to the new way of life, leaning on his Bombay friends in a way we are led to believe he has never done with others before. Because the values of the many Indian cultures are different from what he originally expects, he adjusts his expectations of others. It makes me wonder how much of Korean culture I ought to surrender to in order to have my own great adventures.
Other themes I detected in the novel include family, going with your gut, revenge, and the tension between doing good and being happy. Overall, Shantaram is full of escapades and escapes, love and long-lost tragedy, jealousy and jail, torture and tolerance, friendships and fried food… more than you would think its 1,100 pages could hold. But you will have to read the book to get all that for yourself.