By Lynn Willoughby
Shantaram ~ Gregory David Roberts
I have been on a streak of reading so-so novels, but then a friend recommended this one. And what a book it is!!
I hardly know where to start as there seemed to me to be three stories here with Lin as the protagonist in all of them. He is a convicted New Zealand bank robber serving time in an Australian prison. He escapes and flees to India, landing in Bombay. At the airport he hires a taxi, asking the driver, Prabaker, to take him to a modest hotel. Prabaker becomes his friend, his guide, his “brother”.
The story unfolds in contemporary Bombay as Lin soon ends up living in Prabaker’s slum – of 25,000 souls! A fire breaks out as they arrive and while Lin fights the fire with everyone else, his real contribution is his treatment of burns and wounds from his well-stocked first aid kit. The following morning there is a long line of patients waiting for him, and so his life in India begins.
With Prabaker as his interpreter, the months pass. Lin learns some of the local languages and dialects and his appreciation of the small payments made to his “clinic” – his water jug filled, a new blanket, a prepared meal, quickly endears him to his neighbours. What struck me most about his time here is that there is NO CRIME in the slum. None!! The daily struggle for survival means they must always work together.
It is in this potion of the book that I saw Bombay from many points of view. We meet the ex pats who gather to talk and drink at Leopold’s, we meet Prabaker’s family and see their village, we see the underbelly of the city, the mind boggling riches and mansions, we meet the owners of tiny chai shops trying to make enough each day to feed their families.
Eventually, after meeting and falling desperately in love with Karla, Lin is arrested, without charge and thrown into the hell that is Arthur Road Prison. He is beaten severely and regularly by both guards and inmates. The viseral images will make you squirm.
After his release, Lin begins helping tourists by selling drugs, exchanging money and forging passports He is noticed and also begins laundering money for one of the head men of the Bombay mafia – Abdul Khader Khan.
This man becomes his teacher, his guru, his “father” and Lin would do absolutely anything for Khan.
There are many philosophical discussions between the two of life, its meaning , love, family, friends, brothers. When Khan asks Lin “What is true wealth?” Lin responds with “The freedom to say no.” The discussions become deeper and more profound and their relationship deepens. Eventually Lin follows Khan and a troop of street fighters loyal to him, as Khan smuggles arms, medicines and horses into his home country of Afghanistan to aid in the war against Russian domination. The journey is terrible – over mountains, at night, in winter. The living conditions, the combat, the starvation, the cold, the deaths are described so well I felt I was living through it with Lin. Actually, not many of the original group live. This entire section of the book – while sending me often to Google to check facts, was bloody, brutal and agonizing on many levels. What is even more distressing is that it is true.
Khan’s loyal supporters, made up of Indians, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Iraquis, Goans, and Lin as the “American” who was supposed to guarantee them freedom to pass, was decimated. The survivors were starving, freezing and half crazy. When Lin comes to on a cot in a tent being tended to by a stranger her comments “…this is one hell of a health care plan: a wild-eyed Afghani soldier pointing a Kalashnkov at my doctor!” This was a long and difficult read, but what an education I got!
Lin, of course, does survive and after his wounds heal he goes back into the mafia underworld. With a price on his head, in the country illegally this is where he feels safest. Hid responsibilities increase in the forging business for passports, visas or whatever one can pay for.
This is one sensational read with beautiful, smooth, indescribable writing. There are plots and sub-plots, there are characters who leave and come back into Lin’s life, there are mysteries and philosophical discussions I will long remember. This may be one of the few books I will reread.
As Lin reflects on his life, and everyone’s life, he sums it all up by saying: “Add our little consequences to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world.” In the end, none of us is really very important.
- The Mountain Shadow
The US began supporting Afghan Islamic Fundamentalists in 1979 and their support continued even when Iran seized the US Embassy in Tehran and held 55 hostages for over a year. The US feared a Russian held Afghanistan almost as much as did the Afghanis.
In the early 1990s the CIA supplied trucks and mules to carry arms into Afghanistan. Then they were used to transport opium to the numerous labs along the Afghan-Pakistan boarder. The output provides an estimated one third to one half of the heroin used annually in the USA, and three quarters of what is used in Western Europe.