Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Shantaram reads like poetry.
I think the most beautiful part of this book has to be its language. Its the part that touched me the most, and its the part that makes reading this (admittedly huge) book a real pleasure. There are certain lines in this book, like, "If fate doesnt make you laugh, you didn't get the joke," that touch a chord. Others, like the discussions on suffering or the general philosophy that the author manages to incorporate in mind-bogglingly horrible situations, is harder to portray but makes you re-think your life in a way that even self-help books (or perhaps especially such books) rarely do. The book is written gorgeously, especially if long descriptions and conversations do not end up boring you, though if you are not a fan of philosophy or if non-linear storylines confuse you, this book might not be the book for you.
But there's a lot more to recommend in this epic book. The first would be the characters. The main character, Lin, is compelling - an active, flawed, very beautifully written character who is actually the reason this book works at all. But its not just him. Every character, from characters in the slums of mumbai to don s to criminals are not only believable but also likeable. It seems hard to imagine from inside air-conditioned rooms that one could ever find something in common with people living in the dredges of poverty in the city that boasts of having the largest slum in the world, but the glory of this book is that you do. The author seems to really understand what makes people tick, and has the additional gift of being able to put that into written words. My favorite set of characters was undoubtedly the "Leopold crowd" - Karla, Didier, Kavita, Vikram, Ulla, Modena and the others, but I'm pretty sure I can understand that others would have other favorites - each character is just so remarkably etched.
Another wonderful thing about this book is the setting. There is just no question. The author understands the very core of India and portrays it a lot, lot better than I've ever seen any other author do, with the possible exception of Vikram Seth (read the review). Roberts concludes that what drives India is love, a beautiful sentiment that he proves again and again through various examples throughout the book. He doesn't gloss over the bad parts on India, he in fact is not shy at all about pointing out that India has flaws. But he does it like a child knowing the flaws of his parents, and the love for India that shines through each and every page makes you even more open to the criticisms. Something many contemporary Indian writers might take note of.
And finally the plot. There's not much to say...just read the back-cover, which talks about being a slum doctor, a gangster, going to jail, fighting with mujahideens in Afghanistan, and still managing to work in a bollywood film, and tell me if you dont find it interesting. If you really dont, probably not the book for you.
Final thoughts: An epic, epic book. I would recommend everyone to read it at least once. But I fear that once might just not be enough.
Other thoughts: I must admit, its been a while. It was just a combination of the fact that the book took me a while to read and then exams came in the middle. Expect more reviews in the future.