SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

Last year, whilst visiting friends in Edinburgh, I was loaned a copy of Gregory David Roberts’ auto-biographical novel SHANTARAM: a well-loved, dog-eared, sunscreen-stained copy, purchased in India and still adorned with its original 495-rupee price tag. I brought the novel home to New Zealand, where it sat on the bookshelf for the next ten months. About six weeks ago, finally feeling ready to take on a novel of such epic proportions (Shantaram is just over 900 pages long), I took the book down from the shelf, dusted it off and dove in.

A friend from work who spent several years living in India told me that Shantaram is the most authentic account of India written by a Westerner. Reading the novel, it is clear that Roberts has an intimate knowledge of the Indian subcontinent, its diverse cultures and plethora of languages. Roberts’ descriptions of Bombay (also known as Mumbai) and the way he captures the unique sounds of Indian English are impressive and at times very amusing.

The novel is based on a true story (although Roberts has been accused by some of employing artistic licence) and recounts his escape from prison in Melbourne in 1980 and his new life in and around the slums of Bombay. To say Roberts has led an eventful life would be an understatement!


During the five or so years covered in the novel Roberts works as a drug pusher, a self-taught slum doctor, a counterfeit passport smuggler, a mafia heavyweight, a Bollywood extra and a Mujahedin fighter in the Afghan war with Russia. He also falls in love, spends time in one of India’s worst prisons and learns to speak several Indian languages fluently.

If you are a person who enjoys very descriptive, poetic language then Shantaram is definitely the book for you! However, if, like my lovely mother, you prefer to skip entire pages of prose, then I wouldn’t recommend this novel. I certainly like descriptive writing and really enjoyed reading Shantaram; however, I do think Roberts does at times go slightly over the top – the novel could easily be several hundred pages shorter without compromising any of the plot.

I was slightly disappointed that the book did not reveal how Roberts was eventually captured and extradited back to Australia. However, I have since found out that Shantaram is actually part of a four-book series and that Roberts intends to publish a prequel and two sequels. So I guess, I may just find out after all!




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