Monday, June 06, 2005
It's been a long time since I've last been so engrossed by a novel that I carried it with me everywhere. Shantaram , a massive 932 page novel, is such a book.
It's an incredible autobiographical novel which fictionalizes the author's own experience in Bombay in the 1980's. He was a heroin addict in Australia in the late 70's who committed a string of armed robberies and was sentenced to 20 years jail. He escaped from jail and using a forged New Zealand passport arrived in Bombay where he lived a most extraordinary life for the next ten years. He learned to speak Hindi and Marathi, lived in a village for six months, then lived in a Bombay slum and started a free clinic. He got busted by the police was tortured for three months before getting freed, hooking up with a crime lord and becoming part of the local mafia where he specialized in forged passports and documents. If all that's not enough he became a gun runner, smuggled guns into Afghanistan and took part in the war there for a shortwhile. It all sounds so over the top, and times it is, but it's such a terrific read that you forgive it all its excesses. The characters are vivid and very memorable, and the descriptions of life in Bombay make you yearn to visit it to see it through his eyes.
This is truly one of those once a decade books. The author was eventually caught in Germany in 1990 and was extradicted to Australia to complete his original sentence. He claims he had to rewrite the book three times. The first two times his manuscripts were confiscated and destroyed by his prison wardens. The book came out in 2003 in Australia and became a huge bestseller there. The publishing rights have now been sold in 54 countries and it's now being turned into a movie starring Johnny Depp.
Even more incredibly, the book only covers his story from the time he arrived in Bombay till around 1986 or 87. The author claims there will be 2 or 3 other books in the future to complete his story.
Like I said, the book has some weaknesses but it's well worth your time. It's definitely the fastest thousand pages I've read in a long long time.
The paperback is available at Family Bookshop.