Book Review: The Epic of ‘Shantaram’

“Shantaram” is an award-winning novel published in 2003 based on the authentic epic experiences of the author Gregory David Roberts in India. Shantaram is the Hindu name given to Roberts (the narrator) by the relatives of his close friend, guide and side-kick Prabaker in a remote village. Shantaram means “man of God’s peace,” the meaning of which is left up to interpretation. Prabaker also gives Roberts a more casual name, Lin or Linbaba, which he goes by throughout the story. Shantaram is a one-of-a-kind novel that tells a story very similar to how an epic like the Iliad or the Odyssey would but makes it seem autobiographical by describing the world in immense detail and using the first person.

In both the story and real life, Lin or Roberts, the narrator, is an Australian convicted of a 19-year sentence in 1978 for heroin usage and armed robbery. Roberts is an inmate at Pentridge Prison but extraordinarily escapes in broad daylight and flees to India with a fake passport. Roberts remained on Australia’s most-wanted list for nearly ten years. Other aspects of the novel are debated, but these have documented evidence. “Shantaram” takes place within this period of time as most wanted, but the narrative is centered on unrelated experiences unique to India. According to Internet Archive, in an interview with Murali K. Menon of the Indian Express newspaper, Roberts explained the book’s genre intention: 

“With respect, ‘Shantaram’ is not an autobiography, it’s a novel. If the book reads like an autobiography, I take that as a very high compliment, because I structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact.”

Lin begins the story under the guise of a simple tourist interested in local life who arrives in then Bombay (now called Mumbai), India. Lin gradually falls in love with the country and engages with all the native activities that Prabaker recommends. Unfortunately, Lin gets robbed on the way back from a bar in the slums. With all his money stolen, Lin is required to move out of his hotel and in with his kind friend Prabaker in the slums and get a job as a tour guide and drug hook-up for foreigners. On Lin’s first day in the slums, an enormous fire erupts from one of the slum tents engulfing many others, and although his instinctive thought is to flee, he decides to help his new community members put out the fire. Afterward, with the first-aid experience he gained from his life as a heroin addict, he helped heal many wounded people in the aftermath of the fire and became a renowned and cherished local doctor. In the beginning, he also met with an American woman, Karla, who had long assimilated into Indian life. He instantly fell in love with Karla after she saved him from being hit by a vehicle. This initial connection spirals into a deep love that would last the entirety of the book. These two events spiral into various wild but detailed and riveting adventures ranging from involvement with gangster life, life in India’s Arthur Road Prison, relapse into opioid addiction, forced prostitution to weapons smuggling with the Mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War.

“Shantaram” has recently been adapted into an Apple TV+ series that has long been awaited since prominent actors such as Johny Depp and Russell Crowe showed great interest at the time, and Warner Bros. purchased the rights in 2003. The series has also been applauded on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, respectively, with audience scores of 7.8 and 81 percent. However, Rotten Tomatoes critics have given it much less praise, with a 56 percent score. The first episode was released on October 14.

“Shantaram” can be convoluted and contains a daunting 936 pages, but it definitely is one of the most interesting books I have read. The book can pointlessly stall with cliché and long roundabout quotes and memories made to seem autobiographical but that are obvious fairy-tale fiction. I sometimes found the melodrama worthwhile as sometimes they encompassed descriptions of Indian life that give unique insight from a foreign perspective, but mainly the plot points and explosive scenes of action, and much of the character interaction, were definitely worth the wait. I recommend this book to fiction and non-fiction readers because it contains elements of both. “Shantaram” definitely serves as a unique and worthwhile read.