Any reader of Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram would undoubtedly be shocked by the dark and violent content of the book. Based on his own experience as an escaped Australian convict who was taken in by a mafia in Bombay, the novel depicts the gritty underworld of organised crime. Death, disease and exploitation are common and reoccurring themes throughout the novel; and we gain insight into the world or more accurately, the ‘underworld’ of junkies, assassins, prostitutes, gangsters, thieves and mafias. But what is most striking about this world, is its particular code of conduct, its morality and brotherhood. In contrast to the common conception of criminals as evil and immoral; the outlaws of Shantaram come across in the novel as honourable and even noble individuals. The distinction between wrong and right is completely blurred and the protagonist of the novel, Lin, often struggles to understand this new ethical underworld. The gangsters of Khaderbhai’s mafia are ruthless killers yet gentle and loving with one another. And although they operate outside of the law and dabble in drugs, money laundering, bribes etc. a substantial amount of the mafia’s illegal profits are used in order to better the lives of the poor.
This peculiar morality can also be applied to the Australian convicts referred to in the novel. At the very outset of the book, Lin draws attention to the ethical world of prisons where it is considered acceptable to beat and injure another man but not acceptable to expose anyone to the prison guards. Moreover, when asked about his opinion on Chuha, a rival gangster, Lin states that he dislikes him because he is what he calls ‘a stand over man’, a man who is willing to hurt the weak to get what he wants- which again highlights that a moral code exists even among the most violent of men. Lin himself is an ethically ambiguous character. He’s is a drug addict, gangster, thief, outlaw; but he is also an intellectual, a loyal friend, kind-hearted and helped save many lives through his free health clinic.
In a similar way, the members of Khader’s mafia are also ethically ambiguous. Khaderbhai is revered as a saint-like figure and philosopher. He is also known for having helped the poor and refuses to dabble in heroin or prostitution. And yet, he too is an outlaw, and murdered many people in his life and even consented to the murder of his close friend Majid in order to reach his ends. Moreover, although Khader is a seemingly devout Muslim who prays five times a day, he smokes Charras along with the members of his council which is not permissible under Islamic law. In fact, the world of hashish, drugs and smoking is at time glamorised and given a spiritual dimension. All saint-like figures, for example, take drugs such as the revered Khader, the Standing Baba’s and the Hindu guru who blesses Karla and Lin in Goa.
This unusual, complex and contradictory morality is a perhaps as a result of the fact that the book is concerned first and foremost with human nature and human relations. And any exploration of this subject would be complex and thorny. Much can be learned from the ‘humanisation’ of criminals in the book as it forces the reader to find and acknowledge the good that is present even in the darkest of hearts. And in that way, in its strange way, the novel leaves the reader shocked at the cruelty of human beings, while restoring our faith in the essential goodness of mankind.
Gregory Roberts’ is undoubtedly a proficient writer and has his own unique style and flair. It is a testament to his skill that he is able to portray such a dark world and yet keep the reader laughing throughout the novel. However, the huge length of the novel helped in slowing down the pace of the novel which was already sluggish to begin with. The long sections of historical background were interesting and useful at the outset of the novel but gradually became tedious and irrelevant. An example of this is where Roberts discusses the historical background of a certain type of Russian gun. Then there’s the more critical issue of the novel’s ending which is abrupt and unsatisfying. It is unclear why Roberts decided to end his book before discussing how and when he left India for good. It is as though he finally ran out of energy after writing almost 1000 pages and decided to leave the novel at that. All in all Shantaram is an extremely deep book and deserves to be looked into academically as there is a lot that can be said about it. However, it is far from being ‘light reading’ and there are many other books that are perhaps more gripping and absorbing.