This novel is based on the real life experiences of a bank robber escaped from a high-security Australian prison and on the run in Bombay. Lin is an intelligent writer, from a tough working class background, fallen foul of the law after heroin addiction has turned his life upside down. Just off the airport bus he meets two people who play pivotal roles in his new life, each playing to different aspects of him. There is Prabaker, a tourist guide with the widest smile who teaches him the local languages and shows him Bombay from every angle and Karla, beautiful, clever and mysterious. He finds sanctuary in the sprawling metropolis and grows to love its contrasts.
I was completely absorbed by the first half of the book, as he sets himself to learn more about the people of Bombay, visits Prabaker's isolated rural village and on returning to Bombay goes to live in Prabaker's slum, when all his money is stolen. In the slum, once he has got past his revulsion of the smells and poverty, he discovers a strong, supportive community, run with integrity among the makeshift bamboo and plastic houses. He creates a role for himself setting up a first aid clinic, is able to earn a living earning commission on black market deals in drugs and currency.
The more I think about Shantaram the more I see it as an interweaving of light and dark. The light side of the book and Lin's character shine through in his love of Bombay, the slum dwellers and the detailed, living portraits he draws of them. As he becomes more drawn in to the lives of those around him you can almost believe he'll find a form of redemption there. The darker side of his personality emerges further into the story, when after a spell in a dire Bombay prison, which brings to the forefront the tough and bitter inmate he has so recently escaped from being, he starts to work for Khaderbaai the head of one of Bombay's mafia clans. In him he finds a father figure and philosopher who provokes endless debate on universal morality, right and wrong.
The mafia becomes his family and he distances himself from his life and friends in the slum, though he still holds them up as a beacon of purity and love amid the murky moral waters he is dipping into. It was at this point that I started finding the author's voice from the future intruding irritatingly on the unfolding of the story. Too many pages had a solemn, head-shaking 'if only I'd known better' air to them and the earnest sincerity with which he tries to analyse his relationships and actions wears rather thin. I think a bit more editing could have improved the story flow, cut about 100 pages and got the moral of human weakness and fallibility across without having to spell it out over and over again. Having said that I was still intrigued enough to keep reading until the very end to see what sort of resolution he would achieve for himself.
Read Shantaram for a fascinating insight into India, Bombay and its underworld and the human interest of the people he meets from all walks of life.