Shantaram: A Modern Odyssey

If the evolution of a name could ever be compared to the tale of the man, then Gregory, Lindsay, Lin, Linbaba, and Shantaram was the most beautiful metamorphosis.

“It was as good a name as any, and no more or no less false than the dozen others I’d assumed since the escape. In fact, in recent months I’d found myself reacting with a quirky fatalism to the new names I was forced to adopt, in one place or another, and to the new names that others gave me. Lin. It was a diminutive I never could’ve invented for myself. But it sounded right, which is to say that I heard the voodoo echo of something ordained, fated:  a name that instantly belonged to me, as surely as the lost, secret name with which I was born, and under which I’d been sentenced to twenty years in prison.”

Shantaram is an epic, autobiographical tale about a man who escapes from prison and begins a new life as a fugitive in Bombay. It’s a tale of a man who is desperate to keep his freedom at all cost, while trying to maintain and dissect the balance of right and wrong, good and evil seemingly in an effort to redeem his previous crimes. To make a living, Lin finds himself quickly immersed in the black market of India, an economical force that’s in close quarters with the law and politics. His tale takes him from the role as a beloved slum doctor to the thug life of a mafia brother, a life that directly challenges our moral presumptions and criminal profiles. That life gives creed to “doing the wrong thing for the right reasons,” a sort of criminal validation. With his band of brothers he falsifies and delivers documents, exchanges currencies, and eventually transverses mountains to fight in Afghanistan’s holy war. Each action, even war, is broken down into its parts, with heinous acts always justified by a larger, often simple belief.

Lin inadvertently builds himself up as a sort of God, which is never more evident than when he denounces praise and thanks. Bullets and murderous rages are abound in his Odyssey yet Lin remains. He helps the poor and is willing to fight another’s war for simply the love of a man. Shantaram, Lin’s adopted name, translates to ‘man of God’s peace.’ It’s a classic tale of trying to be everybody’s savior, while trying to save yourself.

Shantaram also weaves a love story with the classic, frustratingly shifted timeline, each lover trading roles in their unrequited love. The hero and narrator, Lin, also seems most invincible yet is surrounded by drama, loss and death- a trait that statistically seems unlikely for a biographical work and would barely survive fiction. The characters are dynamic with one of the best pieces of humor being a hug-able bear. The story also seems to grant its viewers with an unstudied portrait of Australia’s and India’s incarceration system. Those condemned as criminals suddenly seem far more innocent than their treatment by the wardens. Roberts creates an unexpected and sympathetic urge to free them all-to cheer on those who would be traditionally declared as ‘bad’ in most societies.

According to Robert’s personal record, he is eventually recaptured and serves the remainder of his sentence in prison back in Australia where he begins to transcribe his story. CNN hosted a special on Roberts, traveling with him to the real locations of his story, trying to sort through the truth and artistic liberties. It’s easy to be swept away in Roberts’s Odyssey and take away so many life lessons, but the betrayal of fiction amongst fact and its doubt has a way of sometimes deteriorating the message. But maybe that’s what faith is, and life is simply a fiction we write daily.

Shantaram is grossly entertaining in the least, and philosophically enlightening at its best. Like any good message, its quiet moments resonate deep within and its loud events bring forth a rush of emotions. It’s the type of book where you use a highlighter as your bookmark and dog-ear so many pages that its corners double in volume.

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