Thursday, 16 February 2012

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

A friend about to travel to India enthused about Roberts’s bestselling story of life on the run in Bombay, and I felt compelled to find out more. There is something of a challenge to reading an autobiographical novel about a man who escaped a high security prison in Australia, entered India illegally, learned Hindi and Marathi, lived in a slum, established a health clinic, got involved with both the Bollywood film industry and the Bombay mafia and ended up fighting alongside the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan... Somehow, Roberts manages to fit all this along with a tale of personal redemption into only 900 pages.

Straight off the plane and pretending to be a New Zealander called Lindsay, he sets off to find somewhere to stay in Bombay. He’s accosted at the airport by a young tout called Prabaker, who procures him a good room and some marijuana. Roberts opens up the duty free and offers his guide a drink in return:

I pulled a bottle of whisky from my pack and cracked the seal. It was another ritual, another promise to a friend in New Zealand, a girl who’d asked me to have a drink and think of her if I managed to smuggle myself safely into India with my false passport. The little rituals – the smoke and the drink of whisky – were important to me... I was about to take a sip from the bottle, but an impulse made me offer it to Prabaker first. “Thank you very much, Mr. Lindsay,” he gushed, his eyes wide with delight. He tipped his head backward and poured a measure of whisky into his mouth without touching the bottle to his lips. “Is very best, first number, Johnnie Walker. Oh, yes.” “Have some more if you like.” “Just teeny pieces, thank you so.” He drank again, gluggling the liquor down in throat-bulging gulps. He paused, licking his lips, then tipped the bottle back a third time. “Sorry, aaah, very sorry. Is so good this whisky, it is making a bad manners on me.” “Listen, if you like it that much, you can keep the bottle. I’ve got another one. I bought them duty free on the plane.” “Oh, thank you...” he answered, but his smile crumpled into a stricken expression. “What’s the matter? Don’t you want it?” “Yes, yes, Mr. Lindsay, very yes. But if I knew this was my whisky and not yours, I would not have been so generous with my good self in the drinking it up.”

Over the next few weeks Prabaker and Linbaba become close as the guide shows him around Bombay. Eventually, Prabaker honours Roberts with the offer of a visit to his family in upstate Maharashtra. They stay there six months and Roberts picks up the Marathi language and is introduced to rural Indian life. He is also given the name Shantaram, meaning man of peace, by Prabaker’s mother.

On their way home, they decide to go out for a drink in a small town on the road back to Bombay.

As good as his word, Prabaker directed us to a hovel, about an hour’s walk past the last bus stop on the outskirts of the town. With a round of drinks for the house, we insinuated ourselves into the crush of the dusty, determined drinkers who occupied the bar’s one narrow stone bench. The place was what Australians call a sly grog shop: an unlicensed bar, where men buy over-proof alcohol at under-the-counter prices. The men we joined in the bar were workers, farmers and a routine assortment of lawbreakers. They all wore sullen, persecuted expressions. They said little, or nothing at all. Fierce grimaces disfigured them as they drank the foul-tasting, homemade alcohol, and they followed each glass with a miscellany of grunts, groans, and gagging sounds. When we joined them, Prabaker and I consumed the drinks at a gulp, pinching our noses with one hand and hurling the noxious, chemurgic liquid down our open throats. By means of fierce determination, we summoned the will to keep the poison in our bellies. And when sufficiently recovered we launched ourselves, with no little reluctance, into the next venomous round. It was a grim and pleasureless business. The strain showed on every face. Some found the going too hard and slunk away, defeated. Some faltered, but were pressed on by the anguished encouragements of fellow sufferers. Prabaker lingered long over his fifth glass of the volatile fluid. I thought he was about to admit defeat, but at last he gasped and spluttered his way through to empty the glass. Then one man threw his glass aside, stood up, and moved to the centre of the shabby little room. He began to sing in a roaring, off-key voice, and because every man of use cheered our passionate and peremptory approval, we all knew that we were drunk.

Drunk and vulnerable, unfortunately. Walking back to the hotel, they are mugged and the remains of Roberts money is taken. His visa has also expired and realising that he risks deportation back to Australia and imprisonment if the authorities discover who he is, Roberts now has the problem that he has nowhere to stay. His only option is to move to slum where Prabaker lives, and his long journey from violent criminal on the run to a man of peace begins.

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