SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts
I bought the book in 2006 after drooling over it in airport book stalls on my 2005 Australia trip. I didn’t buy it at the time because it was literally too heavy to cart around airports and hostels. Having bought it in 2006 the book languished on my shelves for a year. I think I was intimidated by its sheer size. I finally tackled it, and staggered to page 923, THE END, Phew!
I can see why it was so popular. Lots of manly brawling and crime – hardly any sex, more about romantic love actually – plus a somewhat juvenile exposition on “why are we here, what’s it all about?” which GDR (as per his website) has now rather grandly spun into a full-blown philosophy. And of course, a full-frontal tour of Mumbai at its squalid, dirty, fascinating worst. I’ve crossed it off my Cities to Visit List.
Best of the book were the descriptions of life in the Mumbai slums, and good works in a slum clinic, life in the Indian Mafia, insights into the war in Afghanistan, some of the character sketches. And GDR’s realization that his father figure, Khader, had used him as a pawn – quite ruthlessly, despite all the love and devotion from GDR. It’s a big, epic sprawling book filled with colourful characters, spiced with the Indian backdrop.
GDR was a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict, who escaped to India and spent eight years in the Mumbai underworld, living in a Mumbai slum – so his story is based on solid experience. However, I can’t help suspecting that some of the tales were gathered in bars, over the years, or in jail cells, and quietly woven into the fabric of the novel. But isn’t that what novelists do? Embroider reality to suit their purpose.
I was curious to see the author of this Boys’ Own extravaganza, so Googled him, and was disappointed to see a small, triangular face, big ears, and a surprisingly unscarred face, given all the beating he endured in the Mumbai jails. I suppose it was too much to hope for that he’d look like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I had hopes …
LAST MAN IN TOWER – Arvind Adiga
I love Indian novels for their quirky characters, for their Indian-ness, but this is an Indian novelist I approach with caution. I didn’t like his White Tiger (a much acclaimed book, his debut novel, which won the 2008 Man Booker prize: it was too brutal and too realistic for me) I like my Indian novels more cinnamon scented in a swirl of cerise saris …
Anyway, this recent novel, although dealing with moral issues, was lighter in touch, even though it displays Mumbai in all its corrupt, thrusting vitality. In short, a property developer (corrupt through and through) wants to tear down an old apartment building near the airport, and build a smart new complex in its place. He makes the residents of the building an offer they cannot refuse, literally the fabled opportunity of a lifetime, to move on, to move up the social ladder, to become (modestly) rich! Of course, they excitedly accept his offer – all except one man, a retired schoolteacher. He won’t budge. Hence the title. And the book takes off from there.
The book displays Mumbai’s gritty, greedy, thrusting vitality. It exposes the sad truth that money can corrupt everything, even the oldest, deepest friendships are not proof against greed. Loyalty flies out of the window. We also see the immense value placed by Indian society on family; everything the characters do – or don’t do – are motivated by FAMILY. I’d never appreciated before just how family minded Indian society is. The novel also made me ponder: at what point is the struggle simply not worth the price? When should we decide to give up the fight? And another thing: at which point does a principled moral stand dissolve into a futile Quixotic gesture?
Arvind Adiga writes disturbing books. There is no sugar coating in this one. The ending is shocking, but hey! Life goes on. Despite the darkness in this book, I enjoyed it.