Shantaram reminded me of Rudyard Kipling's classic, Kim, although obviously it has little in common with that twentieth-century masterpiece, other than being set in the Indian sub-continent. Another point of contact between the two works is that the protagonists of both take part in a spiritual quest.
The edition of Shantaram from which I am quoting was published by St. Martin's Press in 2003. Its author is Gregory David Roberts, the first Australian whose work I have written a commentary for on The Marginal Virtues. If you haven't read the book, you might want to turn to it first before reading this commentary, as I will reveal details about the plot and the like as I deem it necessary.
I think it could be fairly said that Shantaram does for Bombay, to a certain extent, what The Lord of the Rings did for Middle-earth, which is provide an aesthetic structure in which the 'world' in which the novel takes place takes on a life and character of its own. We shall see whether this is the case. Meanwhile I found that because the entirety of the work is written from the perspective of the first-person, semi-authobiographical narrator, Lin, it lacked a distinct prose style. On the other hand, I feel that Roberts does do a good job of writing distinct styles of dialogue, as we shall see.
Shantaram seems to suffer from the same problem as The Name of the Wind; that is, it is a long book, told almost wholly (in the case of Shantaram, wholly) from one character's perspective, and it spends a long time in one or another place. I felt it could have used some editorial cutting. Interestingly, like The Name of the Wind, Shantaram has a lengthy sequence toward the end of the book which I found quite good; namely, Lin's journey to Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion as part of a mission to supply the mujaheddin (as Roberts spells it; see, e.g., p. 671), undertaken by his boss, one Abdel Khader Khan, an Afghan native and Bombay crime lord. That whole section takes up 119 pages and six chapters, about one-eighth of the book. It is very nearly the same length of the comparable sequence in The Name of the Wind (Kvothe's adventure in Trebon), but occupies a much smaller proportion of Shantaram as a whole, because Shantaram is much longer than The Name of the Wind.
In my view, then, the three things worth investigating, or demonstrating, are: 1) how well Roberts handles dialects; 2) whether Shantaram is able to effect an aesthetic complex like The Lord of the Rings has; and, 3) the 'philosophical' tone of the work. Obviously I shall be able to give each only cursory treatment; on the other hand, I have lots of examples to draw upon.
We'll look at the last of the three aspects listed above first, largely because it is so obvious. Lin (as he is called) starts philosophising from the very beginning:
It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it's all you've got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life. [p. 3] This introduction is reminiscent of the beginning of Shades of Grey. An illuminating insight comes to the protagonist at a moment of great duress; but whereas Eddie Russett refers every once in a while to his eventual role as dinner for a carnivorous tree, I can find no similar connection of this insight to a point in Shantaram, and the only time when Lin is in the situation he here describes is during his stay in Bombay's infamous Arthur Road prison (in either one of two beatings, the first on pp. 428-9, the second pp. 433-4). He does not call us back to this initial insight in that moment, although he frequently reflects upon freedom, choice, hatefulness, and forgiveness elsewhere.It may be fairly said that Shantaram is a work in which the unconscious decisions we make (represented in the experience of Lin) about such important matters as love, hate, forgiveness, and freedom are brought to the fore. Shantaram begins with a philosophical reflection; it ends with one, too, although it also opens up to theology. Lin, it should be added, considers himself an atheist, but in India even the atheists have religion:
For this is what we do. Put one foot forward and then the other. Lift our eyes to the snarl and smile of the world once more. Think. Act. Feel. Add our little consequence to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world. Drag our shadowed crosses into the hope of another night. Push our brave hearts into the promise of a new day. With love: the passionate search for a truth other than our own. With longing: the pure, ineffable yearning to be saved. For so long as fate keeps us waiting, we live on. God help us. God forgive us. We live on. [p. 933] Lin does develop what you might call a 'doctrine of God' over the course of Shantaram, and it is one which echoes the Christian milieu out of which he originated (Lin is an escaped convict from Australia), as phrases like 'shadowed crosses' suggest. At this point, the philosophical conclusion is a bit of a rhetorical hammer, in my view. Many of the philosophical reflections Roberts offers (by means of his semi-autobiographical protagonist) could have been left to be made incarnate, as it were, in the goings-on of the work. But at least they are well-written. Actually, this final reflection, which is very nearly a benediction of sorts, reminds me of the end of The Denial of Death, with its 'making an offering of ourselves' to the 'life-force' and whatnot. However, so far as I can tell there is no internal evidence in Shantaram to suggest that Roberts has read and ingested Becker's teachings (in contrast with, say, Terry Pratchett).A few examples of Lin reflecting on life should suffice to demonstrate that Shantaram is suffused with such philosophical moments:
As exhaustion finally claimed me, submerging my doubts and confusions, the clarity of near-sleep suddenly showed me what it was that those new friends... had in common. They were all, we were all, strangers to the city. None of us was born there. All of us were refugees, survivors, pitched up on the shores of the island city. If there was a bond between us, it was the bond of exiles, the kinship of the lost, the lonely, and the dispossessed.
Realising that, understanding it, made me see the hard edges of the way I'd treated the boy, Tariq, himelf a stranger in my raw and ragged fragment of the city. Ashamed of the cold selfishness that had stolen my pity, and pierced by the courage and loneliness of the little boy, I listened to his sleeping breath, and let him cling to the ache in my heart. Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears. In the end that's all there is: love and its duty, sorrow and its truth. In the end that's all we have — to hold on tight until the dawn. [p. 346] Just by way of clarification, Lin has been given charge of a boy named Tariq to teach him English and about the life he, Lin, is living in a Bombay slum (he has found himself acting as the slum's resident doctor, having been forced to move there after all of his money was stolen by thieves).
I was thinking about another kind of river, one that runs through every one of us, no matter where we come from, all over the world. It's the river of the heart, and the heart's desire. It's the pure, essential truth of what each one of us is, and can achieve. All my life I'd been a fighter. I was always ready, too ready, to fight for what I loved, and against what I deplored. In the end, I became the expression of that fight, and my real nature was concealed behind a mask of menace and hostility. The message of my face and my body's movement was, like that of a lot of other hard men, Don't fuck with me. [italics original] In the end, I became so good at expressing the sentiment that the whole of my life became the message.
It didn't work in the village. No-one could read my body language. They new no other foreigners, and had no point of reference. If I was grim or even stern, they laughed, and patted my back encouragingly. They took me as a peaceful man, no matter what expression I wore. I was a joker, someone who worked hard, played the fool for the children, sang with them, danced with them, and laughed with an open heart.
And I think I did laugh like that then. I was given a chance to reinvent myself, to follow that river within, and become the man I'd always wanted to be. On the very day I learned about the wooden stakes of the flood-game, not three hours before I stood alone in the rain, Prabaker's mother had told me that she'd called a meeting of the women in the village: she'd decided to give me a new name, a Maharashtrian name, like her own. Because I was in Prabaker's house, it was decided that I should take the family name of Kharre. Because Kishan was Prabaker's father, and my adoptive father, tradition decreed that I should take his first name for my middle name. And because they judged my nature to be blessed with peaceful happiness, Rukhmabai [Prabaker's mother] concluded, the women had agreed with her choice for my first name. It was Shantaram, which means man of peace, or man of God's peace. [italics original]
They nailed their stakes into the earth of my life, those farmers. They knew the place in me where the river stopped, and they marked it with a new name. Shantaram Kishan Kharre. I don't know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow. Whatever the case, whether they discovered that peace or created it, the truth is that the man I am was born in those moments, as I stood near the flood sticks with my face lifted to the chrismal rain. Shantaram. The better man that, slowly, and much too late, I began to be. [pp. 136-7] 'Slowly' is right. Apparently Shantaram is the first of several novels that Roberts is writing based on his own life; and by the end of Shantaram Lin cannot be quite said to be a 'man of peace' (although as he much later notes, he's never murdered anyone, and to my knowledge he does not directly take anyone's life). Indeed, we do not hear him directly referred to by this name until near the very end of the book. This kind of reflection, is, I find, characteristic of Roberts, in that it occurs at the end of chapters - the previous example as Lin falls asleep thinking about Tariq and other outsiders to Bombay, and the last words of the novel both being cases of this. With respect to this particular reflection, Roberts touches on a vital point. Lin has been 'baptised' (by 'chrismal rain'), given a new name, a new life. He will spend the rest of the novel fitfully living into this new life. His comments about becoming so good at expressing violent sentiment leading to his life being an expression of that message drive home the role of virtue in life.
Listening to the band, watching the children, and thinking of Tariq — missing the boy already — I remembered an incident from the prison. In that other world-within-a-world, back then, I moved into a new prison cell and discovered a tiny mouse there. The creature entered through a cracked air vent, and crept into the cell every night. Patience and obsessional focus are the gems we mine in the tunnels of prison solitude. Using them, and tiny morsels of food, I bribed the little mouse, over several weeks, and eventually trained it to eat from the edge of my hand. When the prison guards moved me from that cell, in a routine rotation, I told the new tenant — a prisoner I thought I knew well — about the trained mouse. On the morning after the move, he invited me to see the mouse. He'd captured the trusting creature, and crucified it, face down, on a cross made from a broken ruler. ...The philosophical reflections I have quoted are, on their own, quite thoughtful. I was going to say that many of them did not have much of a direct connection to the plot, but the ones I have quoted are germane (at least with respect to immediate events). Either my initial impression, that most of Lin's reflections were unconnected to what was going on around him and that there were a few too many of them, was incorrect, or in scanning Shantaram for the kind of passage I was looking for, my eyes skipped over them.
Are we ever justified in what we do? That question ruined my sleep for a long time after I saw the tortured little mouse. When we act, even with the best of intentions, when we interfere with the world, we always risk a new disaster that mightn't be of our making, but that wouldn't occur without our action. Some of the worst wrongs, Karla once said, were caused by people who tried to change things. [italics original]
I looked at the slum children dancing like a movie chorus and capering like temple monkeys. I was teaching some of those children to speak, read, and write English. Already, with just the little they'd learned in three months, a few of them were winning work from foreign tourists. Were those children, I wondered, the mice that fed from my hand? Would their trusting innocence be seized by a fate that wouldn't and couldn't have been theirs without me, without my intervention in their lives? What wounds and torments awaited Tariq simply because I'd befriended and taught him? [pp. 367-8] An interesting reflection, and one to which we return later in Shantaram. How often do the things we try to do for good redound to the harm of those to whom we direct our labours? Meanwhile, the world is filled with the graves and shattered lives of those whom others tried to help.
My impression (perhaps, after all, incorrect) was that it was characteristic of Lin's reflections in Shantaram they they often occurred at the end of chapters, that they were thoughtful, but that they were often not logically connected to the plot. Put another way, Roberts could have done a better job of 'enfleshing', as it were, Lin's various reflections and thoughts, yet, even so, what he has Lin think is, for the most part, thoughful, as I say. In any event, Lin's propensity to fall into thought (at the drop of a hat) is obvious.
The second aspect of the book which I would like to take a closer look at is how Roberts handles dialects. There are a lot of characters in Shantaram, and Roberts has to be able to communicate several linguistic idioms and temperaments by means of speech. My contention is that, on the whole, he does this very well, which is one of the sources of pleasure of the book.
Probably the most noticeable example is that of the gregarious Prabaker Kharre, a Maharashtrian living in a Bombay slum who works as tour guide-cum-tout-cum-taxi driver. He is an important character in the early going of the novel, but his importance, and 'screen time', diminishes as the work progresses.
'He is telling it one very funny story, about an inspector of Bombay Police, a very great powerful fellow in this area. That inspector did lock up a very clever fellow in his jail, but the clever fellow, he did convince the inspector to let him out again, because he told the inspector he had some gold and jewels. Not only that, but when he was free, the clever fellow sold the inspector some of the gold and some jewels. But they were not really gold and not really jewels. They were the imitations, and very cheaply not the really things. And the worst mischief, the clever fellow lived in the inspector's house for one week before he sold the not-really jewels. And there is a big rumour that the clever fellow had sexy business with that inspector's wife. Now the inspector is crazy, and so much angry that everybody is running when they see him.' [p. 26]
'I'm just curious ... about ... about that girl, okay? [italics original]'
'Okay, Mr. Lindsay, I will be telling you everything. Karla — she is a famous businessman in Bombay. Very long she is here. I think five years maybe. She has one small house, not far. Everybody knows the Karla.'
'Where is she from?'
'I think, German, or something like that.'
'But she sounded American.'
'Yes, is sounding, [ditto] but she is from German, or like to the German. And now, anyway, is almost very Indian. You want to eat your foods now?' [p. 27]
'My father is a very success man,' Prabaker beamed, proudly, his arms around the older man's shoulders. ... Hearing the phrase in his own language, Kishan lifted his shirt with a graceful, artless flourish, and patted at his hairy pot-belly. His eyes glittered as he spoke to me, wiggling his head all the while in what seemed to be an unnervingly seductive leer.
'What did he say?'
'He wants you to pat his tummies,' Prabaker explained, grinning.
Kishan grinned as widely.
'I don't think so.'
'Oh, yes, Lin. He wants you to pat his tummies.'
He really [italics original] wants you to give it a pat,' he persisted.
'Tell him I'm flattered, and I think it's a fine tummies. But tell him I think I'll pass, Prabu.'
'Just give it a little pat, Lin. [...] Go on, Lin. A few pats only. It won't bite you, my father's tummies.' [pp. 114-5]
'She is a beautiful prostitutes,' Prabaker pleaded. 'So fat she is, and in the most serious and the important places. A big handfuls you can grab, anywhere you like. You will be so exciting, you will make yourself sick!'
'It's a tempting offer, Prabu,' I responded, trying not to laugh, 'but I'm really not interested. [...]'
'Mood is no problem, baba. Only first you get bumping and jumping, then your bad moods will so quickly change, futt-a-futt!' [italics original]
'Maybe you're right, but I think I'll pass, all the same.'
'But she is so experience!' he whined. 'Those fellows told me she has made sexy business too many times, and with too many hundred of customers, in this hotel only. I saw her. I looked on the inside of her eyes, and I know that she is a very big expert in the sexy business.' [ditto]
'I don't want a prostitute, Prabu. No matter how expert she is.' [...]
'But ... but I can't get back my cash deposits if you don't come and do some looking at her.' [...]
'You paid a deposit, for me to have sex with a woman in this hotel?'
'Yes, Lin,' he sighed, raising his arms, and letting them fall to his side in a helpless gesture. 'Six months in the village, you were. Six months with no sexy business. I was thinking you must be feeling a big amount of your needs. Now, no cash deposits returned for me, if you don't take one very small peeking at her.' [...]
[...] I'd just begun to [write] in my journal when the door sprung open and Prabaker swaggered into the room. He walked past me without speaking, and fell onto his back on his bed. About nine minutes had passed since I'd left him at the prostitute's door.
'Oh, Lin!' he moaned happily, grinning up at the ceiling. 'I knew it. I knew she was a full-of-experience woman.'
I stared at him in bewilderment.
'Ah, yes!' he gushed, sitting up and letting his short legs swing from the bed. 'She gave me a big money's worth. And I gave it to her a very, very good sex also. And now! Let's go out! We'll be having some foods, and some drinks, and a party!' [pp. 138-41]
One by one, we sang a song in turn. [...] The two burly waiters recognised the new stage of inebriation, and abandoned their drinks trays and glasses for a while. [...]We all clapped and cheered with every song. When it was my turn, I sang — I don't know why — the old Kinks' song, 'You Really Got Me':As you might have guessed, the chorus Prabaker sings is not what's quite in the song. This is but a small sample of Prabaker's style of speech. Other Maharashtrian characters to whom Lin speaks share a similarly idiomatic way of speaking (Roberts wisely writes nearly all of the dialogue in English once Lin is able to understand Marathi and other Indian languages), but this dialect is truly Prabaker's.
I was drunk enough to coach Prabaker, and he was drunk enough to learn the chorus.Girl, you really got me goin'You got me so I can't sleep at night ...
[p.142]Oh, yes, by God, you are a girl!And you really, really got me, isn't it going?
In the early goings of the novel, when Prabaker figured more prominently, I found myself somewhat irritated by his speech, but once I had got well into the story and he faded into Lin's background, I admit that I missed his way of speaking (not to mention his way of seeing the world). Whatever my feelings, I would say that Roberts does a good job of dealing with Prabaker's speech.
Creating and sustaining an unconventional English dialect is not easy (or so I think), but looking at what Roberts does (based, no doubt, on his own experience of people's speech in India), we can see how he does it. Prabaker's unique dialect comes from: 1) his tendency to use participial phrases instead of verbs: 'everybody is running'; 'we'll be having'; 'you must be feeling'; and so on. 2) His plural singular nouns: 'tummies' for 'tummy'; 'prostitutes', when he is talking about one such woman; and so on. 3) Other odd constructions, such as how he uses articles: 'Everybody knows the Karla'; 'I gave it to her a very, very good sex also' (the which sentence is full of idiosyncracy, with 'also' at the end of the sentence instead of accompanying the subject and verb, and the use of the pronoun 'it' and even the modifier 'to'). Of course, nearly every single one of Prabaker's speeches could be used as an example, as even the casual reader of Shantaram shall soon discover. In any case, Roberts does an excellent job of sustaining Prabaker's unique style of speech throughout the work.
By contrast, the educated and brilliant mobsters with whom Lin later rubs shoulders sound very different. He is given the opportunity to join the close circle of Abdel Khader Khan's friends, a cosmopolitan group.
Khader is an accomplished English speaker, and the most philosophical character in the book, despite his being a mob boss, and, later, a holy warrior in the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On the one hand, he says things which seem to be typical of Indian speakers of English (at least in Shantaram), by which I mean he uses the word 'fellow' more often than, say, we would, and in constructions we would not (for example, on p. 193, he asks Lin, 'Are you a Christian fellow?').
On the other, he is capable of polished English (better than Lin's, or many native speakers of English, in fact):
'I will explain. Nothing exists as we see it. Nothing we see is really there, as we think we are seeing it. Our eyes are liars. Everything that seems real, is merely part of the illusion. Nothing exists, as we think it does. ...'Khader says many other things along such lines, such as the following:
'I still don't get it. [says Lin] I don't see how possible things don't exist.' [italics original]
'Let me put it another way. The agents of creation, the energy that actually animates the matter and the life that we think we see around us, cannot be measured or weighed or even put into time, as we know it. In one form, that energy is photons of light. The smallest object is a universe of open space to them, and the entire universe is but a speck of dust. What we call the world is just an idea—and not a very good one, yet. From the point of view of the light, the photon of light that animates it, the universe that we know is not real. Nothing is. Do you understand now?'
'Not really. It seems to me that if everything we think we know is wrong, or is an illusion, then none of us can know what to do, or how to live, or how to stay sane.'
'We lie,' he said with a flash of real humour in the gold-flecked amber of his eyes. 'The sane man is simply a better liar than the insane man. You and Abdullah are brothers. I know this. Your eyes lie, and tell you that this is not so. And you believe the lie, because it is easier.'
'And that's how we stay sane?'
'Yes. Let me tell you that I can see you as my son. I was not married, and I have no son, but there was a moment of time, yes, when it was possible for me to be married, and to have a son. And that moment of time was—how old are you?'
'Exactly! I knew it. That moment of time, when I could have been a father, was exactly thirty years ago. But if I tell you that I see it clearly, that you are my son, and I am your father, you will think that it is impossible. You will resist it. You will not see the truth, that I see now, and that I saw in the first moments when we met, a few hours ago. You will prefer to make a convenient lie, and to believe it—the lie that we are strangers, and that there is no connection between us. But fate—you know fate? Kismet is the word, in the Urdu language—fate has every power over us, but two. Fate cannot control our free will, and fate cannot lie. Men lie, to themselves more to others, and to others more often than they tell the truth. But fate does not lie. Do you see?' [pp. 194-5] On the one hand, the idea that everybody lies in order to stay sane (especially Khader's statement that 'the sane man is simply a better liar than the insane man') sounds just like something Ernest Becker would have said; on the other, Khader's philosophy is derived, it would appear, from quantum physics, not psychology.
'In the first place, I would like to make a general comment, and then I would like to follow it with a more detailed answer. Do you all allow me this? Good. Then, to the general comment—I think that suffering is the way we test our love. Every act of suffering, no matter how small or agonisingly great, is a test of love in some way. Most of the time, suffering is also a test of our love for God. This is my first statement. Does anyone wish to discuss this point, before I proceed? ...Another example of 'high speech' from Khader's inner circle is that of his trusted lieutenant, the Pakistani Abdul Ghani:
'Very well, I will move on to my more detailed answer. The Holy Koran tells us that all things in the universe are related, one to another, and that even opposites are united in some way. I think that there are two points about suffering that we should remember, and they have to do with pleasure and pain. The first is this: that pain and suffering are connected, but they are not the same thing. Pain can exist without suffering, and it is also possible to suffer without feeling pain. Do you agree with this?'
He scanned the attentive, expectant faces, and found approval.
'The difference between them is this, I think: that what we learn from pain—for example that fire burns and is dangerous—is always individual, for ourselves alone, but what we learn from suffering is what unites us as one human people. If we do not suffer with our pain, then we have not learned about anything but ourselves. Pain without suffering is like victory without struggle. We do not learn from it what makes us stronger or better or closer to God.'
The others wagged their heads in agreement. ...
'Ah,' Khader continued, 'I think that it's a little bit like what Mr. Lin tells us this Sapna fellow has done with the words from the Christian Bible. It is the reverse. Suffering is exactly like happiness, but backwards. One is the mirror image of the other, and has no real meaning or existence without the other.' ...
'It is like this,' Khaderbhai said gently. 'Take my hand, as an example. If I open my hand out like this, stretching the fingers and showing you the palm, or if I open my hand and put it on your shoulder, my fingers stretched out like this—that is happiness, or we may call it so for the sake of this moment. And if I curl my fingers, and close them tightly into a fist, just so, we may call that suffering. The two gestures are opposite in their meaning and power. Each one is completely different in appearance and in what it can do, but the hand that makes the gesture is the same. Suffering is happiness, backwards.' [pp. 298-9] Limiting my comments to the style of speech, Khader is fluent in English, and in Shantaram he has the most space for lengthy philosophical reflections - spoken ones, anyway. As we have seen, Roberts fills the book with Lin's own thoughts, but those take on a very different tone than Khader's philosophy. Lin always seems to have such insights in the moment, whereas Khader, it is clear from the style, provides answers or ideas about which he has long reflected. That said, his use of his hand as an example to demonstrate what he means by connected suffering and happiness appears to be one of those moments when someone is explaining something and a way of demonstrating it visually comes to them all of a sudden. Khader's language is not complex, but the ideas he elucidates are.
'The world is run by one million evil men, ten million stupid men, and a hundred million cowards,' Abdul Ghani pronounced in his best Oxford English accent... . 'The evil men are the power—the rich men, and the politicians, and the fanatics of religion—whose decisions rule the world, and set it on its course of greed and destruction.' ...Finally, to finish our observation of Roberts' mastery of dialect, let us look briefly at some examples of speech from Lin's friends among the 'Leopold's crowd', a group of relatively young foreigners and Indians whose social home is a bar called Leopold's. In the early going of the book I found their manners of speech tiresome, much as I had with Prabaker's, because there was so much of it, but, just as I had with Prabaker's, I grew to enjoy (or at least accept) it. Two of the characters do seem overly fond of coining and using bon mots, as we shall see.
'There are only one million of them, the truly evil men, in the whole world. The very rich and the very powerful, whose decisions really count—they only number one million. The stupid men, who number ten million, are the soldiers and policemen who enforce the rule of the evil men. They are the standing armies of twelve key countries, and the police forces of those and twenty more. In total, there are only ten million of them with any real power or consequence. They are often brave, I'm sure, but they are stupid, too, because they give their lives for governments and causes that use their flesh and blood as mere chess pieces. Those governments always betray them or let them down or abandon them, in the long run. Nations neglect no men more shamefully than the heroes of their wars.' ...
'And the hundred million cowards ... are the bureaucrats and paper shufflers and pen-pushers who permit the rule of the evil men, and look the other way. ...' ...
'This formula—the one million, the ten million, the hundred million—this is the real truth of all politics. Marx was wrong. It is not a question of classes, you see, because all the classes are in the hands of this tiny few. This set of numbers is the cause of empire and rebellion. This is the formula that has generated our civilisations for the last ten thousand years. This built the pyramids. This launched your Crusades. This put the world at war, and this formula has the power to impose the peace.' [pp. 349-50] Whether Abdul Ghani's formula is anything more than an idiosyncratic ideal (it does strike me as a wholly reductive and insufficient account of human affairs), it demonstrates his fluency. Roberts even goes so far as to have Lin observe Ghani speaking in his 'best Oxford English accent' as he delivers this lesson (it is an impromptu speech, given while both Abdul Ghani and Lin are waiting to see Khader), and, for example, the sentence, 'Nations neglect no men more shamefully than the heroes of their wars' is excellent, stylistically. I don't think Lin says or narrates anything quite so cleverly laconic.
First is Karla, the woman whom Lin loves from the first moment he sees her, although their relationship is tragic: not in the sense that one or the other dies, but in the sense that it is necessary that it fails as a relationship of love due to what has gone before and what occurs in the course of the novel. As Prabaker said, she 'is sounding American' but in fact is not; she has a fluency all her own:
The world and I are not on speaking terms, Karla said to me once in those early months. [italics original; p. 37]
'Sometimes you break your heart in the right way, if you know what I mean.' [p. 38]
It's my favourite place in the whole world, Karla once said [of Leopold's], to be treated like dirt. [italics original; p. 41]
'I wouldn't take too much notice of what Didier says. He can be very superficial, especially when he's being serious. He's the kind of guy who gets right down to the skin of things, if you know what I mean. I told him once he's so shallow that the best he can manage is a single entendre. The funny thing is, he liked it. I'll say this for Didier, you can't insult him. [p. 58]
What characterises the human race more, Karla once asked me, cruelty, or the capacity to feel shame for it? [italics original; p. 370]Then there is Didier, whose bon mots were the primary source of my early aggravation:
'You would say that I [italics original] think money is the best thing in the world,' he suggested lazily, 'and we'd both be right. Every sane and rational person one day realises that money is almost everything. The great principles and the noble virtues are all very well, in the long run of history, but from one day to the next, it's money that keeps us going—and the lack of it that drives us under the great wheel. ...' [p. 40]
'Craziness is the basis of many a fine relationship. In fact, craziness is the basis of every [italics original] fine relationship!' [p. 41]
'Ah. This is a Bombay gold dealer's no. It is a no that means maybe, and the more passionate the no, the more definite the maybe.' [italics original; p. 49]
'Well,' [Didier] puffed, 'a man has to draw the line somewhere. Civilisation, after all, is defined by what we forbid, more than what we permit.'
He paused, drumming the fingers of his right hand on the cold marble tabletop. After a few moments, he glanced around at me.
'That is one of mine,' he said, apparently peeved that I hadn't drawn attention to the phrase. When I didn't react, he spoke again. 'About the civilisation ... it was one of mine.'
'And damn clever,' I responded quickly.
'Nothing at all,' he said modestly, then he caught my eye, and we both laughed out loud. [p. 52]
'Now, sadly, there is all attitude and no style. It is the mark of the age in which we live that the style becomes the attitude, instead of the attitude becoming the style.'
He paused, permitting me a moment to acknowledge the turn of phrase. [p. 84]
'Fanatics,' Didier mused... 'always seem to have the same scrubbed and staring look about them. They have the look of people who do not masturbate, but who think about it almost all the time.' [p. 87]As all but one of the bon mots quoted above indicate, they are concentrated in the first tenth, or so, of the novel, so you can see why I found them tiresome, although, on their own, most of them are quite clever (I quite like Didier's remark about fanatics), and you can see, at this point, that Roberts is quite capable of developing distinct styles of speech for his characters. In addition, Lin's character is demonstrated by the fact that he dwells on what Karla says; he calls to mind some her of sayings several times during the course of Shantaram. Better still, Karla and Didier have their own distinctive style in coining their turns-of-phrase; Karla's are often cynical and sharp, while Didier's are charming, if sometimes biting.
At this point it is time to turn to the last subject to which I wanted to turn my attention. Other examples of distinctive styles of speech could be cited, but it is plain from all we have seen that Roberts has mastered rendering distinctive styles of speech, in English, of a wide variety of non-native speakers of the language.
'Bombay itself is Shantaram's strongest performance', says the quote, cited on the back cover of the novel, from the review in the Washington Post. I want to see whether this is truly so. That is, does Roberts do for Bombay something like what Tolkien did when he imagined Middle-earth? Does the way Roberts describes Bombay and all who within it live, and move, and have their being, resonate in such a way to make it more than just the scene of action? I am not expecting that Roberts will have written for Bombay with the same clarity, preciseness, and attention to detail and to the activity of the landscape as Tolkien did; arguably such a style of writing is peculiarly Tolkien's, which few authors before or since have matched. But one hopes that he did a better job than Jason F. Wright in The Wednesday Letters, who was unable to communicate the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, or even than James Howard Kunstler in World Made by Hand, who evoked the natural wonder of New York state, but only fitfully so.
Bombay, of course, is not going to be picturesque in the way the Shenandoah Valley or New York state are (being at the time, as Lin points out, 'the third-biggest city in the world'), but we shall see whether Roberts is able to effectively communicate that character particular to Bombay.
Prabaker had taken [me] to the hotel along a wide, tree-lined, and relatively empty avenue that followed a curve of the bay from the tall, stone arch of the Gateway of India Monument. The street at the front of the building was crammed with people and vehicles, however, and the sound of voices, car horns, and commerce was like a storm of rain on wood and metal roofs.There is, of course, more to Bombay than that:
Hundreds of people walked there, or stood in talking groups. Shops, restaurants, and hotels filled the street side by side along its entire length. Every shop or restaurant featured a smaller sub-shop attached to the front of it. Two or three attendants, seated on folding stools, manned each of these small encroachments on the footpath. ... Languages and music changed with every step, and every restaurant spilled a different scent into the boiling air.
Men with bullock wagons and handcarts wound their way through heavy traffic to deliver watermelons and sacks of rice, soft drinks and racks of clothes, cigarettes and blocks of ice. ... There were beggars and jugglers and acrobats, snake charmers and musicians and astrologers, palmists and pimps and pushers. And the street was filthy.Trash tumbled from the windows above without warning, and garbage was heaped in piles on the pavement or the roadway, where fat, fearless rats slithered to feast.
Most prominent on the street, to my eyes, were the many crippled and diseased beggars. Every kind of illness, disability, and hardship paraded there, stood at the doorways of restaurants and shops, or approached people on the street with profesionally plaintive cries. ... [Prabaker] drew my attention to other images of those beggars that softened the awful caricature presented by the performance of their piteousness. One group of beggars sat in a doorway, playing cards, some blind men and their friends enjoyed a meal of fish and rice, and laughing children took turns to ride with a legless man on his little trolley.
Prabaker was stealing sideways glances at my face as we walked.
'How are you liking our Bombay?'
'I love it,' I answered, and it was true. To my eyes, the city was beautiful. It was wild and exciting. Buildings that were British Raj-romantic stood side to side with modern, mirrored business towers. The haphazard slouch of neglected tenements crumbled into lavish displays of market vegetables and silks. I heard music from every shop and passing taxi. The colours were vibrant. The fragrances were dizzingly delicious. And there were more smiles in the eyes on those crowded streets than in any other place I'd ever known.
Above all else, Bombay was free—exhiliratingly free. I saw that liberated, unconstrained spirit wherever I looked, and I found myself responding to it with the whole of my heart. [pp. 20-1] Of course this isn't the first Lin has seen of Bombay, but this is, if you like, his (and our) introduction to the city. The attractiveness of the city is everywhere in view: in its variety; in its grandeur juxtaposed with poverty; in its vibrancy. On the one hand, Roberts makes such weak statements as 'the colours were vibrant', or, 'the fragrances were... delicious', without providing something to invoke our senses. On the other hand, there are many alliterative phrases and almost poetic lines capturing the world of Bombay: 'there were more smiles in the eyes on those crowded streets'; 'trash tumbled', 'fat, fearless rats slithered to feast'; 'every restaurant spilled a different scent into the boiling air' (this last being one of my favourite lines); and so on. As for vivid, concrete depictions of the city-scape, it must be said that Roberts opens his introduction to the city with a rather vague description of the concourse on which the hotel at which Lin is staying is located, although it possesses some concrete detail. All the same, I think Roberts captures something of Bombay with considerable literary skill. He is no Tolkien (but then, who is?), but, at least in the beginning, the statement in the review from the Washington Post that 'Bombay itself is Shantaram's strongest performance' is borne out, I find. Incidentally, the last paragraph, from which I quoted the opening sentence, moves into one of Lin's many reflections.
Alone again, I sat down, set my chair against the wall, and let the activity of Leopold's and its clamorous patrons close over me. Leopold's was the largest bar and restaurant in Colaba, and one of the largest in the city. The rectangular ground-floor room occupied a frontage equal to any four other restaurants, and was served by two metal doors that rolled up into wooden arches to give an expansive view of the Causeway, Colaba's busiest and most colourful street. There was a smaller, more discreet, air-conditioned bar on the first floor, supported by sturdy columns that divided the ground floor into roughly equal sections, and around which many of the tables were grouped. Mirrors on those pillars, and on much of the free wall space, provided the patrons with one of the bar's major attractions: the chance to inspect, admire, and ogle others in circumspect if not entirely anonymous fashion. ... Leopold's was a place for people to see, to be seen, and to see themselves in the act of being seen. [italics original]More:
There were some thirty tables, all of them topped with pearl-smoked Indian marble. Each table had four or more cedar chairs—sixty-minute chairs, [ditto] Karla used to call them, because they were just uncomfortable enough to discourage customers from staying for more than an hour. A swarm of broad fans buzzed in the high ceiling, stirring the white-glass pendulum lights to a slow, majestic sway. Mahogany trim lined the painted walls, surrounded the windows and doors, and framed the many mirrors. Rich fruits used in the desserts and juices—paw paw, papaya, custard apples, mosambi, grapes, watermelon, banana, santra, and, in the season, four varieties of mango—were displayed across the whole surface of one wall in gorgeous abundance. A vast, solid-teak manager's counter presided, like the bridge of a sailing ship, over the busy deck of the restaurant. Behind that, along a narrow corridor, one corner of the frantic kitchen was occasionally visible beyond the scurry of waiters and the sweating clouds of steam.
A faded but still sumptuous elegance struck and held the eyes of all who walked through those wide arches into Leopold's little world of light, colour, and richly panelled wood. Its chief splendour was truly admired by none but its humblest workers, however, for it was only when the bar was closed, and the cleaners removed all the furniture each morning, that the beauty of the floor was exposed. Its intricate tile-work replicated the pattern used in a north Indian palace, with hexagons in black, cream, and brown radiating from a central sunburst. And thus a paving designed for princes, all but invisible to the tourists with their eyes on their own reflections in the dazzling mirrors, revealed its luxurious perfections only in secret to the naked feet of the cleaners, the city's poorest and humblest working men. [pp. 45-6] Roberts goes into more detail, on pp. 46-7, of what goes on at Leopold's and on the Causeway, especially the more illegal activities; I should probably quote it, to give a sense of the flavour of the Colaba district of Bombay, but this post is getting long enough. The description of Leopold's is one of the longest sustained descriptions of a particular location, no doubt due to the importance of the place as the social home of the circle of people surrounding Karla and Didier. The reference to the tile floor and its beauty, observed only by the humble cleaners, is a good touch, revealing something of Lin's (say, Roberts's) character, since he takes the trouble to refer to it and the condition of the men who clean it. This passage is not quite as poetic as Lin's initial impression of Bombay, but it gives a fairly vivid impression of what Leopold's looks like. One wonders what restaurant served as the model for Leopold's: perhaps the place Roberts described is an actual Bombay restaurant. While it could have been improved by the detail of where the stairs are to go up to the first floor from the ground floor, I was impressed by the fact that Roberts refers to specific fruits in describing the bountiful array of fruits displayed, rather than just noting that there was such a display. It provides something for our sensory imagination to grasp.
Tea arrived, and I took my glass to stand near one of the huge window openings that looked out over the slum. Far below, the tattered cloak of the ghetto spread outward from the construction site to the very edge of the sea. The narrow lanes, obscured by ragged overhangs, were only partially visible, and seemed more like tunnels than streets. Smoke rose in drifts from cooking fires, and stuttered on a sluggish seaward breeze to disperse over a scattering of canoes that fished the muddy shore.Still more:
Inland from the slum there were a large number of tall apartment buildings, the expensive homes of the middle-rich. From my perch, I looked down at the fabulous gardens of palms and creepers on the tops of some, and the miniature slums that servants of the rich had built for themselves on the tops of others. Mould and mildew scarred every building, even the newest. I'd come to think of it as beautiful, that decline and decay, creeping across the face of the grandest designs: that stain of the end, spreading across every bright beginning in Bombay. [p. 256] Lin is observing the city from his vantage point on the twenty-third floor of the then-unfinished World Trade Centre in Bombay. By this point Lin has been living in the slum adjoining the construction site for some time. The first paragraph of the passage is economical yet vividly descriptive; the second evocative and reflective. I find that Roberts weaves descriptive passages of Bombay such as these into his narrative with better skill than the explicit reflections.
The rocky cusp of coastline bordering the slum began in mangrove swamp, at its left, and swept through the deeper water around a long, new-moon curve of white-crested wavelets to Nariman Point. The monsoon was at full strength, but just at that moment no rain fell from the grey-black ocean of the lightning-fractured sky. Wading birds swooped into the shallow swamp, and nestled among the slender, trembling reeds. Fishing boats plied their nets on the ragged waves of the bay. Children swam and played along the bouldered, pebble-strewn shoreline. On the golden crescent, across the small bay, apartment towers for the rich stood shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, all the way to the embassy district at the Point. In the large courtyards and recreation areas of those towers, the wealthy walked and took the air. Seen from the distant slum, the white shirts of the men and colourful saris of the women were like so many beads threaded by a meditating mind on the black strings of asphalt paths. The air, there, on that rocky fringe of the slum was clean and cool. The silences were large enough to swallow occasional sounds. The area was known as the Colaba Back Bay. There were few places in the city better suited to the spiritual and physical stocktaking that a wanted man worries himself with, when the omens are bad enough. ...One more passage should suffice to demonstrate my point:
Sunlight suddenly pushed aside the sodden monsoon clouds, and for a few moments the windows of the apartment buildings across the bay were dazzling, brilliant mirrors of the golden sun. Then, horizon-wide, the rain clouds regrouped, and slowly sealed the splendent circle of sky, herding one against another until heaven matched the rolling sea with dark, watery waves of cloud. [p. 371] I think that Roberts has a gift for descriptive landscapes. Certainly of the authors whose landscapes I have paid much attention to for The Marginal Virtues, he has been one of the better ones. The sibilant 'slowly sealed the splendent circle of sky', the image of clouds herding themselves, clouds as waves, contrasted with the brief shaft of sunlight; all are excellent touches. The lengthy opening paragraph, meanwhile, sets the stage with a broad view of Bombay's shoreline from one vantage point. The simile in which people are 'prayer beads' being 'threaded' on 'black strings of asphalt paths' is one of the cleverer images I have recently seen in a book.
Khader and I strolled back towards Colaba. ... At Sassoon Dock we crossed the road and passed beneath the arch at the main entrance to the old dockyard. The smell of prawns, drying in the sun in pink mountains, made my stomach flip, but when we caught sight of the sea the stench was lost in the strong breeze. Nearer to the docks we threaded our way through crowds of men pushing handcarts, and women carrying baskets on their heads, all bearing crushed ice and a burden of fish. Factories that produced the ice and processed the fish added their industrious clangour to the wailing of auctioneers and salesmen. At the edge of the dock itself, there were twenty large, wooden fishing boats, built to the same designs used for vessels that had sailed the Arabian Sea, on the Maharashtrian coast of India, five hundred years before. Here and there between them were larger, more expensive metal boats. The contrast between those rusted, graceless hulks and the elegant wooden boats beside them spoke a history, a modern saga, a world story that moved from life at sea, as a romantic calling, to the profiteer's cold, efficient lusting for the bottom line.So much, then, for Shantaram.
We sat on a wooden bench in a quiet, shaded corner of the dock where fishermen sometimes rested to share a meal. Khader stared at the vessels, which were shifting and genuflecting at their moorings on the lapping tide. [p. 478] This passage is one of a few which tell of the business of Bombay life (not that, say, the first passage I cited on this subject didn't do the same). Roberts has a gift for words when describing things: the fishing boats 'genuflect', a nice touch, as they rise and fall with the tide. His phrase 'industrious clangour' strikes me as a bit overdone, but when spoken has a good feel in the mouth. I could go on. At this point I think it is safe to say that I have confirmed my thesis. Bombay is indeed the novel's strongest performance, as the review by the Washington Post stated. Roberts has managed to make the most of living in Bombay by describing it richly and fully. There are passages where he acknowledges its horrors as well as its splendours, and passages where the city seems to have a healing effect on Lin. I had wanted to quote one or two, but, funnily enough, couldn't find them when I was combing for passages on Bombay. In any event Shantaram is worth reading for its evocative and compelling narrative of Bombay (or Mumbai, as I suppose we should call it in everyday speech). Roberts's ability to weave such apt, effective descriptions of Bombay as a place into his narrative is one of the joys of the novel, and far outweighs the comparatively weak (in my view) weaving of Lin's reflections, although they are, in themselves, moderately effective. All in all, then, Roberts does very well, at times excellently, in two out of three aspects which I have looked at, and moderately well in the other. There are, I'm sure other aspects about the novel worth paying attention to, considering its length, but these three were noteworthy for me.