Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Narrated by Humphrey Bower
Well, it turns out that India is not merely a land of funtime singalongs. If you’re dying to delve into the underbelly of Bombay in the 80s, slums and black markets and more, Shantaram is the book for you. It’s a world I knew nothing about, described by a tour guide who’s really been there: Gregory David Roberts, the Australian robber and prison escapee who based much of this novel on his own life.
Story: A man on the run has to start from scratch. And so we meet our protagonist, Lin, during his first hours on Indian soil. He must make friends, learn the languages, and forge a new life for himself in a teeming, complex city he soon comes to love. Rural villages, Bombay slums, brothels, lice-infested prisons, Bollywood movie sets, and Afghan mountainsides all serve as backdrops for Lin’s many adventures, both criminal and philanthropic. And a love story captivates throughout.
Writing: Mostly straightforward, but at times quite literary.
Best thing about it: Fascinating details about the culture and way of life, especially on the criminal side. News to me!
Worst thing about it: There is an enormous cast of characters and it can be hard to keep track.
Audiobook insights: On the positive side, the narrator is great, especially when shifting between Kiwi, Indian, and French accents. On the negative side, unless you are familiar with Indian and Arabic names, it can be tough to keep track of all the characters; I think it would be easier to see the names in print. Also, the audiobook is (gasp) abridged, which I did not know when I bought it, and may have contributed to my name confusion.
Final thoughts: A solid read, but a big investment (the printed book, I understand, has some 900 pages). Unless you’re into epics, don’t even try.