Saturday, April 21, 2007


The book was calling to me from the cabinet in the big open breakfast room of the Chiengmai bed and breakfast. I opened the glass door and started reading the book with my breakfast. “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 realized, 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.” After reading a few pages, I was done with breakfast and put it back into the glassed cabinet.

The next morning I read a few more pages. “The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air...It smells of gods, demons, empires, and civilizations in resurrection and decay. It’s the blue skin smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the Island City, and the blood metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers.” Now this may sound bombastic to some, but if you’ve been in Bombay, or anywhere in India, you recognize it immediately as a reasonable attempt to describe the undescribable. A few months out of India and still trying to make sense of it all, I thought this book might fill in a few of the many huge blank spaces of my understanding. I wrote down the name - Shantaram - and auther - Gregory David Roberts. I was going to have to buy this book.

The next morning I’d brought a book to breakfast to trade for Shantaram. I couldn’t wait until I found it somewhere in a bookstore. This book was sucking me in, and at 931 pages it would easily carry me through the long plane rides back to the US and to Alaska.

I’ve been living in parallel worlds - my ostensibly 'real' life and Roberts' India - almost a month now. Flying back to the US from Thailand got me a long way into Roberts' world. By the time I reached LA, I needed to look it up on the internet. Was this fiction or autobiography? The morning after seeing Mira Nair’s The Namesake, I discovered Shantaram was loosely autobiographical fiction, soon to be a movie directed by Mira Nair starring Johnny Depp. While I assume that Depp will play the narrator - named Shantaram while living in a Maharashtra village for several months - it would be really delicious to see him play Prabakar, the Indian guide who picks up the narrator as he gets off the bus from the Bombay airport with his incredible smile. "There was something in the disk of his smile - a kind of mischievous exuberance, more honest and more excited than mere happiness - that pierced me to the heart. It was the work of a second, the eye contact between us. It was just long enough for me to decide to trust him - the little man with the big smile. .. "I am Bombay guide. Very excellent first number Bombay guide. I am. All Bombay I know it very well. You want to see everythying. I know exactly where is it you will find the most of everything. I can show you even more than everything."

I finished Shantaram last night with the help of a couple days of some sort of stomach ailment that’s kept me in bed. Having finally finished, I must say that the end was not nearly as beguiling as the beginning, though it is never boring and old characters reappear clarifying questions I'd long forgotten - though in a book about India, such tying of loose ends is totally unnecessary, since we know we will never get it all. The book is best when Roberts lushly evokes the life of the city (Bombay) and its inhabitants - mainly the slum dwellers and underworld. Having flown over and driven by the massive shanty towns, I was hungry to learn about the lives inside. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Robert’s version of these lives, but its ability to see the richness of the human social and spiritual infrastructures that counters what outsiders can only see as squalor is consistent with my own experiences living in rural Thailand. It constantly reminds us that even the poorest of the poor, is a full human. [I took the shanty picture as we flew into the Bombay airport. It's from an earlier post on Farmer Suicides]

There are lots of reflections on life, death, and in-between. A few are profound, many sound more profound than they probably are. The language is generally rich, and if it often goes a little over the top, well, India is over the top. There are lots of excellent books about India in English by the Indian authors. Can an Australian writer capture something they cannot? His living in the slums and working for gangsters gives a view of parts of India I haven't seen elsewhere. And if this is all a hoax and he really didn't live these lives, then his imagination is truly incredible.

This book fits nicely into my “Airplane Reading” category. Requirements for this are simple: 1) it’s hard to put down, and can carry one through long bouts of travel and 2) it readjusts my brain, fills in blank spaces, or better yet, makes me rethink what I know. This one clearly did both.

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