October 21, 2008 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Shantaram is the story of a violent man's search for the man of peace within himself. Gregory David Roberts, clip 1, clip 2, 3 and 4, is an ex-junkie, former gun runner; drugs, forged passports and black market currency dealer; was a member of the Bombay Mafia and close with a Mafia don there; acted in Bollywood movies; fought with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan; imprisoned in an Australian maximum security prison with a 19 year sentence and escaped to the Bombay slums, where he set up a free clinic. His semi-autobiography is called Shantaram, which means man pf peace. Review on Shunya. His website. Movie due out in 2009.

Review by MeFite, Slarty Bartfast

Johnny Depp on his upcoming role in Shantaram

The Shantaram Tour, a photo essay

Knowing how much his hairstyle will be appreciated here - but I still think this guy has an awesome story.
posted by nickyskye (30 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I heard that Depp had dropped out of the production and that it had been stalled. I have no proof, though.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:38 PM on October 21, 2008

The book is a wonderful, richly-detailed, emotionally-engrossing read. I hope the movie can do it justice.
posted by amyms at 11:31 PM on October 21, 2008

I read this while holidaying around Europe. A very engrossing read. I remember thinking it'd make a great movie, but it seems so encompassing that it'd need to be a trilogy or a series even. Gregory David Roberts sure had an interesting story to tell.
posted by robotot at 11:46 PM on October 21, 2008

When I recommended it to someone, she told me that I'd been the third person to push it her way.

Great book.
posted by darth_tedious at 11:52 PM on October 21, 2008

I just became aware of this book about a week and half ago. I was at friends and saw it sitting there, I picked it up and another friend began telling me how great it is. I'll have to check it out when I get time.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:07 AM on October 22, 2008

nickyskye: In fact, was wondering just yesterday whether you knew about Shantaram and was going to recommend the book if you haven't read as yet. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 3:28 AM on October 22, 2008

as much as i like johnny depp, i hope they find somebody else to play the part. he's just not right in any way for it.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:31 AM on October 22, 2008

Yup, great book! I gave a copy to a friend, as seems to be quite common with this one, and she subsequently ended up touring around India and got me a Leopold's Cafe t-shirt while in Mumbai, w00t! It will be interesting to see what they do with the movie. Strangely enough, I was out for drinks a while back with the nanny of the children of one of the movie's producers, who was shortly off to Mumbai to begin filming. Haven't heard anything since, but it sounded like a sweet job. Gregory David Roberts hangs out at Cafe Goa in Acland St (well, he did a few years ago) for any Melburnians who want to check out the hair do. :)
posted by Onanist at 3:33 AM on October 22, 2008

also: surprisingly, only one post & 41 comments mentioning shantaram here at mefi.

also: damn, what a great book!
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:35 AM on October 22, 2008

Heh, I see that I was the first person to mention the book on mefi back in the beginning of 2004. Funny that it's only now that it has earned a dedicated post!
posted by Onanist at 5:51 AM on October 22, 2008

Awesome story, a rollicking tale. nickyskye, I swear you are my soul sister. I have lent this book out to so many people that I've lost count. The last reader was my daughter who took one look at its size and said 1) 'There's no way I'm going to read a book that big' (and then after being persuaded to sample it and falling in love with it) said, 2) 'There's no way I can carry that around'. So, in its latest incarnation I split it into three and did an amateur bookbinding using gaffer tape [the result] - I don't know where the first part is though.
posted by tellurian at 5:52 AM on October 22, 2008

The book is a wonderful, richly-detailed, emotionally-engrossing read.

I'm going to buck the trend on this one, and admit that I thought about 90% of the book pretty much sucked. There were intermittent sections that were superb, really funny and closely observed, like his description of learning how to bathe around other people when he visited the village. I still crack up over his "over-underpants" and "under-underpants" piece, because it is so true-to-life and he described that experience so well.

But mostly it was a "hey everyone, I'm really cool!" book, with the now-common arc from drugs/criminality to being a reformed literary sort of guy, but without much that was really insightful or compelling. I read it back to back with Vikram Chandra's superb Sacred Games and Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and there was just no comparison in quality. Chandra's book in particular stands head and shoulders above Shantaram, in my opinion, and if you have time for only one 900+ page book set in India, read this one instead.

All that said, I'm really happy for the author that he is selling books, and that there might be a movie made; I'll certainly watch it when it comes out.
posted by Forktine at 6:52 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm, perchance I will buy the book to read on the train home tonight. I really enjoy Indian and Indian-set fiction. Something about the multi-layered social narratives reminds me a lot of Dickens, but with better food, more colour and better sex.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:47 AM on October 22, 2008

Well, I really didn't need to add more to my books-to-buy list right now, but this sounds great, thanks for the links and the follow up comments.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:00 AM on October 22, 2008

Forktine: are you seriously trying to compare the literary quality of an Australian with that of Indian writers?!??

Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, RK Narayan, Ved Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amitav Ghosh, Arundati Roy, Shashi Tharoor...the number of Indian writers who could rightly wipe their asses with the best recent output of the West is almost as large as India itself.

But that's not the point.

Shantaram is not great because of literary quality. In fact, in terms of style, it's only marginally above any airport potboiler. Where it excels, however, are in the descriptions of India from a Western perspective, and in a page-turning plot. But perhaps its strongest point is the fact that it's semi-autobiographical - you can excuse the naive quality of the writing because you can see the real man behind the experiences poking right through the narrative, and the interplay between the hardened, thuggish, maximum-security prisoner & the sensitive soul daubing his reflections onto paper is an integral part of the overall work, so the naive style actually contributes (probably unintentionally) another layer to the broader experience one takes from the book.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:55 AM on October 22, 2008

yeh, yeh, yeh, Ved Mehta is Pakistani, but Indian-born. same-same.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:56 AM on October 22, 2008

Ya, it's awesome, all the more-subaltern-than-thou types I know ripped through this book in under two days. I lost three, myself.
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 12:31 PM on October 22, 2008

heh - i got through most of my bootleg copy on a 36-hour Chennai to Delhi train. 2nd class sleeper, naturally - lying on my blue upper berth, in between "aaah chai koffi chai koffi aaah chai chai chai koffi!". offloaded it in Pushkar. it was missing a number of pages (bootleg quality control) so i didn't want to hang on to that copy & the booksellerwallah was all "this is bootleg, no good, people are wanting real copy only!" me: "but it is 100% indian product! best quality! number one! only in India can you find such high quality publishing!"
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:33 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I, too liked the book, and thought that it was an interesting read, from a distinct perspective. I cannot be quite so enthusiastic in my praise, though. I thought that the damn thing needed a more assertive editor, to be sure.
posted by msali at 3:08 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Forktine: are you seriously trying to compare the literary quality of an Australian with that of Indian writers?!??

Yes, absolutely. I'd put the best of Peter Carey or Tim Winton up against anyone else writing in English, for example. For such a small population, Australia has produced some pretty stunning literature.

I know, I know, Australians like to take the piss about themselves and their country, and what better way to do so than to joke about one's vernacular literature? But in all honesty, there is nothing second rate about that particular (ex)colony's literary production, other than that I wish more of it were published here.

There are more (numerically, though not as a proportion of population) Indian writers being published in the US, but a lot of it is in that category that I think of as half magical-realist, half post-colonial, like Rushdie, and as such its readability can really suffer. Important in the history of letters, but not on my short list of books I want to reread.

That's why I liked Chandra's book so much, in that he had clearly read all his post-colonialists and magical-realists, and certainly drew on them, but managed to produce a book that also drew on the best of genre fiction and social realist writing. (All technical terms here made up or used incorrectly -- I am not a scholar of fiction.) Meaning, you know, that there were strong characters, a really good plot, and much of the book was drawn very tightly from some mixture of real life and real life as portrayed in popular culture.

Robert's book, on the other hand, really suffered from poor editing, and the authorial voice kept veering around. It was sort of half wanna-be-Burroughs, with the descriptions of life on a downhill slide, half wildly inane plot imaginings, and fully self-aggrandizing. But like I said, there were pieces that were stupendous, and that really made up for the worst of the book's excesses. He's not a bad writer -- he's a writer who needs to drink less coffee, and have a really good editor cut his 900 pages to 450.
posted by Forktine at 3:35 PM on October 22, 2008

That's a good description of Chandra - indulging in MR/PC without losing a certain solidity of character, plot & historical detail. Red Earth & Pouring Rain is another goodie.

Also, I forgot Mukul Kesavan - Looking through Glass.

As I've said sometime previously about Shantaram, the thing that pissed me off most was the author constantly butting in with these shitty aphorisms (I'll make one up: "The rich suffer in silence; the poor suffer noisily") which I presume were based on the scripted & notebooked "wisdom" of the Swiss (?) girl he was so enamoured with.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:18 PM on October 22, 2008

tellurian, is a soul sister allowed to have a cyber crush on you? Being emotionally promiscuous, I've mash noted a number of MeFites, including the cydonian and Ubu Roivas. Nice to have you three in one thread. *sigh, glutton for enjoyment

What a neat dad you are for rebinding that book for your daughter.

The truth is that I've never read the book, never heard of the guy until a few days ago, when Ubu posted a link to Shunya and I roamed around that excellent site, came across the review, googled Shantaram and found nothing had been posted about him as an FPP. Had no idea about the other comments on the blue and am nicely surprised to read them now. (Thanks Ubu :)

India has drawn extraordinary people into its amazingness, some who truly blossomed there. Freda Bedi, Nicholas Roerich and Ernst Hoffman come quickly to mind. I'm looking forward to reading this book now.

Of the more recent generation who went to India and found some awakening there, trying to remember the title, there was a self published book in the mid90s about a guy who motorcycled it across the Deccan plateau, that was very readable. ah, Deccan Tamasha. And an incredible painter, Robert Geesink, who married a local, a Lambani tribal in Hampi, Karnataka.

You never know where a post on the blue with take you.

Thanks all for the wonderful additional links, it makes a thread so much more satisfying.
posted by nickyskye at 4:22 PM on October 22, 2008

I can't get myself to read this book (though I love India based literature).

Something about self-promotion and the glorification of crime bugs me.

The guy's a hard-core criminal, and I sure as hell won't be financing his retirement on some Caribbean island, sipping his cocktails and being waited upon by bikini-clad waitresses.

Guy should be in prison.
posted by Mephisto at 5:08 PM on October 22, 2008

he was. and it didn't sound nice at all. had me scratching all over.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:22 PM on October 22, 2008

Aside from that, he was eventually captured, extradited to Australia, and served out his final six years of prison, two in solitary confinement.

So, he's paid his dues, no? And the novel isn't about profiting from crime (so much) because it relates not to his criminal career in Australia, but to his adventures in the Subcontinent. Apparently, some of those adventures involved the Mumbai underworld, but that would be for the Indian legal system to prosecute, if they have a case against him.

Apart from that, it's a real story of redemption. Apart from his work as a slum 'doctor' there's his ongoing charity work:

People very often offer me money, when I’m doing speeches or when they write to me, to help me with my charity work in Bombay. I don’t take money. I do everything from my own pocket, and I don’t ask for or accept a dollar from anyone. But SANKALP desperately needs your money, and I urge anyone and everyone out there who responds to my novel from the heart, and wants to give something, to give it to SANKALP.

The astoundingly inspirational founder/director of SANKALP, Eldred Tellis, [...] has established support programmes for addicts in prisons in Afghanistan and Iran as well as in the secret lanes and gullies of Bombay

posted by UbuRoivas at 5:29 PM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I found the tone-of-voice to be so grating, it was always pulling me out of the narrative, it was trying too hard and to self-congratulatory, I couldn't make it more than 30 pages in. I really really wanted to enjoy it but was totally put off.

I also tossed Accelerando across the room when the story ended up secondary to What They Wanted To Tell Me. I know it's unrelated, but I know it's also a book a lot of people like I might find here loved. And I didn't.
posted by stevil at 5:47 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

So he served out his term, after his escape?

If so, then yes. He's paid his due I guess. I believe in rehabilitation.

However, I also believe in making a personal choice of not giving a criminal my money for the luxury of reading about his story.

So, fair point. Maybe he shouldn't be in prison. But he shouldn't be living it large off my money either, and he won't be.
posted by Mephisto at 6:05 PM on October 22, 2008

But he shouldn't be living it large off my money either, and he won't be.

certainly not, if you buy a bootlegged Indian copy of the book!

(failing that, a second-hand copy or one from a library shouldn't see any royalties going to the author)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:00 AM on October 23, 2008

I found the tone-of-voice to be so grating, it was always pulling me out of the narrative, it was trying too hard and to self-congratulatory, I couldn't make it more than 30 pages in. I really really wanted to enjoy it but was totally put off.

I had a similar experience with Shantaram. After my five friends hyped it up as a masterpiece I took a stab at reading it and was left disappointed. It's a great story, but for most of the book it is a poorly written one. I can't imagine what the first draft was like when he wrote it in prison the first time around.
posted by ageispolis at 9:54 AM on October 23, 2008

hehe - yeah, Genet he ain't.

Genet's first draft of The Miracle of the Rose was written on toilet paper in Mettray Prison, found by guards & destroyed, then rewritten.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:00 PM on October 23, 2008

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