ShantaramThis book is on nearly everyone’s to-read list, before, after or during a trip to India. Rightly so, because it’s a good book. Maybe if I’d read it before I arrived I’d have a different opinion of the book, but reading it on the beaches of Goa, I didn’t take to it so warmly. Yes it was engrossing. Yes I enjoyed it. And yes, I’m glad I read it. But I read the whole thing (from the very first chapter) with clenched teeth, ready to shout out that the story is wrong, it’s a lie, this isn’t the India I know. In the end, I don’t necessarily think that’s the case, but I still take fault with two main aspects of the book; two things that are probably why the book is so popular. (Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead.)

Too much philosophizing

Just about every other page, a motto, slogan or mantra was thrown at the reader. A lot of it sounded nice, but a lot of it I disagreed with. Naturally, considering the book (in its most simple synopsis) mostly concerns itself with criminals and their acts, heroic or not.

Ultimately, I couldn’t find a single character in the book that I could relate to. Which is fine. That’s why I like reading. I like escaping through another character. But when the book seems to be as much about a story as it as about a philosophy, I had a difficult time finding common ground. One of the main themes of the book is about people.

I’d like to agree with that: people are indeed what makes a place, a philosophy work. But in Shantaram, the people are either too good, too bad, or some sort of confusing and contradictory mixture of the two. It’s that good/bad mix which makes for an interesting character and an excellent story. That’s why it’s such a good book.

I think it might be a gangster trend, actually—where a bad guy is portrayed doing good things. It happens all the time in movies and in literature, but is that really how the world works? I don’t know.

Romanticization of India

The author loves India. I get it. He loves the Indian people, the Bombay culture, the history. The very first chapter of the book goes into a long romanticization of Bombay: its slums, its people, its tourist touts. I’m sorry, but just like the evil in a society is almost always an extreme, so is its perfection. Most places, are, in fact, just like everywhere else.

The protagonist of the story immediately meets an Indian tourist tout, the first Indian he meets in Bombay. And this guy turns out to be a wonderful, trustworthy, honesty person, and eventual friend? Give me a break. I trust people. I really do. But this story is just ridiculous, and overwhelmingly romanticized. India is a beautiful place, and I’ve met many good people. But what are the odds of the first person you meet in a country turning out to be as good and beautiful a person as this fellow, Prabaeker? Slim, I’d say. Maybe that’s what makes this such a special, fantastic story.

Conclusion

Okay, so I have some issues with the book. But it’s still beautifully written, engaging, light-hearted when it needs to be and heavy in all the right places. It made me think, and I definitely recognized India in the writing, in the descriptions, the histories, the people. And the book seems to introduce stories and topics from all over the world, too, not just India. There’s detailed and highly-researched stories from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Afghanistan, in Sri Lanka, and loads of others. All side stories to the central narrative, of the main theme, but it all adds up to make for a beautiful and highly interesting story. It’s a good book and I’d definitely recommend it for anyone’s reading list, especially if India is on (or has been on) your itinerary.

Please note some posts do make me some money but I never sacrifice my integrity in exchange for a favorable review. Read the full disclosure policy.

12 comments

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  1. Hi Adam,
    I liked your review of this book. As someone who grew up speaking Marathi in Mumbai, I can relate to a lot of things he says, while some of them are just a weird way of looking at things. Overall I loved the storytelling and the characters. Social commentary – not so much. :-)
    Priyank.

    • Thanks Priyank. I found myself having a hard time deciding on my opinion of the book simply because there were some really beautiful parts, and some less so.

  2. Loraineanderson@gmail.com

    You need to read Bombay lost & found. It’s a really good book as well. Also all the books from rohinton mistry (a fine balance) As an expat who lived in Bombay for 7 yrs I love India

    • Oh cool! Thanks for the recommendations. I’m reading Midnight’s Children right now and absolutely loving it.

  3. I loved Shantaram but more for the unbelievably interesting life the central character leads than it’s portrayal of India for I agree the view of India is most definitely romanticised. I read a lot of books based in or about India before I went there and thus was completely in love with the place before having met it. My love waned (a tiny bit) once I got there and discovered more for myself – this sometimes happens once you get to know the real thing though!

    • That’s a completely understandable reaction. I think if Shantaram was the only thing someone read about India before coming here, though, they’d be in for a big surprise.

    • That’s a completely understandable reaction. I think if Shantaram was the only thing someone read about India before coming here, though, they’d be in for a big surprise.

  4. Earl

    It’s funny because I’m a huge fan of the book and I think that it is impossible to understand how the author views India unless a person spends a significant amount of time in that country. I read the book after I had spent 2.5 years in India and I found a lot of what he wrote to be spot on. The ‘game’ that is life in India is as complex as any and that seems to be the reason why travelers are so deeply affected by their travels there…whether positively or negatively.

    And during one visit, I had my wallet pick-pocketed within 30 minutes of arriving in India and the first person I met after that incident has become a lifelong friend now. He was a man who ran a small overseas calling shop and he invited me to call home for free and then gave me 1000 rupees to cover my expenses until I was able to get money wired to me from home!

    Sorry, I love India so my views my be skewed a little bit too much as well :)

    Solid review of the book though!

    • I’m really loving India, too. It’s taken a little while, though, and I’m not certain I’ll still be in love by the end of my travels here, but still.

      I’m curious what other books about India (or by Indian authors) you read and what you thought of them.

      White Tiger was phenomenal, and a much more accurate portrayal of India in my opinion. And I’m reading Midnight’s Children now and find it absolutely engrossing. Quickly climbing up the list of my favorite books, actually.

    • I’m really loving India, too. It’s taken a little while, though, and I’m not certain I’ll still be in love by the end of my travels here, but still.

      I’m curious what other books about India (or by Indian authors) you read and what you thought of them.

      White Tiger was phenomenal, and a much more accurate portrayal of India in my opinion. And I’m reading Midnight’s Children now and find it absolutely engrossing. Quickly climbing up the list of my favorite books, actually.

  5. Veganworldtrekker

    Great review Adam! I may be leading a tour to India in April. Have fun fellow Bostonian traveler. I may head to Iceland next month to see the northern lights.

    • Thanks!

      That’s awesome about the tour in India. You’ll have to let me know more about it… it makes a lot of sense here since so much of this country is vegetarian.

      Also, completely jealous you may be heading to Iceland. I can’t wait to get back there myself.

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