This 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.
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.