Schrodinger Visits Mumbai

A review of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

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A friend convinced me to read Shantaram via quid pro quo.  In exchange he would read Edward Teach’s Watch What You Hear.  Cursory familiarity with these two ought to tip you off pretty quickly that this quid was not, in fact, quo, and of course, he didn’t even read his ~100-page tribute, but so it goes.  I bring it up mainly because the same friend said something interesting when I came round to discuss the book with him.  He said that whenever he evaluates any piece of art, he always asks the question: “Do I believe them?”

Heh.  Those of you who have read Shantaram (or even the book jacket) should maybe slow down here.  There are traps in that question.  For one, my friend is a musician who mostly evaluates music, a medium not known for its use of the phrase, “Based on a True Story”.  I knew what he meant immediately, both for my awareness of that context and for my continued inebriation on the Nietzschean outlook of truth and lies, but to be clear, what he meant was this: Does the core message of the work, underlying and/or overall, feel true?

The problem with applying this question to Shantaram, a book which pitches itself hard on the notion that it’s based on author Gregory David Roberts’ life, is that you have to ask it twice.  The first: To what degree is Roberts telling the truth?  The second: Is he…right?

Taking a step back into the actual content of the book, here’s the deal: Gregory David Roberts got a divorce (or more general marriage breakup) sometime in the early ‘70s and lost custody of his daughter.  As people often do, he dealt with this poorly.  Specifically, he dealt with this poorly with heroin.  To fund the heroin addiction, he started robbing businesses.  Irrelevant but amusing: He did so in a three-piece suit, with a particular code of etiquette, and only targeted businesses with insurance to cover the losses from the robberies.  Anyway, he got caught, went to prison, escaped from prison, fled Australia, ended up in Bombay (now Mumbai), and got up to, reportedly, some wild shit.

The setup of Shantaram is, well, literally that.  The book begins with the protagonist, Lin, getting off the plan in Bombay, falling in with a motley crew of expats and locals, losing all his money, moving into a slum, and slowly–but not that slowly–getting wrapped into the fold of the Bombay mafia.  It’s a crazy story, and the tension between the often harsh, sometimes outright brutal picture of life on Bombay’s streets and the oneness and love for it all (or at least most of it) that Lin melodramatically continues to express throughout does serve to keep the pages turning.  But it also prompts questions I wouldn’t normally care to ask.

Chief among them, for grounding purposes: How crazy of a story is this, actually?  Stranger than fiction?  Well, that’s the problem.  It is, in fact, very easy to imagine Lin–criminal background, talent for absorbing cultures and languages, a heart of gold, minus Roberts’ often syrupy prose–in a David Baldacci-esque thriller, and I gotta say, Bizarrodacci-Lin is not especially compelling.  With apologies to the book-clubbers and DnD players, it turns out that complex and fraught backstories are neither difficult to put together nor especially interesting on their own.  And of course, the wild ride of Shantaram’s plot isn’t the only thing going on, but what remains has its own caveats.

It’s easy to read Shantaram, in a sense, as a book of personal philosophy.  It’s also easy, if you know anything about philosophy, to get very, very bored with what Roberts clearly considers important takes.  Most of them aren’t wrong, not really, but I would still expect even the most insightful of them to have come up–not merely in essence, but literally expressed in words–at some point in the average college student’s late-night explorations of their red Solo cup.  To put it bluntly and perhaps uncharitably, Lin is a hippie, part of a demographic renowned for its fervor but not its intellectual care, which is why, in perhaps the most philosophically cursed point in the book, Lin, Khader (the mafia don who dons the familiar hat of “father figure”), and, apparently, the author himself all get bamboozled by a vocabulary mixup that I can only assume originated with a gap in translation.  For those of you following solely in English, please note that “complexity” and “entropy” are very much not the same thing.

As answer to the question of whether Roberts is “right”, it probably suffices to say that the philosophy of Shantaram is not, on its own, a worthwhile message, nor can Lin, taken as a thriller protagonist, save it.  But I think that Lin as an autobiographical representation maybe can.  It’s much the same as the story itself.  Cataloged in no particular order: heroin addiction, Australian prison, Indian prison, slum resident, slum doctor, organized crime, disorganized crime, Afghan freedom fighter, dirt-poor pastoral village resident.  These are experiences that many will collect vicariously in our global, internet age, to the extent that bulleting them off on an invented character’s life story is at best uninteresting and on average rank, stinking of the excess of bad lies.  But an actual person collecting these experiences firsthand is legitimately impressive, both for their qualities (many are highly disturbing) and their quantity.  Moreover, the scars of these experiences upon the philosopher provide ammunition that the florid prose, while sometimes beautiful, cannot possibly advance without an argument from true character.

So, do I believe him?

Predictably, Roberts’ own statement on the veracity of Shantaram is that it is fiction, not autobiography, grounded in real events from his life but not really following his story or relationships.  Specifically, he seems to actually have been a slum doctor and mafia operative (to some extent), but the rest is a mystery.  I can’t really blame him.  There are a lot of crimes in there that I wouldn’t want to confess to, having spent 19 years in prison already, but at the same time, the ambiguity is less hazy than it is forked.

I’ve always considered “Based on a True Story” to be a transparent marketing ploy, and when it comes to ambiguities that will never be resolved for me, I’ve favored Baudrillard as a guiding ethos.  But that won’t really work here.  There isn’t really any message hidden in the unknowing, and the force preventing the resolution isn’t a commonality of human experience–it’s just logistics.  I get to know either the position or the velocity, and since the position is uncomfortably close to Roberts’ business, well, at least we know how fast he was going.  And unfortunately, we can’t just eliminate the false side of the story Socratically either, because Shantaram as pure fiction isn’t meaningless.  It’s just…commonplace.

In the end, the value of this book for me was very positive, but that’s because I think I do believe him.  There’s still some doubt there, superimposed over my thoughts like a subatomic dead cat, but since I will likely never know the full truth, the opinion stands as-is.