India My Heart

Over the long weekend I read the lengthy ‘Shantaram’ by David Gregory Roberts set in Mumbai (Bombay). I have never been to Bombay, but I did spend a month travelling in India in 1995 and the experience remains imprinted in my heart and memory, for me the country and its people have no equal. I love it. It is at the very top of my list of destinations, experiences and insights.

The first pages of this extraordinary story are reminiscent of many travellers’ journeys to India, the assault on all the senses, the welcoming committee, the brick of rupees, the taxi rides.

the glimpse of the suffering street brought a hot shame to my healthy face.”

“The street at the front of the building was crammed with people and vehicles, and the sound of voices, car horns, and commerce was like a storm of rain on wood and metal roofs.”

“there were beggars, jugglers, snake charmers, musicians, astrologers, palmists and pimps and pushers”

India is where you are introduced to your wits. Until I travelled there, it was a mere expression ‘make sure you have your wits about you’. In India, they rise up within you from some deep, slumbering place inside and become a living, breathing extra sensory force, providing a necessary equanimity and alert, their reward, insight.

Shantaram’ is the story of an Australian fugitive, posing as a New Zealand traveller who arrives in Bombay and unlike most travellers who stay only long enough to experience the city and plan their next destination, he stays.

Without exception, those who stay are escaping something and what that is, seems to have a direct relationship to how deep they become involved in the city’s underworld activities. Roberts stays out of trouble to begin with and provides a delightful insight into his blossoming friendship with Prabaker, who truly does represent India’s heart. Due to misfortune he moves to a slum where he spends his days working from his well-stocked first aid kit, providing rudimentary medical treatment to the inhabitants as he becomes part of the fabric of the slum community.

The two friends spend some months in Prabaker’s home village with his family and these are chapters are my favourite, portrayed with humour, a sensitive understanding and compassion. It is the calm before the storm and a period that I didn’t want to end.

Prabaker told me that family and his neighbours were concerned that I would be lonely, that I must be lonely, in a strange place, without my own family. They decided to sit with me on that first night, mounting a vigil in the dark until they were sure that I was peacefully deep in sleep. After all, the little guide remarked, people in my country, in my village, would do the same for him, if he went there and missed his family, wouldn’t they?”

However Robert’s luck changes when he is arrested one night and discovers he has unknown enemies with unknown motives and the experience of prison will unleash the darkest aspect of his character. When he is finally released he goes to work with the Bombay mafia, delving into the world of black market drug, currency and false document dealings all the while awaiting that future moment where he can exact revenge against his enemy.

This book draws you into a frightening and fascinating world that I am not sure whether we are better off knowing of or remaining in blissful ignorance of. I guess it is no worse than being subjected to the news media every evening with its plethora of images and reports of violence, oppression, corruption and greed, something I waver between wishing to avoid (and often do) and needing to have a balanced and informed awareness of.

What I perceive is the oft dreadful consequence of a genetic predisposition combined with early life tragic event that leads to a kind of corruption of the soul, I am reminded of Jonathan Ronson’s dip into the characteristics of a psychopath in The Psychopath Test which describes someone charming and influential who lacks empathy, and has an intense need to be liked. I don’t think the character in this story is a psychopath, but many in his circle survive precisely because they are not beleaguered by the emotional constraints of sympathy or empathy whether they were born like that or have become that.

Chilling indeed, though more than offset by that other extreme, a city of people whose smiles are in the eyes which broaden to encompass their whole face and being to cross that divide between people of different cultures and leave us with a warm, perplexed feeling. How is it that among such poverty, despair and ruthlessness exist the happiest people on earth?

And to know the answer to that one can only go there, experience it and ponder it oneself.

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14 thoughts on “India My Heart

  1. I loved that book. It’s the sort of story that stays with your for a long time. After reading I found myself unexpectedly in India. I was on business and enjoyed 4 and 5 start hotels so I wasn’t living the life he was and I am so glad I did not. I confess visiting India was never on my wish list of places to visit but after going I am glad I did. It’s the sort of place that haunts the back of your mind. Btw, I have a similar picture of me standing in front of the Taj. What an moment, yes?

    • Yes, I agree, I don’t think this is the kind of book that you don’t recall what it was about a few years later. It gets in deep, all the more knowing that much of it is based on a true story. I believe they even made a film with Johnny Depp?
      I didn’t really know what to expect from India and perhaps that is why it was such a profound visit, unlike Europe which I learnt about in school and have family connections with. India was a virtual unknown.
      The Taj Mahal, awesome, I have so many photos, from sunrise until full sun, with the changing light the view kept becoming more and more beautiful, you almost have to give up taking pictures and just soak it all up, it changes every minute. A divine and romantic memorial.

  2. I very much enjoyed the book. I agree about the crime story: do we really need to know? But after my initial reluctance, I got uncomfortably pulled into the story and did enjoy reading it.

    I also agree that the trip to the village was probably the best of the book. In all, I found the book rather long, but I did enjoy it a lot.

    • It is interesting the way the book lulls the reader into its comfort zone and then takes us completely out of it, by that time we are committed and continue despite the discomfort.

      I loved the banter at the roadside on the bustrip to the village when someone asked questions about who he was, the answers a classic Asian stereotype of Europeans:

      “they work for a while, and then they travel around lonely, for a while, with no family, until they get old, and then they get married, and become very serious.”

    • I quite like the certain aspects of the crime story, it’s almost like a second book. It also gives you a dual perspective of the country.

      But I definitely agree, it was a good book and a looooong read.

  3. I have never been to India, but I am sure it is a fascinating country. Books like these give an insight in a country and culture we know little about and that is hat we read for, I think.
    Great review!

  4. I read this some time ago and I loved it! Your review brought back to me what a powerful read Shantaram was! I’ve never been to India but, as a place Mumbai became as bustling, vibrant and complex in the pages of this book as I imagine it would do if I’m lucky enough to visit (as I hope to one day). One of the things that shone through in the book for me was the way the poverty and squalor and sheer “unfairness” of life for many of Mumbai’s inhabitants was contrasted with their joy and happiness in life and their determination to keep going. Really great book – thanks for the memory!

  5. India has always fascinated me and your review entices me to read Shantaram. ” among such poverty, despair and ruthlessness exist the happiest people on earth” – everyone I know who has been to India expresses your sentiment. I’ve been told countless times that the only way to truly grasp this is to experience it in person. My issue is this: whenever I have time to travel I choose France!

  6. I’m trying to imagine Mumbai, especially through the lens of ‘keep your wits about you’. I’m rather oblivious and obtuse at times, and wonder how it would all work for me.

    It would be an interesting experience – with someone who possesses such awareness. :-)

  7. India has always frightened me but fascinated me. I keep thinking who knows one day I’l get a chance to visit. What worries me is the extreme poverty and the closeness of the people. not something I do well with is crowds. I do enjoy immensely reading adventures in India it’s sort of my way of travelling there for the moment. I will definitely put this one on my list along with a few others. Have you read In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce, Planet India by Mira Kamdar or The Elephant and the Dragon by Robyn Meredith? They’e all on my to be read list.

  8. Wow Claire, you read this over a weekend?! I got a copy last year after a friend (from Norway, incidentally!) recommended it enthusiastically, but the size is daunting. I used to read 1000-page novels quickly but that was years ago; now it takes me forever just to read a short book!

    Your review is wonderful, and makes me glad I got it, because one day I’ll have the opportunity to start it, I’m sure! I love these kinds of stories, too – not the “based on a true story” part but getting that intimate look into the man and the non-tourist experience there.

    • The size daunted me too, I was glad to have a 3 day weekend handy, otherwise I’d have spent too much time in his company, it leaves an aftertaste, the whole alternative economy, underworld out there that many of us never knowingly encounter, fascinating but disturbing.

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