At 933 pages of dense text and small print, this book is long. I am glad to have read it, but even more glad to finally be done with it.
This is basically an auto-biography of a convict who escaped from a maximum security prison in Australia, and who arrived as a fugitive in Bombay, where he became a medic in a slum, a smuggler, a counterfeiter for the mafia, a prisoner in another miserable jail, and even a gun-runner in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, where he ran into enemy guns and survived, while others around him died.
The author’s bio says he was apprehended after 10 years in exile, and served the balance of his sentence, during which time he wrote this book. Shantaram is kind of like a 1980’s version of a Charles Dickens novel set instead in India, with an extra dash of ego and hubris, and more violence and drugs.
It is a book by a criminal, about crime, and by a heroin user, who has suffered its cost. It is also about falling in love with a place, and the lengths one will go to for a sense of belonging. Additionally, themes within this story focus on forgiveness, choosing love over hate, and that your fate is not fixed, but instead is determined by what you do.
The writing here is detailed, lush, and sometimes overwrought. The author/main character is observant and cogent, with a vast vocabulary greater than mine, and a fairly high opinion of himself, especially given all his bad choices. We all should be as self-assured, resilient, and mindful of our surroundings.
This book is a window into a world that is so very much unlike my own. He accepts that, “Sometimes you must do the wrong thing for the right reasons,” and I do not agree. To me, the wrong thing is just the wrong thing. However, the gangsters were faithful to their moral code, and honorable in their own way. For example, this group stayed away from prostitution, pornography, and selling drugs, which you could make a lot of money from, but they avoided them because they corrupted people’s souls, and hurt them. Therefore these goondas stuck to money laundering, counterfeiting, forgery, and supporting righteous freedom fighters with guns and ammunition. It was surprising to me, how philosophical the gangsters were, and I enjoyed those passages very much.
I’ll share with you here some passages of this unique novel, to give you some of its flavor:
- “The choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”
- “I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum security prison.”
- “The ancient Sanskrit legends speak of destined love, a karmic connection between souls that are fated to meet and collide and enrapture one another. The legends say that the loved one is instantly recognized because she’s loved in every gesture, every expression of thought, every movement, every sound, and every mood that prays in her eyes.”
- “Civilization… is defined by what we forbid, more than what we permit.”
- “A dream is the place where a wish and a fear meet. When the wish and the fear are exactly the same, we call the dream a nightmare.”
- “I will explain. Nothing exists as we see it. Nothing we see is really there, as we think we are seeing it. Our eyes are liars. Everything that seems real, is merely part of the illusion. Nothing exists, as we think it does. Not you. Not me. Not this room. Nothing.
- “The truth is that there are no good men, or bad men. It is the deeds that have goodness or badness in them. The truth is that we all, everyone of us…are moving toward God.”
- “Justice is a judgement that is both fair and forgiving. Justice is not done until everyone is satisfied.”
- “Sometimes I think that the size of our happiness is inversely proportional to the size of our house.”
- “Suffering, of every kind, is always a matter of what we’ve lost. When we are young, we think that suffering is something that’s done to us. When we get older… we know that real suffering is measured by what’s taken away from us… Suffering is hungry, isn’t it? Hungry for anything means suffering. Not hungry for something, means not suffering. But everybody knows that.”
- “You know the difference between news and gossip, don’t you? News is what people did. Gossip tells you how much they enjoyed it.”
- “It’s forgiveness that makes us what we are. Without forgiveness, our species would’ve annihilated itself in endless retributions. Without forgiveness, there would be no history. Without hope, there would be no art, for every work of art is in some way an act of forgiveness… Every act of love is in some way a promise to forgive. We live on because we love, and we love because we can forgive.”
- “Our life, it probably began inside the ocean…and for almost all of that long time, all the living things were water things, living inside the sea. Then, a few million years ago…the living things began to be living on the land, as well…But in a way you can say that after living inside the sea, we took the ocean with us. When a woman makes a baby, she gives it water, inside her body, to grow in. That water inside her body is almost exactly the same as the water of the sea. It is salty, by just the same amount. She makes a little ocean , in her body. And not only this. Our blood and our sweating, they are both salty, almost exactly like the water from the sea is salty. We carry oceans inside of us, in our blood and our sweat. And we are crying the oceans, in our tears.”
- “Cruelty is a kind of cowardice. Cruel laughter is the way cowards cry when they’re not alone, and causing pain is how they grieve.”
- “It is all about greed and control. These are the two elements that make for commercial crime. Any one of them on its own, is not enough. Greed without control, or control without greed won’t give you a black market… When greed meets control, you get a black market.”
- “The universe… has been getting always more complex since it began. It does this because that is its nature. The tendency towards complexity has carried the universe from almost perfect simplicity to the kind of complexity that we see around us… it is always getting more complex. It is moving toward something. It is moving toward some kind of ultimate complexity. And that final complexity, that we are all moving to, is what I choose to call God. If you don’t like that word, God, call it the Ultimate Complexity. Whatever you call it, the whole universe is moving toward it.”
- “This is why killing and stealing is wrong– not because a book tells us they are wrong, or a spiritual guide tells us they are wrong, because if everyone did them we would not move toward the ultimate complexity that is God, with the rest of the universe. Why is love good? Well, what would happen if everyone loved everyone else? Would that help us or would it hold us back? Yes, universal love would greatly accelerate the movement toward God. Love is good. Friendship is good. Loyalty is good. Freedom is good. Honesty is good. We knew these things were good before…but now with this definition of good and evil, we can see why they are good, Just as we can see why stealing, and lying and killing are evil.”
- “Motive matters more with good deeds than it does with bad… it’s the good deeds we did that can save us.”
- “Fanaticism is the opposite of love. A wise man once told me– he’s a Muslim by the way– that he has more in common with a rational, reasonable-minded Jew than he does with a fanatic from his own religion. He has more in common with a rational, reasonable-minded Christian or Buddhist or Hindu than he does with a fanatic from his own religion. In fact, he has more in common with a rational, reasonable-minded atheist than he does with a fanatic from his own religion. I agree with him, and I feel the same way. I also agree with Winston Churchill, who once defined a fanatic as someone who won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject.”
- “A good man is as strong as the right woman needs him to be.”
- “There’s a theory that snoring at night in sleep is a subconscious defense reflex– a warning sound that frightened potential predators away from the mouth of the cave when our lower Paleolithic ancestors huddled in vulnerable sleep. That group of Afghan nomads, cameleers, sheep and goat herders, farmers, and guerrilla fighters lent credibility to the idea, for they snored so thunderously and with such persistent ferocity through the long, cold night that they would’ve frightened a pride of lions into scattering like mice.”
- “Anything that can be put into a nutshell should remain there.”
- “Every atom in the universe has the characteristic of life. The more complex way that atoms get put together, the more complex is the characteristic of life. A rock is a very simple arrangement of atoms, so the life in a rock is so simple we cannot see it. A cat is a very complex arrangement of atoms, so the life in a cat is very obvious. But life is there in everything, even in a rock, even when we cannot see it.”
- “Be able to answer these two questions: What is an objective, universally acceptable definition of good and evil? And, what is the relationship between consciousness and matter?”
- “I do not think that light is God. I think it is possible, and it is very reasonable to say, that light is the language of God. Light may be the way that God speaks to the universe, and to us.”
- “Glory belongs to God of course; that’s what the word really means. And you can’t serve God with a gun.”
- “You can’t reason with a man who has no sense of money and is value. It’s the one thing all civilized men have in common, don’t you agree? If money doesn’t mean anything, there is no civilization.”
- “She found it strange and incongruous to hear me describe criminals, killers, and mafiosi as men of honor. The confusion, I think, was hers, not mine. She’d confused honor with virtue. Virtue is concerned with what we do, and honor is concerned with how we do it. You can fight a war in an honorable way– the Geneva Convention exists for that very reason– and you can enforce the peace without any honor at all. In essence, honor is the act of being humble. And gangsters, just like cops, politicians, and holy men, are only ever good at what they do if they stay humble.”
- “All the secret police of the world work together, and that is their biggest secret.”
- “The word mafia comes from the Sicilian word for bragging. And if you ask any serious man who commits serious crimes for a living, he’ll tell you it’s just that– the boasting, the pride– that gets most of us in the end. But we never learn. Maybe it is not possible to break laws without boasting about it to someone. Maybe it’s not possible to be an outlaw without being proud in some way.”
- “Fate always gives you two choices, the one you should take, and the one you do.”
- “He’d been able to deal with that pain because he’d accepted his own part in causing it.”
- “I know now that when the loving, honest moment comes, it should be seized, and spoken, because it may never come again.”
- “Every human heartbeat is a universe of possibilities.
- “Every human will has the power to transform its fate. I’d always thought that fate was something unchangeable: fixed for every one of us at birth, and as constant as the circuit of the stars. But I suddenly realized that life is stranger and more beautiful than that. The truth is that, no matter what kind of game you find yourself in, no matter how good or bad the luck, you can change your life completely with a single thought or a single act of love.”
This book isn’t for everybody, and it is a time commitment to undertake. I put it down at around page 700, during the part taking place in the war in Afghanistan, and lapsed on reading it for a couple months, before I could return to finish it. I needed to read a whole lot of something lighter, for a while.
Some reviewers hate this book and call it drivel; others rave about it and call it a masterpiece of stunning art, and they reread it multiple times. I am neither of these. It was interesting, and I got something out of it. I understand the criminal mind better, and got a deeper, more intimate glimpse of India than I’d had before. Now praise be, I will move on.
I give this complex, monolithic book 4 stars.