Shantaram Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel

Updated on September 13, 2015
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Mel Carriere graciously thanks you for your stamp money, which he uses to finance his lunchtime reading habit and resulting book reviews.

Join Mel for lunch beneath his favorite tree with the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Join Mel for lunch beneath his favorite tree with the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts | Source

Updates from my Rolling Reading Room

After slogging through The Brothers Karamazov on my half hour postal lunch break, I was in need of another read of epic proportions that would keep me occupied for several weeks in the half hour intervals I spend parked beneath one of only two shade trees on my route. Fortunately my son is even more of an obsessive book addict than I am, and he had just the solution to assuage my acute literary withdrawal. One evening at the Goodwill used book store he picked up the book Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, and unexpectedly dropped it in my lap. Of course, there is nothing more delightful for a father than an unsolicited gift from one of his usually thankless, thoughtless offspring, and it wasn't even my birthday or father's day!

After a superficial scrutiny, I could see that the tome certainly met the voluminous requirement, topping out at nearly 1000 pages, but because I had never heard of the novel or the author I naturally had to ask a few tough questions, if for no other reason than to carry out my primary paternal duty to keep my offspring humble.

"Trust me Dad, you're going to like it," my son assured me after I went through a litany of questions that all basically fell into the what the hell is this? category. "This is a great book," he said. "I lent it to a friend who never reads, and he couldn't put it down."

Not sure whether my son was implying that if an attention deficit, semi illiterate friend could enjoy this book, then it was just the thing for dear old loveable simpleton Dad, I gave him a suspicious look and hauled the heavy novel off to work to begin the weeks long process of conquering it in half hour assaults. My verdict of this tale of an Australian fugitive hiding from the law and his past in the dark, dirty slums and criminal underworld of Bombay was primarily a pleasurable one, but there were elements of the story that stretched the suspension of disbelief and poetic license rights that a novelist is normally entitled to. Furthermore, the widespread opinion that Mr. Roberts took considerable liberties with his own true life story as a fugitive somewhat diluted my enjoyment of the tale and has also caused a bit of popular controversy. The bad press surrounding the novel seems to have gained steam lately because of the notoriety surrounding the planned movie version.

Lunchtime Lit - Shantaram Recap

Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
The city of Mumbai (Bombay), India seems to be a beloved and active character in the book.
The city of Mumbai (Bombay), India seems to be a beloved and active character in the book. | Source


A convicted bank robber using the alias Lindsay Ford escapes from an Australian prison and makes his way to Mumbai, which is still referred to by its former colonial name of Bombay throughout the book, probably because the name change did not take place until 1995. Here Linbaba, as the author's beloved friend and guide Prabaker christens him, lives in the city's sprawling slums for a time, where he provides first aid treatment to the residents of this makeshift shanty town. Eventually a local mob boss takes notice of him and Lin (the shortened form of his nickname) works himself into the good graces of a powerful crime syndicate, losing dear friends, colleagues, and lovers along the way. During the course of the novel, Linbaba also explores the philosophical implications of his criminal and personal deeds; pondering whether a man can change his own fate, and if it is truly possible to do wrong things for the right reasons.

Dharavi slum in the Mumbai(Bombay) region.
Dharavi slum in the Mumbai(Bombay) region. | Source

Will the Real "Linbaba" Please Stand Up! - My Conclusions

There is no doubt that Shantaram is a brilliantly written and sometimes beautifully poetic novel in which the pages fly by faster than I can brush my falling lunch crumbs off of them. The book also takes fascinating forays into the realm of philosophy, exploring a mysterious but viable "resolution theory" that includes an idea termed "tendency toward complexity," a phenomenon described by a surprisingly intellectual crime lord in the story as the essence of God. None of these metaphysical digressions are ponderous, but seem to enhance the soul searching character development of Lin, taking this novel out of the pulp fiction category and up to a point where it flirts with becoming real literature.

All the same, I walked away from the 46 half hour lunch breaks I spent in the company of this book with the feeling that, while the novel attempts to cut deep into the nature of the human condition, it doesn't really inflict much more than a flesh wound to the soul. The problem is that the mighty Linbaba, although styling himself as a humble, repentant wrongdoer whose heroin addiction forced the breakup of his family in Australia and pushed him into a life of crime, doesn't really come across as humble or repentant at all. His painted on humility is as cosmetic as the sleek Bombay skyscrapers that hide the ugly scar of its impoverished slums deep among them.

The fact is that I just couldn't accept that Linbaba did all the things that he gave himself credit for, even after generously allowing for the suspension of disbelief that is normally allocated to the novelist. Although the author boldly broadcasts his work as being autobiographical in nature, I'm still willing to cut Mr. Roberts some slack on the basis of the book's fictional status. Even if the tale is purely a flight of invented fancy, however, I just don't find Linbaba to be a particularly interesting or believable character. He's just too perfect and unblemished for my taste.

I'll give you a sampling here of the superhuman deeds carried out by the heroic Linbaba. First we see the mighty Linbaba humbly and meekly lowering himself to live in the filthy, fetid, festering slums of Bombay, where he sets up a medical clinic for its inhabitants. Next there's the all powerful Linbaba almost single-handedly treating a cholera epidemic that decimates those slums after a heavy monsoon rain. Over yonder behold the indomitable Linbaba being brutally tortured and starved to death in an Indian prison; refusing to cave in under conditions in which most of us would have long ago sold our own mothers downriver. And then don't blink or you'll miss the magnificent Linbaba fighting to the death for his gangster friends, even though they are essentially a bunch of murderous thugs, no matter how pretty Mr. Roberts paints them. Oh, I almost forgot that the multi-talented Linbaba also works part time as a Bollywood producer. Finally, as if that's not enough, behold the international most wanted fugitive Mr. Linbaba off to infiltrate his way into Afghanistan to take on the unassailable forces of the occupying Russian army. It's all a bit much for one hero in one book, and it serves to lessen the believability of the story. It's almost as if the ex con author has written this book to convince his parole board that he's a changed man, not to make his protagonist a likeable or realistic character.

The other problem I have with Linbaba is that he can't quite decide whether he is going to play the role of Mother Theresa Saint or El Chapo Guzman sinner. In one scene he sacrifices sleep for days to heal the illnesses of the homeless and impoverished and in the next he is brutally gouging out the eyeballs of anybody who is unfortunate enough to cross him. Will the real Linbaba please stand up!

Read Shantaram - Give it Your Own Review!

Tendency Towards Complexity
Tendency Towards Complexity | Source

Shantaram Controversies

While there is no disputing that novelist Gregory David Roberts was indeed a bank robber and a successful prison escapee who managed to make his way to Bombay with a fake passport, there are other elements of this semi-autobiographical novel that have been denounced as lies by the real people portrayed in the book. I suppose that by designating Shantaram as a work of fiction, however, Roberts can fall back on the "all characters in this book are fictitious" defense to answer the charges of fact distortion that have been leveled against him.

On Shantaram's Wikipedia page (the veracity of which Roberts disputes), the real life brother of Prabaker, Linbaba's cheerful companion and guide, is cited as claiming that apart from running a free clinic in the slums, Roberts actually lived a life of crime and drug addiction from which the Khare family eventually rescued him. Kishore Khare further asserts that from time to time when the now famous and prestigious author Roberts shows up in the slums for photo ops with celebrities like Oprah, Madonna and Johnny Depp, the slum guards have to hold back the outraged crowds that are offended by the alleged falsehoods depicted in the book.

In 2011, another Hub Pages author wildchild1962 composed an article based on an email Gregory David Roberts actually sent him which refutes the accusations that have been leveled against him. Rather than write off as fiction the novel's rather unbelievable assertion that he participated in the Afghanistan conflict, Roberts claims that the reason he is not allowed into the United States is because of his former involvement with the Afghani mujaheddin fighters. I will post a link to this fascinating Hub Pages article a little farther down the page.

Apart from Wikipedia I couldn't really find any other sources that dispute Roberts' version of events, so perhaps the mighty Linbaba really did accomplish all of the heroic deeds he lays claim to.

Original poster for the planned Shantaram, which eventually ditched Johnny Depp for reported financial reasons.
Original poster for the planned Shantaram, which eventually ditched Johnny Depp for reported financial reasons. | Source

What's Next?

A film version of Shantaram, a project that has been bandied about ever since the novel became an international bestseller in 2003, is supposedly still in the works, but has been recast with cheaper actors. Johnny Depp apparently demanded too much money for a film with no projected toy sales to fall back on, even though the amazing Linbaba seems to be able to leap mountains in a single bound and might work great as an action figure. The sequel to the Shantaram novel, titled The Mountain Shadow, is scheduled for release in October of this year, being part of a trilogy narrating Roberts' flight from the law, the still unwritten first part to deal with his experiences in the Australian prison system before his escape.

As for me, what's next is that I'm currently shopping around for another novel of epic proportions to consume my daily half hour respite beneath my favorite tree. This probably means raiding my son's book stash, a criminal enterprise of my own that I will undertake just as I soon as I punctuate the last sentence on this Shantaram review.

Is it possible to do wrong things for the right reasons?

See results
Madonna with her beau (left) and Shantaram author Roberts (right) in the Mumbai slums.
Madonna with her beau (left) and Shantaram author Roberts (right) in the Mumbai slums. | Source

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    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 15 months ago from San Diego California

      Lawrence, I think that in the case of the Shantaram author, it is probably more accurate to say there is a bit of the saint in all the sinners. That, of course, could be said about myself as well. The author was a bad dude, and I wonder how much was formulated to impress the parole board. Thanks for dropping in!

    • profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 15 months ago


      I read the book a few weeks ago, actually i mean I finished it a few weeks ago.

      I thoroughly enjoyed it, but came away with the thought that while 'largely true ' there's some 'artistic license'.

      As for some of the events, I just saw there's a bit of the 'sinner' in all the 'saints'.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 18 months ago from San Diego California

      Sulabha, it seems that once we start down the road of doing wrong things, it becomes easier to justify them. Thanks so much for dropping by!

    • Sulabha profile image

      Sulabha Dhavalikar 18 months ago from Indore, India

      Interesting review. No, I really don't have the courage to do wrong for a right thing. You never really know when you fall into the trap! And that's why, in your quiz, I have ticked 'No'.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Boomer Music Man for the lovely words.

    • Boomer Music Man profile image

      Boomer Music Man 20 months ago

      This book must be really good. You are very good at analyzing information. Your insights are superb. and it makes me want to read this book.. Your writing is excellent.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 21 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Cee-Jay. It may have been an entertaining movie, but for some reason it doesn't seem to be getting off the ground. The second novel in the series is due to come out in October. Don't be daunted by the page count; in spite of the book's flaws it is highly readable. Thanks for dropping in.

    • Cee-Jay Aurinko profile image

      Cee-Jay Aurinko 21 months ago from Cape Town, South Africa

      I would have liked for Johnny Depp to play this Linbaba guy. Great review Mel. The page count sounds a bit daunting. Lol.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Cee-Jay. I also read all seven Dark Towers. Personally I like getting lost in long books. Shantaram was a very readable book, I will give it that, it just stretches the limits of credulity.

    • Cee-Jay Aurinko profile image

      Cee-Jay Aurinko 2 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

      Linbaba sounds like a wonderful person. Haha. A truly wonderful and detailed review from you Mel. I don't think I can handle 1,000 pages though. :)

      The last tome I read was the seventh installment in Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. And that's because I already read the previous six installments.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Yes Deb, you have a point there. I did manage to get through it, so how bad could it have been? There were a few moments toward the end that I actually did consider abandoning ship, not because the book was boring but because it was too much to handle. I had to plod on in the interest of science, however, and here you are. Thank you very much for reading. I always enjoy your visits.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Even though the story sounds like a Superman character and not a real person, it appears be action packed. Not only that, you obviously read the whole thing. Sounds like it could be worth a read in the future.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Well I guess a reviewer's job is just to give an honest appraisal then let the review reader go from there, Linda. I don't think you will miss much. In spite of its heavy philosophical aspirations the book comes off a little shallow. Thanks for dropping by.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for an interesting review, Mel. I'm not sure that I want to read the book, but I definitely enjoyed your hub!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      It moves along really well Nadine May, and is never boring, in spite of what I think are its other flaws. Thanks for reading!

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 2 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      That was truly a great book review and I'm glad you expressed your honest reflection on this novel about the author. The story seems to have a lot of action needed for a Hollywood movie. If I come across it I will buy it for my kindle.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      It does have some interesting moments Mona. Even where it stretches the limits of credulity there is always something new to learn about life in Bombay. Thanks for reading!

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 2 years ago from Philippines

      It sounds like a very interesting book, and I appreciate the way you analyzed it with a grain of salt. I guess fictional novels with the writer as the main character will be prone to being somewhat self serving. But as you describe it, it really does sound like a good book.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      My somewhat negative review piqued your interest, Dana Tate, imagine if I would have been full of glowing praise for it. No really, it is a good book, as fiction, not autobiography. I still find it kind of unbelievable as autobiography. Thanks for reading!

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 2 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      Being a avid book reader, I must admit this book seems interesting. A bank robber who escapes from prison, and manages to survive in the slums. It sounds like a movie. I don't know if the book is a good read or not, but I must admit, your review piqued my interest.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      War and Peace is one of my fwvorites B Leekley. Didn't care for Moby Dick. The others you mention I will definitely put on my lunch time list. Thanks for the tips.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Good review. Thanks. I might read that novel someday.

      Long novels that I have loved, besides THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, have included ZORBA THE GREEK and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, both by Nikos, Kazantzakis; REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST (also known as IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME -- read up on the pros and cons of each translation from the French) by Marcel Proust -- actually seven novels with intertwined motifs; WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy, an example of a third person omniscient point of view novel, and MOBY DICK by Herman Melville. Some of these may be free in digital editions, if you have an ebook reader. A fascinating (I think) long nonfiction book is ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY by Richard Burton. Published in 1621, the scholarly author looks at many topics as viewed by both ancient and (for him) modern thinkers.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Yeah, you're right. You gave me a little chuckle just now, and I needed it. Thanks.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Mel, we are whining up this way as the heat is causing the ground moisture to evaporate and so we are living in a wet sauna. We have a saying here in Sprung Valley -- "If you like the weather, just wait ten minutes it will get worse". Only residents of the most temperate climate on earth can bitch like we do.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Eric for dropping in. It killed time for the half hour a day I spend my one tree on my otherwise shadeless route. When they cut down that tree I don't know where I'm going to go. I hope you are staying cool over there in Spring Valley. I mean, you're always really cool but I hope you are maintaining moderate temperatures over there. I think the lake filled up with this last storm, so maybe you can high dive from your house into the Sweetwater Reservoir if the temps get too extreme.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      A splendid review worth reading simply for the authorship. I kind of get bored with self aggrandizement so I will probably shy from the read. It sounds kind of like this guy partially wrote on a subject he knows absolutely nothing about -- humility.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I agree larry that drunken book reviews wouldbe a lot more fun, but the postal service, grim humorless bastards that they are, frowns upon alcoholic beverages on the clock.

      No formal literature training. I've just read quite a bit. The twang you hear is probably just the hillbilly twang my momma gave me. Thanks for reading.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I was kind of hoping "Lunchtime 'Lit' with Mel" would entail you giving synopses of books in the midday while you were drunk:-)

      Whether it is Hubpages writing or novels, I enjoy your reviews. Was just wondering, did you have formal teaching in literature or are you self taught. I seem to detect a twang of academia in your analyses.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      It goes by quickly Bill, I don't think you will regret it. Thanks for dropping by.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Not only have I not read it...I've never heard of it. Thanks for the now goes on my list. Just what I need, another book to read. :)

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Wendi I appreciate your kind review of my review. This book is definitely worth your time, despite the perceived flaws I found in it. As for me, I still love the feel of paper in my hands. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • lyoness913 profile image

      Summer LeBlanc 2 years ago from H-Town

      Thanks for a great book review, I just ordered it on audible. Unlike you, I have become too lazy to read and instead I listen to my books while I am driving, sleeping, If you are looking for a novel of epic proportions for your lunchtime musings- I would recommend Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, or Sarum, but Rutherford. 'Sarum' kept me company on several lunchtime walks!

      Loved the review,

      Voted up and interesting!