In this prison-break tale, the crime, punishment, and escape only take up a few of the 900 plus pages—the real drama happens once the shackles are off. Gregory David Roberts, an Australian armed-robber-turned-slum-dwelling-doctor-turned-counterfeiter-turned-gun-runner-turned-author (phew), tells the story of a similarly-skilled narrator in his 2003 novel, Shantaram.
The book is about a guy who breaks out of an Australian prison; ends up in Bombay (Mumbai), India; proceeds to move through the city's criminal underworld; and—because ya gotta have romance—falls in love with a beautiful, mysterious woman named Karla. We, the readers, get to see all the crazy wheelings and dealings and learn some Marathi and Hindi (a couple of Indian languages) along the way.
The novel has sold lots of copies, partly due to the unbelievable adventure and the hints that it's not fiction, that the author really lived through this stuff. The action takes place in the '80s, when the Soviet Union had set up shop in Afghanistan and some Afghans were fighting back (freshen up on your Cold War history here). This becomes important when the narrator gets sucked into a gun-running mission to Afghanistan… like you do.
Roberts is a writer who lives in Bombay now, after having been hauled back to Oz (that's what folks in the know call Australia) to finish his sentence. He plans to write a few more related novels, creating a quartet (or a trilogy) in four parts.
This is both good news and bad news for fans. It's good news because, well, you get more Roberts to read. It's not so good because, if the other books are anything like the movie-adaptation production schedule, it take a while.
Warner Brothers has been trying to make the film since 2003, with several false starts, but rumor has it that Johnny Depp himself is producing it. Turns out he loves the book, so maybe you will too. If not, you can just, you know, brood dreamily.
Ever been to India? You'll feel like you have after reading Shantaram. One of the most important characters in the novel, after the long-winded narrator himself, is the city of Bombay (a.k.a. Mumbai). A place can't always count as a character, but we think you'll agree that, in Roberts's book, Bombay takes on a life of its own.
Bombay's a port city, which makes it a perfect candidate for harboring diverse exiles from all over the world, like the ones we meet in Shantaram. Like San Francisco, or Barcelona (another couple of Shmoop's favorite port cities) Bombay is teetering on the edge of a continent, opening its arms to shipwrecks and jetsetters alike—oh and, ahem, fugitives like the narrator.
The city is now called Mumbai, its original name, which was changed by the English to Bombay when India was a British colony. Those fugitives in the novel are also pretty good at changing identities, which makes the city a fitting place for them to hole up and do their dirty deeds.
So what's Bombay got to do with you? Well, Shantaram will make you feel like you're really there. You get sights, tastes, sounds, even smells and sweaty heat. Some call the novel "escapist" because you can dive so deep into it it's like you've left the real world behind.
Still, if you get inspired and decide to take off and see what Mumbai-Bombay is all about, we ask that you pay attention to how some of the drug-using tourists and gun-running expats end up—in bad shape in nasty hotel rooms. Just be sure to pack a travel guide and your toothbrush, and say no to friendly-seeming Australians who would be happy to hook you up with their favorite drug lord. Save the brushes with death for your escapist novels. Namaste.
Letter from Gregory David Roberts
This used to be the official website for the novel, but Gregory David Roberts has published a letter to the public about how he's retiring from public life.
A Site of Its Own
Find your way around Mumbai, the city that makes up the vivid background of the novel, with this guide.
Never Give Up
It's years in the making, but the rumors keep claiming that someday Shantaram will make it to the screen.
Check out this National Geographic report on one of Mumbai's slums.
This New York Times reviewer is head-over-heels with Lin.
GDR on CNN
Here's the first part of an interview with the author-hero of the novel.
Tell Us All About It
Gregory David Roberts tells of his real-life experience in a Mumbai slum.
Gateway to Bombay
Behold the cover of Shantaram.
In His Wilder Days
Here's the author on his hawg.
Clean and New
Here's a more presentable look.