Shantaram, starring Shantaram as… Shantaram! The narrator, protagonist, and all-around self-involved hero of Shantaram is Shantaram, a.k.a. Lindsay or Lin Ford, a.k.a. oh, who knows? He's mysterious, because we don't know his true identity, but he's also extremely introspective, letting us in on all his private thoughts, wishes, and opinions.
He's also not shy about letting us know just how awesome he is, as he cures the sick and saves the weak. An escaped convict whose true identity is never revealed (but who might sound a lot like Shmegory Shmavid Shmoberts, if you catch our drift), Lin is a fugitive, a chameleon, and has a little bit of a hero complex.
The single most important fact about Lin, the truth that determines basically every event in the novel, is that he's a fugitive. He escaped from an Australian prison "in broad daylight, as they say, at one o'clock in the afternoon, over the front wall and between two gun-towers" (2.9.1). Just that little snippet of his runaway tale gives you a pretty good idea of his style.
He is bold ("broad daylight") and also seems to be really good at getting himself into dangerous situations ("between two gun-towers"). That daring escape is what sends him running to Bombay in the first place, and what gives us lucky readers a gigantic novel to read.
The memory of that escape becomes an important part of his character. In fact, upon arrival in Bombay he reflects on the fact of his constant escape:
I'd escaped from prison almost two years before, but the fact of the fugitive life is that you have to keep on escaping, every day and every night. And while not completely free, never completely free, there was hope and fearful excitement in the new: a new passport, a new country, and new lines of excited dread on my young face, under the grey eyes. (1.1.9)
He is always on the run, and can never relax, which might be a clue as to why he's always taking such crazy risks: he's got nothing to lose.
Being a fugitive is habit-forming for Lin. It's like a replacement addiction when he gives up heroin. Instead of being hooked on the drug, he's hooked on running. That might explain why he takes chances and makes questionable decisions.
Take, for example, when his assassin friend Abdullah invites him on a murderous mission to Sri Lanka: "Don't do it…Get away…Get away now… And the voice was right, of course. Dead right. And I wish I could say that it took me more than those few heartbeats to make up my mind to join him" (5.42.47). Lin's interior voice does try to keep him safe and he intuitively knows the right answer, but his fugitive self takes over and goes with the dangerous flow.
Lin's spirit animal is definitely the chameleon. He blends into every situation, camouflaging himself to fit in without being noticed, especially by the international police. Just start with his name, which he changes regularly to fit his mood:
"My name is Prabaker," he stated, in his musically accented English. "What is your good name?"
"My good name is Lindsay," I lied, using the name from my false passport. (1.1.44-45)
Lindsay will be shortened to "Lin" by Prabaker, and Prabaker's mother will later name Lin "Shantaram," meaning "man of peace." Luckily he's the narrator, or we might lose track of him with all these changes.
So many careers, so little time: actor, writer, medic, armed robber—Lin's done it all. He poses as a writer when he's in Bombay, which is kind of a cutesy wink to the fact that Lin's life story is actually a lot like the author's, Gregory David Roberts's. He tells Karla that he'd been an actor back in Australia, but we know he was an armed robber then. He whips out some mad medic skills in the slum, too. He's a jack-of-all-trades, only adding to his chameleonic aura.
Besides all those skills, Lin also has the uncanny ability to just pick up languages. We've got him speaking English, Hindi, and Marathi in Bombay, and when he goes to Afghanistan he has no problem with the local dialects there, either: "I practiced phrases in Farsi, Urdu, and Pashto, and even picked up a few words in some Tajik and Uzbek dialects" (4.32.3). So, yeah, that's impressive.
Lin's shapeshifting and Jason Bourne-like ability to just do pretty much anything he wants offers support to the image he seems to have of himself: that of a hero. We've got more detail on that in the next section. Read on.
Okay, we don't know what Lin's deal is, but he's always trying to stick his nose in and save the day. That isn't so bad; it's better than trying to hurt people, of course. But there is something a little bit self-important in all this chest-puffery. For example, every time Lin sees a riot, he somehow busts in among all the silly, irrational Indians and shows them the right way to do things:
Shouting louder than the rest, I ran into the screaming crowd and began dragging men away from the tight press of bodies.
"Brothers! Brothers! Don't hit! Don't kill! Don't hit!" I shouted in Hindi. (3.17.51-52)
It's neither the first nor the last time that Lin busts up a riot. It's actually a hobby of his.
Another way that Lin heroically saves the poor Indians is by suddenly becoming their "doctor" in the slum. We don't really know how he knows how to diagnose and treat the urban poor, but he just does, and that's enough to make him a hero not only in his own eyes, but also those of his patients:
With the kit open on the ground in front of my hut, I applied local anaesthetic cream to the baby's legs in a thick smear. It began to work almost at once. The baby settled down to a quiet whimper, and cuddled within her rescuer's arms.
"'Doctor…doctor…doctor…" people said, all around me. (1.8.100-101)
The baby's burns are from the fire, which Lin also helped to put out (did we mention he's really heroic?). And that mention of "her rescuer's arms"? Those would be Lin's. The people identify Lin as a doctor because he has lots of medicine, not necessarily because he studied it, but that's good enough to elevate him to hero of the slum.
And, yes, we're being really snide about Lin, but come on. It's hard not to be snarky when someone is so clearly full of himself. Still, his heart seems to be in the right place; he's doing everything he can, including using all of his mythical powers, to help the people who have taken him in as one of their own.