Where do we begin? There is so much going on in Shantaram that "brief and sparse" seem incompatible, but we'll give it a shot. The basic set-up is that a guy carrying a fake passport, calling himself Lindsay Ford, lands in Bombay after escaping from an Australian prison.
He hires a guide named Prabaker who becomes his super-best friend, like BFF for lifesies. He also meets a really pretty, but also kinda grim and mysterious, Swiss woman named Karla with whom he promptly falls madly in love, Romeo-and-Juliet-style.
Prabaker takes Linbaba, which is what he calls Lindsay, to his village, Sunder. There he deals with some of the demons that are haunting him for having left his family behind and the crimes he committed.
He takes a healing shower in the monsoon rain, and Prabaker's mom decides that his Indian name will be Shantaram, which means Man of God's Peace—a little ironic, given his penchant for armed robbery, but what can you do?
On their way back to Bombay, Prabaker and Shantaram-Linbaba-Lindsay are robbed. Lin (yup, another nickname for Lindsay) has nothing left so he goes to live with Prabaker in the slums—a super-sad, impoverished community where, it turns out, people are pretty loving and content, even if they don't have much. Lin does lots of save-the-day stuff, like help put out fires and set up a clinic out of his hut to take care of sick and injured slum-dwellers.
Karla comes out to visit and there is talk of rumors of a killer named Sapna, who is dismembering the city's richest citizens—yikes. Also, out of the blue a guy named Abdel Khader Khan, an Afghan Richie Rich, takes a liking to Lin and sends his nephew to live with him in the slums so he'll appreciate what he has and learn some English while he's at it. This might make you think twice before complaining about last year's Nikes.
Whoa—we're running out of space and we've barely begun, so let's pick up the rhythm. Lin helps Karla break her friend Lisa out of a house of prostitution owned by the evil Madame Zhou. In retaliation, Zhou gets him thrown into a horrific prison where he is tortured constantly. Finally Khader gets him out through bribery and Lin goes to work for him, specializing in making counterfeit passports. Prabaker dies in a horrible car crash, which is pretty sad.
Things with Karla are on-again-off-again, and when she finally leaves him Khader talks Lin into joining him on a trip to Afghanistan, where they'll bring guns to rebels who are fighting the Soviet invaders. Lin agrees because he feels loyal to Khader for breaking him out of jail, but when they get there he finds out that Khader had paid Karla to bring Lin to him, and that it was all a big ruse because he needed a white person to pose as an American on the Afghanistan trip.
Lin is furious, Khader dies, and the few survivors from the gun-running party head back to Bombay. When they get there they murder one of Lin's henchmen, who, it turns out, had been behind the Sapna killer and had betrayed them to the Afghan government.
Lin falls back in with his friends in Bombay and decides to head to Sri Lanka, leaving the city and its crazy memories behind. See? We told you this book had a lot going on.