He was Australia’s most wanted man. Now he’s written Australia’s most wanted novel. Shantaram is a novel based on the life of the author, Gregory David Roberts. In 1978 Roberts was sentenced to nineteen years’ imprisonment as punishment for a series of robberies of building-society branches, credit unions, and shops he had committed while addicted to heroin.
In July 1980 he escaped from Victoria’s maximum-security prison in broad daylight, thereby becoming one of Australia’s most wanted men for what turned out to be the next ten years. For most of this period he lived in Bombay. He set up a free health clinic in the slums, acted in Bollywood movies, worked for the Bombay mafia as a forger, counterfeiter, and smuggler and, as a gun-runner, resupplied a unit of mujaheddin guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan.
This is the setting of Shantaram. Apart from having this highly unusual personal background, Greg Roberts is a very gifted writer. His book is a blend of vivid dialogue, unforgettable characters, amazing adventures, and superb evocations of Indian life. It can be read as a vast, extended thriller, as well as a superbly written meditation on the nature of good and evil. It is a compelling tale of a hunted man who had lost everything – his home, his family, and his soul – and came to find his humanity while living at the wildest edge of experience.
This book is destined to become an aussie classic. An epic saga of monumental proportions, it’s still only a small window into the life of Greg Roberts.
Though written as a novel, Shantaram is based squarely on the life of the author. Greg apparently had journals and a cast iron memory to draw upon, so there is lots of detail.
Greg Roberts has thus far lived an extraordinary life. An intelligent man who turned to a life of crime and became Australia’s ‘most wanted’, he has penned his amazing story with the gift of the gab.
I have the inside rub from someone who actually knew him in his early life. They said that he was a genius and he was also an amazing actor – he was a chamelion of the highest order. He was a master of disguise.
His story of escaping from Pentridge jail, in Melbourne, Australia, then somehow eluding the authorities and making his way to the then named Bombay, (Mumbai) capital city of Maharashtra in India and becoming embroiled with the Bombay Mafia is nothing short of incredible.
He survived there for many years, forging passports among other things, fought in a war as a mercenary and was finally caught and bought back to Australia to serve out his jail sentence.
Anyone familiar with the Ned Kelly story will recognise a few of the mythological bells here. Like Robin Hood, Greg Roberts becomes a hero of the downtrodden in the slums of Bombay, and one can’t help but feel like you are on his side, despite that fact you know he has committed violent crime in the form of armed robberies back in Australia, for which he is being hunted by the authorities.
I sincerely hope that Greg finishes the books that are rumoured to be in the creative process. There are apparently two more in the pipeline.
I can honestly say that this was one of the best books I have ever read, notwithstanding one of the best aussie reads. My only critique is that sometimes there is too much detail, but overall it does add to the vivid pictures that Greg manages to convey. As an aside, I also was informed that Greg Roberts would not allow much editing, so what you read is very close to his original manuscript.
It’s a must read from me. Don’t be put off by the page count, in parts, you won’t be able to put it down.