“Sometimes you break your heart in the right way…”
Remember that book I told you about four hundred years ago? Well I finally finished it. And that quote is really the best way to describe how I feel about it.
Shantaram is a novel, but it is also eerily close to the life experiences of the author, Gregory David Roberts. Both men are from Australia. Both men were sentenced to nineteen years in prison for armed robbery. Both men escaped and spent ten fugitive years in Bombay.
The narrator’s love of India and her people is infectious. He describes the sweltering heat with the simple, defiant sentence, “Each breath was an angry little victory.” The pages are filled with visits to mosques, opium dens, slums, and magical corners of Bombay that could only be found with the help of a trusted local guide and friend. I feel like I’ve been to India now, even if we skipped a few of the sights I had highlighted in my Fodor’s guide.
And this line? I love everything about this line:
None of us lie or guard our secrets when we sing, and India is a nation of singers whose first love is the kind of song we turn to when crying just isn’t enough.
But truth be told, I’m not sure I like the narrator. He’s a criminal. A drug addict. A philanderer. “I was tough, which is probably the saddest thing you can say about a man.” But he’s also a writer. And a lover. And a philosopher. Somehow, 933 pages later, I’m sill not sure how to define him, nor how I feel about him. And I can’t say for certain if those dichotomies made the book more or less impactful.
The whole book was filled with that push and pull, love and hate, desire and boredom. One moment, I was moved by the great beauty of his writing and the sweet sentiments it expressed. Then the next moment I was horrified and squirming in my seat. Roberts drags the reader along on a roller coaster ride of emotions, from smiling to slack-jawed in seconds. Like this passage for example:
In that other world-within-a-world, back then, I moved into a new prison cell and discovered a tiny mouse there. The creature entered through a cracked air vent, and crept into the cell every night. Patience and obsessional focus are the gems we mine in the tunnels of prison solitude. Using them, and tiny morsels of food, I bribed the little mouse, over several weeks, and eventually trained it to eat from the edge of my hand. When the prison guards moved me from that cell, in a routine rotation, I told the new tenant – a prisoner I thought I knew well – about the trained mouse. On the morning after the move, he invited me to see the mouse. He’d captured the trusting creature, and crucified it, face down, on a cross made from a broken ruler. He laughed as he told me how the mouse had struggled when he’d tied it by its neck to the cross with cotton thread. He marveled at how long it had taken to drive thumbtacks into its wriggling paws.
Honestly, had that scene happened any earlier in the book, I might have put it down right then and there. It still gives me the willies.
But the book is filled with other characters to temper the narrator’s questionable personality. Too many characters, in fact. I don’t need to be introduced to every single person the narrator meets in every single cafe he steps into over the course of a decade. I just don’t. And after I meet the seventeenth person who’s name starts with a Kh, I start to glaze over.
But some of those other characters have great lines and insights. Like:
You’re a good listener. That’s dangerous, because it’s so hard to resist. Being listened to – really listened to – is the second-best thing in the world.
Optimism is the first cousin of love, and it’s exactly like love in three ways: it’s pushy, it has no real sense of humor, and it turns up where you least expect it.
And while the book meanders and could certainly be much shorter, I keep finding myself revisiting its pages, mulling over quotes and my strong reactions to many of the characters, which I still can’t explain.
It’s said that you can never go home again, and it’s true enough, of course. But the opposite is also true. You must go back and you always go back, and you can never stop going back, no matter how hard you try.
So I loved AND hated the book. It’s beautiful. And it’s grotesque. It’s everything I love about mankind, and everything I hate about it. It’s hope and despair all at once. And it broke my heart, but I think it was in the right way.
“I don’t know what scares me more,” she declared, “the madness that smashes people down, or their ability to endure it.”