SHANTARAM, by Gregory David Roberts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004, 936 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

The lives that some people lead can put fiction to shame. One such example would be Australian novelist Gregory David Roberts, a former heroin addict who held up banks with a toy pistol. Apprehended and sentenced to 19 years in prison, Roberts, driven to escape by the cruelty of his captors, obtained a forged New Zealand passport and in early 1982 found himself on the lam in Bombay, India, where he was to spend the next 10 years. He was recaptured in Germany and, upon his release from prison in 1997, went on to become a literary phenomenon.

“Shantaram,” the first in what will eventually be a quartet, is the fictionalized account of Roberts’ years on the run in Bombay.

Protagonist Lindsay’s adventure begins with his arrival at the airport, whereupon he makes the acquaintance of his native guide, a tiny man with a huge grin, named Prabaker Karre, who promises to show him “more than everything.” Lindsay’s rapport with his guide becomes the catalyst for his emotional attachment to India — and vice versa, for the affection seems to be mutual.

“Shantaram,” which means “man of God’s peace” in the Maharashti dialect, is a remarkable study in human adaptation and self-redemption that begins with the acceptance of Lindsay by the people of Prabaker’s native village. As Roberts writes, “I don’t know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow.”

After losing his stash of funds to robbers, Lindsay, by now called Lin for short, is forced to move from his cheap hotel into a community of illegal squatters. Thus begins his account of life in the slum, among people involved in a daily struggle for survival. Which in turn calls for learning the rules by which they interact as they contend with threats of eviction, fires, monsoon floods and a cholera epidemic.

Lindsay, who has had no real medical training beyond basic first aid, begins to treat the slum residents and gains merit in the eyes of a powerful gang lord, who, like Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone, has a soft spot in his heart for the downtrodden.

In addition to India’s native diversity, Lindsay’s adopted home is portrayed as crazy-quilt of humanity, from rootless Europeans to Afghan refugees, smugglers from the Middle East, forgers from Sri Lanka and gangsters from Nigeria. After a run-in with a powerfully connected brothel madame leads to Lindsay’s arrest and a harrowing four-month experience in prison, his release is secured with bribes and he winds up being apprenticed to the underworld. There, he works his way up from selling drugs to foreign tourists to gold smuggling and, eventually, to the hugely lucrative trade in false passports. Later, at the behest of his Afghan protector he even gets involved in smuggling arms to anti-Soviet mujahedin fighters.

While Roberts’ descriptions of close calls and tense moments will hold the reader’s attention, above all it is the lure of India that gives “Shantaram” its greatest appeal. After watching the scramble to board a train, Lindsay remarks, “I know that the scrambled fighting and courteous deference were both expressions of the one philosophy: the doctrine of necessity . . . What is necessary? That was the unspoken but implied and unavoidable question everywhere in India. When I understood that, a great many of the characteristically perplexing aspects of public life became comprehensible.”

But Roberts wisely leaves it to an Indian, a character named Vik- ram, to explain his own country, in the form of a tearful soliloquy liberally sprinkled with English profanity.

This is not England, or New Zealand, or Australia. . . . This is India, man. This is India. This is the land of the heart. This is where the heart is king, man. . . . That’s why you’re free. That’s why that cop gave you back your phony passport. That’s why you can walk around, and not get picked up, even though they know who you are. They looked at all what you did here and how the people in that slum love you and they thought, ‘Well, he f***ed up in Australia, but he’s done some good sh** here.’ . . . That’s how we keep this place together — with the heart. . . . There’s no place with people like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart.

Or as Prabaker the guide puts it, “We are so lucky to have you live with us, Lin. You are always bring it so many adventures of a fully not-boring kind!”

So moving is this account of deliverance, one wonders if some of Roberts’ more impressionable readers might be inspired to set out for India with the expectation of a similar epiphany. For the average person, reading “Shantaram” may be enough.

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