Weighing in at 944 pages (roughly 375,000 words), this is the longest novel I've read in a while. Shantaram (2003) details the fictionalized and meandering adventures of Australian-born writer Gregory David Roberts, the book’s author, under the alias Lindsay “Linbaba” Ford. Lindsay, a heroin addict and bank robber, locked away for his crimes in Australia, escapes from prison and with a fake passport ends up in Mumbai. There he meets a diverse group of foreigners, all running away from their previous lives, and befriends a local man, Prabaker, who helps him learn Marathi and Hindi while showing him the sites of the city and rural town of Sunder. On and on the story goes: the protagonist falls in love, acquires black-market medicine from a leper colony, bear hugs a bear, lives and heals in a slum where cholera, packs of dogs, and swarms of rats are rampant, works with the mafia, flies to and from Africa, is jailed and brutally beaten, does odd jobs for Bollywood, seeks revenge, and . . . just when you think there can’t be anything left to tell in the saga . . . joins a band of smugglers taking weapons to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
The book is violent, sometimes fantastically so, like when Lindsay gouges a man’s eye from its socket only to later pop it back in (“but it stared out at a strange angle”). I’d read that Shantaram was based on Roberts’ life, but the more you read it, the more you realize lots of it couldn’t have happened as described. But it's a great adventure tale, and I enjoyed Lindsay’s search for meaning and his philosophical pursuits, and how he draws life lessons from suffering. I think the first two lines of Shantaram capture its essence:
It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.