I live in a small country (the UK). I’ve always lived in a small country, and I like the fact that I live in a small country. It’s manageable: while I obviously haven’t visited every city and every hamlet, I can say that I’ve been to every corner, heard most local dialects, and tried a lot of local delicacies. It’s my country: I feel at ease here, comfortable even, and I could do a reasonable job as a tourist guide, I reckon.
Conversely, big countries unsettle me a bit. In the last ten years I’ve visited 3 big countries: the USA, China and Australia. As an eighties child I grew up watching a lot of American TV, which meant that I was already familiar with the USA before I visited. I’ve spent time in NYC, Florida, Texas, New Orleans and California but I don’t feel like I know the country at all well – I’m fully aware that there are effectively 50 countries, not 50 states.
I’ve spent time in a lot of Australia cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Cairns, Alice Springs, Canberra, Brisbane) and several places on the direct routes between these cities, but I’m also well aware that there is a lot of Australia outside of these places (in terms of geography, more so than people). In fact, there is a lot of unexplored Australia in general: it’s a country with depth, and I’ve only scratched the surface.
To complete the trilogy, in 2009 I spent 10 days in Beijing, partly on a work trip. At the time I thought I was getting a taste of China. Since returning I’ve gradually realised that I barely got a taste of Beijing. More so than perhaps any other country, there is A LOT of China. It spans several time zones, several very different dialects and even the cuisine is very different from one end of the country to the other (this is something that UK diners are now realising: restaurants are starting to open up devoted to particular types of Chinese cuisine, especially in London).
So to summarise my experiences so far: small countries are good, big countries are bad.
However, obviously, it’s not really as straightforward as that. I have only scratched the surface of these countries, and I know that, given time, I could feel just as comfortable in the USA, Australia, maybe even China, as I do in the UK.
One big country that I am yet to explore is India. I have always shied away from a trip to India: I really do not know where to start. There’s no Beijing, no Sydney, no obvious cultural reference point for me. It is so vastly different in terms of geography, climate, cuisine, religion, politics and language, from north to south and east to west, that I find it to be, to all intents and purposes, impenetrable.
Here’s what India looked like in 1969 according to the atlas:
The publishers deemed that India was deserving of a two-page spread. It certainly has a better case than New Zealand! Those familiar with India today will notice some differences (e.g. the presence of Bombay). India is both tropical and mountainous, bordered by some very different countries (Nepal vs. Pakistan vs. Bangladesh) and it’s BIG, both in terms of actual geographical size and in terms of population (at the last count there were about 1.25 billion Indians). That’s a lot of country to explore. It intrigues me, but I’ve never had a reason to visit, a starting point, a place/person/activity/event that draws me in. Then, in 2012, I (belatedly) heard about a book that was leading to a massive surge of interest in India. This book was called Shantaram.
Shantaram was written by Gregory David Roberts and is semi-autobiographical (more on that later). He (and it) look like this:
A detailed description of the plot of Shantaram is available in a million different places on the internet. To briefly summarise: a convicted Australian bank robber conducts a daring escape from jail, becomes one of Australia’s most wanted men, and escapes to India. Here he starts a new life in Mumbai (Bombay). He spends time living in a slum, starts a free health clinic, joins the mafia, spends more time in jail, he becomes a fluent speaker of Hindi and Marathi, acts in Bollywood, and fights in Afghanistan.
If this all sounds a bit too far-fetched to have any basis in reality, well, you’re not the first person to think that. How truthful is the book? I guess it depends how cynical you are. Roberts himself says that all the “big” things in the book are true – some minor details have been added to move the story along. I made the mistake of reading one too many reviews before I began reading Shantaram, so I read it quite cynically, and I suspect some of the big things are also not true, but this does not matter too much. If you can put the veracity (or otherwise) of the book to one side, what you are left with is (mostly) an excellent read.
Not only a great read, but a long read: my version was 933 pages long. A more judicious editor could have reduced this by ~150 pages, in my opinion. The lengthy passages of philosophical musings from Roberts are mostly unnecessary, and the diversion into Afghanistan represented a change in pace that I don’t think the book needed, but I guess at its heart the book is about life, and this never seamlessly follows a simple narrative. It’s pretentious in parts, but it also comes across as very honest, and this makes it easier to forgive the book’s failings. All told, I couldn’t put it down. In contrast to The Road To Oxiana, I finished this in record time, at an obscenely early hour in the morning over my Easter break.
Shantaram is, more than anything else an ode to Mumbai, and this is what I loved the most about the book. It really felt like I was getting to know a little bit of India, and the end result was that the country as a whole is a little less impenetrable to me now. Roberts describes with love the city, its people, its customs, and its cuisine, bringing Mumbai to life on every page.
“There is so much Italian in Indians, and so much Indian in Italians. They are both people of the Madonna – they demand a Goddess, even if the religion does not provide one. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart.”
“That’s how we keep this crazy place together – with the heart…. India is the heart. It’s the heart that keeps us together. There’s no place with people, like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart.”
“That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace. They are not perfect, of course. They know how to fight and lie and cheat each other, and all the things that all of us do. But more than any other people in the world, the Indians know how to love one another”
I’m no judge of writing quality really, and I’m sure there are many criticisms of Roberts’ style that can – and have – been made, but one of the aspects of the book that I enjoyed the most was the way he reported dialogue. This is a central part of the book, and helps to bring the city and its people to life. Prabaker (his tour guide/friend) gets a lot of the best lines:
“’My father is a very success man,’ Prabaker beamed, proudly, his arms around the older man’s shoulders. … Hearing the phrase in his own language, Kishan lifted his shirt with a graceful, artless flourish, and patted at his hairy pot-belly. His eyes glittered as he spoke to me, wiggling his head all the while in what seemed to be an unnervingly seductive leer.
‘What did he say?’
‘He wants you to pat his tummies,’ Prabaker explained, grinning.
Kishan grinned as widely.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Oh, yes, Lin. He wants you to pat his tummies.’
He really wants you to give it a pat,’ he persisted.
‘Tell him I’m flattered, and I think it’s a fine tummies. But tell him I think I’ll pass, Prabu.’
‘Just give it a little pat, Lin. […] Go on, Lin. A few pats only. It won’t bite you, my father’s tummies.’”
Shantaram is endlessly quotable, and the quotes that I’ve selected probably give you a much better flavour of the book than any description that I could provide. I’m going to end with a final quote about Leopold’s Cafe. Leopold’s is a Mumbai institution, with a Wikipedia page to boot. It’s central to much of what happens in the book: every story begin at Leopold’s, ends at Leopold’s or features it at some point, and many of the most quotable passages take place there too. This gives you a flavour of the place (full quote):
“…For one cool, precious hour each morning after opened, and the floors had been cleaned, Leopold’s was an oasis of quiet in the struggling city. From then, until it closed at midnight, it was constantly crowded with visitors from a hundred countries, and many locals, both foreign and Indian, who came there from every part of the city to conduct their business. The business ranged from traffic in drugs, currencies, passports, gold, and sex, to the intangible but no less lucrative trade in influence—the unofficial system of bribes and favors by which man appointments, promotions, and contracts were facilitated in India.
Leopold’s was an unofficial free zone, scrupulously ignored by the otherwise efficient officers of the Colaba police station, directly across the busy street. Yet a peculiar dialectic applied to the relationships between upstairs and down, inside and outside the restaurant, and governed all of the business transacted there. Indian prostitutes, garlanded with ropes of jasmine flowers and plumply wrapped in bejeweled saris, were prohibited downstairs, and only accompanied customers to the upstairs bar. European prostitutes were only permitted to sit downstairs, attracting the interest of men who sat at other tables, or simply paused on the street outside Deals for drugs and other contraband were openly transacted a the tables, but the good could only be exchanged outside the bar. It was common enough to see buyer and seller reach agreement on price, walk outside to hand over money and goods, and then walk back inside to resume their places at a table. Even the bureaucrats and influence peddlers were bound by those unwritten rules: agreements reached in the dark booths of the upstairs bar could only be sealed, with handshakes and cash, on the pavement outside, so that no man could say he’d paid of received bribes within the walls of Leopold’s.”
Shantaram isn’t a masterpiece. But it’s a compelling read and a learning experience: it’s inspirational in parts, and it has really increased my desire to visit India one day, which is possibly the biggest compliment that I could pay to Gregory David Roberts. Whatever you think about how truthful the book is, there is no escaping the fact that it is a very good story: I would urge everybody to read it at least once.