“The truth is, the man I am was born in those moments, as I stood near the flood sticks with my face lifted to the chrismal rain”: an elegantly written, page-turning blockbuster by Australian newcomer Roberts.
The story is taken from Roberts’s own life: an Australian escapes from prison (he committed armed robbery to support heroin addiction) and flees to Mumbai (here, Bombay), where, hiding in the slums, he finds himself becoming at once increasingly Christlike and increasingly drawn into the criminal demimonde. The narrator, Lin, now going by Shantaram Kishan Kharre, takes to healing the sick while learning the ways of India’s poor through the good offices of a guide named Pribaker, who’s a little shady and more than a little noble, and through the booze-fogged lens provided by dodgy Eurotrash expats like aging French bad boy Didier, who “spoke a lavishly accented English . . . to provoke and criticize friend and stranger alike with an indolent malignity.” Measuring their lives in the coffeespoons of one monsoon season to the next, these characters work in the orbit of fabulous crimelords and their more actively malign lieutenants, all with murky connections to the drug trade, Bollywood, and foreign intelligence agencies (as one tells our narrator, “All the secret police of the world work together, Lin, and that is their biggest secret”). Violence begets violence, the afflicted are calmed and balmed, friends are betrayed, people are killed, prison doors are slammed shut, then opened by well-greased palms. It’s an extraordinarily rich scene befitting Les Misérables, a possible influence here, or another less obvious but just as philosophically charged ancestor, James Michener’s The Drifters. Roberts is a sure storyteller, capable of passages of precise beauty, and if his tale sometimes threatens to sprawl out of bounds and collapse under its own bookish, poetic weight, he draws its elements together at just the right moment.
A roman-à-clef rejoinder to Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (p. 676), splendidly evoking an India few outsiders know.