The protagonist in the story is Lin, an escaped convict from an Australian maximum security prison. With the help from friends and a fake New Zealand passport, Lin escapes to Bombay. As a tourist, he travels to a small village and becomes fluent in Marathi. On his way back to Bombay, thieves steal all his money so he is forced to live in one of the city's slums where he starts a medical clinic for the thousands of people living there. Eventually he meets Bombay's mafia boss and works for him, mostly in currency exchange and document forgery. The mafia boss, an Afghan, recruits Lin to accompany him on a weapons running expedition to his home country for the Jihad against the Soviets. Lin is a likable character in spite of some of his decisions. His mores are very complicated and questionable, and a big part of this book discusses the philosophical question of good versus evil. I was devastated when he succumbs to heroine, the cause of his downfall in Australia. His time spent in the opium den is heartbreaking and difficult to read. Still, I found myself rooting for Lin because he really does "get it" when it comes to what is truly important. He prefers to live simply (not that he always does), and he has a serving heart which is evident during a severe cholera outbreak in the slum. I find his sense of duty and honor quite humbling.
There are several other characters in the book I enjoyed. Lin's first Indian friend and tour guide, Prabaker, takes him home to his village and accepts him like a family member. Prabaker's mile-wide smile and positive outlook on life in spite of his poverty touched me. I would love to have a friend like Prabaker! Didier, an ex-pat from France, is witty; he is the glue that keeps their little social group at Leopold's Cafe together. And then there is the enigmatic Karla. Lin falls in love with Karla at first sight, and she introduces Lin to many contacts in Bombay.
But the true star of Shantaram is Bombay (Mumbai). I learned so much about the city's people, culture, and atmosphere. I had never before desired to travel to India. Shantaram has changed my mind. Someday I would love to visit Mumbai. Shantaram is truly a love story: Roberts' love for Mumbai. I do want to warn you that there is violence in this book, and very bad language. There is an Indian slang phrase that is very offensive and used often in the book.
Until next time...