Thoughts & Ideas

Thursday, September 30, 2010


This is my first attempt to review a book, though I have a strong reading habit and a very very long time ago my father used to regularly suggest that I should build up a habit of writing down my impressions or thoughts after reading any book.

“Shantaram” is a unusually long novel and had not excited me enough to even attempt to read it when it had first appeared and was the toast of the media. Both the size of the tome and its subject matter was not really up my interest. Recently, I happened to read a very favourable review of the book by someone for whom I have a lot of respect. This triggered my interest and as luck would have happened I managed to borrow the book from a close friend.

It takes the endurance of a camel, the patience of a saint, and the gullibility of simpleton to go through the book. But I finally managed to do it, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, all 933 pages of the book. No doubt it helped having a long weekend, lack of anything better to do, and my stubbornness in finishing something I had started however pig headed it was! It also I suppose reflects on my personality and the qualities I posses.

The book is nothing but a collection of tall tales picked up at random in course of long chat sessions (addabaji describes the situation better) at Leopolds and other similar haunts in Colaba and Fort areas along with regular visits to C grade Hindi movies. No doubt the author is helped by his fertile imagination and practice of keeping notes. It has so many howlers that Mr. Roberts basic credibility comes into doubt. It has very little resemblance to what is life in Bombay now or in the 80s. For example:

  • Where in India are only sweets served along with tea? In the novel it is mentioned in at least three places.
  • Bombay suburban trains run on very high voltage electricity drawn from overhead electric cables. It takes a mighty big stretch of imagination and a lot of fool hardiness for a young man to serenade his lady love on top of a moving local trains without being burnt to death in a manner of seconds.
  • The description of the take out lunch shared with Vinod and his family seems to be copied down from the menu of some road side eatery rather than an actual meal which ordinary people eat even as a feast.
  • Khalid Ansari seems to be a pretty unique Palestinian, since I believe he would be one of the very, very few Palestinians with “Ansari” as part of his name. I wish Mr. Roberts had done a little bit of research in this matter.
  • Saurabh Restaurant is said to serve Bombay’s best masala dosas. When Lin is having his meal there with Khader, he mentions that Khader is having dosas while he finished his pea flour roti. Does he mean missi roti? I would really love to find an authentic, great dosa joint which also serves missi rotis even in Bombay!
  • I had heard of Ganges & Jamuna being holy rivers. I am yet to come across any river holy or otherwise called “Jamner”.
  • I did not know that spoken Hindi is so different from spoken Urdu (for me they are indistinguishable) that speakers of one language have difficulty in understanding the other. Novel is literally strewn with such incidents.
  • I never knew it gets so cold in Bombay (even after living there for 2 years) that people have to take hot water baths. I also don't think Bombay has a culture of taking hot water baths. Why does Shantaram need to have hot water for his bath (inspite of coming from a much colder clime) beats me.
  • Khader is referred to as Khader‘ji’ at least twice during the Afghanistan episodes. Once by Lin and then by Khalid. Sounds a little strange.
  • A sikh named “Anand Rao”?
  • I would love to know as to what kind of computers were being used in mid 80s and for what purposes. Yes microcomputers had come around, but I don't think there were too many utility programmes widely available for say word processing, accounting, or even data base management. What was available needed a fair amount of technical skills.
  • Another example is “Utna hai” which is translated as “He’s awake”. Does he mean “Utha hai”? with the “h” becoming an “n” by a typo? Or is it because he jotted down the Hindi equivalent of “He’s awake” in his journal and then transcribed it as “Utna” rather than “Utha” since he did not have adequate knowledge of the language?
  • Similar might be the case of “kadmal”. It would be more accurate to write it as “khatmal”, which roughly translated means “the insect (mal) which resides in the bed (khat or khaat).
  • I have strong doubts as to ability of a Palestinian native Arabic speaker conversing fluently in Arabic with an Algerian native Arabic speaker. The accents are so different that they would have major problems in comprehending each other. Unless of course they were both speaking Al Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic)!

These are just a representative sample and any serious reading would show up many more such bloomers.

Mr. Roberts seems to have a more than nodding acquaintance with some very selected areas of South Bombay such as Colaba, Cuffe Parade, Flora fountain, Fort and a slight familiarity to Bandra & Juhu. But there is much more to Bombay than these two areas. It is surprising that he shows little knowledge of vast areas of Bombay and its culture, a city where he claims to have worked and lived for such long years. No mention of the typically Maharashtrian localities of Girgaum, or the Ganapati pujas, the Dahi-Handi festival, the typically Maharashtrian fish based eating joints, or even the Koli fishing village all of which are within a few kilometers from the locale in which most of the novel is set.

The language, the description of situations or build up of characters are mediocre at the best and at various points the thread of narrative is lost, before totally petering out in the end.

Though the author deserves credit for very accurately portraying the kind of language used by some kinds of Indians. Both Prabhakar’s and Vikram Mehta’s use of English is very realistic.

I am very thankful to my guardian angel that I did not end up spending money in purchasing the book though I really regret the time & energy spent in ploughing through it. It also beats me as to why the cover of the book uses the image of buildings which are more related to Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, or maybe even Lahore than Bombay or Afghanistan.