I’ve always been a book lover… and a fast reader. I’ll happily devour an entire book in one session, and am banned from reading in bed after many nights spent awake til 3am ‘just finishing the end of this chapter’. I’ve recently given in and invested in a Kindle, but before that my holiday reading of choice was the thickest book I could find. Anything below 400 pages wasn’t even going to get a look in. But you can have too much of a good thing, and there’s also a limit to what I can carry. At a hefty 950 pages, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts had been waiting on the shelf for a while. But a 12-hour flight to Bali and a couple of lazy days alone in Legian til my boyfriend arrived meant its time had come.
Maybe autobiographical, maybe fiction, Shantaram is a epic story either way. A convicted heroin addict bank robber escapes a 19-year prison sentence in Australia and end up in India en route to Germany. He spends eight years as part of the Mumbai underworld – living in the slums, setting up a health clinic, working as a forger, getting involved with the Indian mafia, being put in prison and fighting with the rebels in Afghanistan. “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.” Right from the first line I was sucked into the story.
But it was the Indian part of the book that really came to life for me. I spent a few weeks in India about eight years before, but reading this it was like I’d only just left. Surrounded by the humidity and heat of Bali and the madness of the streets just south of Kuta, it was like Indonesia and India came together. The noise of the traffic horns, the smell of cooking and the chattering of exotic languages surrounded me on and off the page. Two days passed by in a jet-lagged haze – hiding from the mid-afternoon heat by the pool or sat up late at night on the balcony while a huge thunderstorm crashed around me.
Maybe it’s not a true story after all, and maybe the descriptions go on a bit, but for a while Shantaram transported me to a different country. And after two days in Bali, my boyfriend arrived and I had to admit I’d managed to see almost nothing of Legian. But in my head I’d been all the way to Mumbai and back.