Shantaram is an unabashed praise for India in its Hindu way of life. The author, named Shantaram by the mother of his hero, Prabhaker finds himself in India in his search for freedom. The book is an autobiography of Lin, a short form for Lindsay, as he escapes from an Australian prison right into India where he knows, for the first time in his life, what it is to be free. India, despite its poverty and squalid slums, sleazy spaces and filthy bazaars, is a free country precisely because its people are law abiding, have an innate sense of civility and respect plurality of view points, attitudes, faith and politics. In India corruption does not corrupt the soul, here people despite their failings have a sense of right and wrong, people are not particularly fanatics, and even while they get wild when they board packed trains and buses, once inside it, packed like sardines, show civility that would not have been possible by citizens anywhere else in the world. It is India with its huge penchant for a “normal” life and its people who seek contentment and equilibrium in everything that makes India into a country that shelters all and absorbs all. And the hero of this India is Prabaker, a tourist guide with a broad smile who has the amazing power at “organizing everything”, solving every problem and answering all questions and one who is a poor migrant from a village and lives in a slum. Prabaker is a hero not because he achieves, he is a hero because he finds his freedom in whichever way he leads his life. This is why, when Lin goes away to Afghanistan to fights its wars against the Soviet occupation, the Taliban fighters listened to tales of Prabaker with rapt attention. In those snow filled mountain crevices and caves of the Sulaiman ranges, the hero of the Universe was not a sword wielding righteous warrior of the Prophet but the Maratha native who had his home in deep and dry Maharashtra and lived in a Mumbai slum.
Through the nine hundred odd pages the author takes us through the city of Mumbai, mainly into its slums, its sleazy cafes haunted by members of the underworld, its “palaces of sin”, the torture cells of its prisons, its den for child trafficking, its drug dealers and the prostitution racket. The agitated excitement of the underworld is sharply contrasted with the harsh but peaceful atmosphere of the slum. There are further contrasts between the underworld and the slum; the underworld is largely dominated by Muslim ideologues who believe in wars to end all wars, who follow principles of fair play and justice even in their illegal activities and who scum opportunities in Mumbai to feed Islamic wars in Afghanistan. Lin’s world is divided between the two worlds, the Empire of Khaderbhai, the leader of the largest gang of the underworld in Mumbai and Prabaker, the almost invisible and yet omnipresent tour guide of the slums. In the structure of a melodrama, if Prabaker is the hero, then Khaderbhai is the villain. Yet, it is Abdel Khader who is a father that Lin never had, a patriarch of the most improbable set of people, American woman running away from murder, Iranian refugee absconding from the Savak, Afghan guerillas raising money in Mumbai. But despite this, Khader is still the villain because most of the times he is playing God, or at best the Prophet trying to control people’s lives, guiding them to fall into traps that he lays or them and all in the quest of one single mission, to settle scores with his rivals in Afghanistan, his homeland. Besides, Khaderbhai is a true Muslim, abhorring greed and prostitution and stays clear of drugs.
It is through Prabaker that Lin understands the Hindu way of life and it is through Khaderbhai that he understands the Islamic cosmology. The Hindus win straight on because they have at their core, non violence, peaceful coexistence and a desire for continuity. Islamic philosophy, despite its holism and grandeur is flawed because it tries to control nature rather than fall in line with it, it revolves around the surrender to the “Will of Allah” rather than to the eternal pattern of the Universe, and it relies on violence to solve all problems. The Hindu way is persistent and seeks self sustenance and continuity, Islamic way has a direction, a motion and it is this dynamism that is the reason for so much of anxiety in the Islamic world. This is why, the author condemns the Hindu right very often but does not find too much fault with the Sena. In fact, the militarism of the Sena, in the view of the author is driven by Muslim money and Muslim manipulations. The Islamic way like the burning down of the sinful palace of Madame Zhou is done by the Sena, though the Hindus, who are not religious, can fall into sin as irretrievably as the Chuha gang led by the Hindu leader by a Marathi-Kannada name.
Just as there is a discourse over which is better, the Hindu way or the Muslim way, Lin also shakes out characters that Mahmood Mamdani calls respectively as the good Muslim and the bad Muslim. Qasim, the slum headman and Salman Mastan, Abdel Khader’s successor are good Muslims. This is because, like the Sufis at Haji Ali, they use Islamic ethics to integrate with the world around them and unlike Abdel Khader not use it as a righteous force to shape one’s world according to one’s own will. Good Muslims are born and live in India and put their stakes into seeing India grow inclusively. The Bad Muslims are the foreigners who use the Islam of the sword, with conquest and control inside them and who wage war almost always against fellow Muslims. The only exception is that of Abdullah Taheri, an Iranian refugee, but a good Muslim because he has made India his home. The author suggests at one point of time that if rebirth is to be believed then every human being must have, at some point of time been an Indian. In fact, the author suggests that India has a strange spirituality, which lies in its inclusive and accommodative society, where strangers are provided with shelter without asking any questions. No one even looked at Lint except in curiosity in India whereas in Afghanistan he was stopped at every kilometer of travel by the fighting guerillas. No wonder then Abdel Khader’s own guru, Idris Shah, an Afghan with strong Buddhist leanings made Varanasi his home. Lin is surprised because Khader never acknowledges the existence of Idris Shah, perhaps because like the “bad Muslims” of an Islamic world, he does not wish to accept that Islam has been best understood in the soil of India from the accommodative perspective of the Indian or the essentially Hindu way of life.
There are exceptions to the pattern because an Indian born Muslim, Rasheed exploits his wife and her sister and Anand Rao, a Hindu murders him. Anand Rao hands himself over to the police, accepts his punishment gracefully and cries when Lin arranges a journalist to create sympathies for the offender and get the sentence commuted. Anand Rao wants no mercy and Lin sees in this self flagellation, India’s essential non violence because the quintessential Indian Anand Rao punishes himself as mercilessly as he had offended his victim, Rasheed. Strangely, this is missing in the ideological battle in Afghanistan; the fighters do not wish to do unto themselves what they do unto the others. No wonder then Afghanistan is so tormented because it has none of the discipline of self governance that Indians have. No wonder then when Lin speaks of Prabaker to the Afghan fighters they fall over themselves in discussing life in India as though they were speaking of the mythical jannat.
The self governing society of India manifests itself in many other ways as well. There is no government help for the slums but people organize themselves marvelously before the monsoon rains waterlog their dwellings; the lepers are integrated into the market through the black economy of medicines and though the police is corrupt, it is also human because they let Lin be even when he is a wanted fugitive because the police decide that because Lin attends to the sick in the slum, he must be a good human being. In fact, the Blue sisters, survivors of attempts to murder them and Parvati, Prabaker’s widow live on with the same equanimity as they did before tragedy strikes them, a sharp contrast to Karla, the American, who is so afraid to love and live because of a few bad experiences in life. In India, there is no presupposed idea of a perfect state or a utopia and this is why, Indians can find Heaven in every situation of life without being defeated by adversities.
Lin looks at India from a male point of view and this is why violence against women does not appear among his concerns. He does not seem to have witnessed wife beating, female foeticide, and even when he does learn about Johnny Cigar’s mother being oppressed by her own family and loved ones; he lauds the mother and son for their resilience rather than critique the Indian society for its failures. Lin forgives the pitfalls of the Indians, forgives his tormentors and forgets those who let him down and instead cherishes those who loved him, sheltered and fed him into his freedom which he came looking for in India and found.
Shantaram is an epic that really neither begins nor ends and though one reads from the first to the last page in about a month’s time, one never feels as though one is through with the book. In a way it is reportage rather than a story, a saga of episodes rather than of events, with really neither a beginning, nor an end but only a bulky and bulgy middle.