Shantaram Quotes and Analysis

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. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.

p. 3

These two sentences open the novel. Immediately, we see many of the themes that Roberts will develop in the course of his massive book -- mental resilience in the face of physical torment, the choice between hatred and forgiveness, the emphasis on extracting life lessons from the difficulties of experience. One particularly important theme regards the relationship between master and slave; much of Shantaram is devoted to exploring the philosophical paradox, perhaps most famously expressed by the German philosopher Hegel, that the slave has mental or spiritual freedom despite being chained and beaten in body, and that this mental freedom amounts to a form of power over the master.

What we call cowardice is often just another name for being taken by surprise, and courage is seldom any better than simply being well prepared.

p. 70

This quote occurs during Lin's first tour of "the real India" with Prabaker. They are involved in a collision while riding in a taxicab, and the crowd, inconvenienced by this incompetent cabbie, takes violent revenge while Lin stands by and watches. Much of Shantaram deals with the difficulties of cross-cultural experience -- in this moment, though Lin feels an impulse to protect the cabbie from the crowd, he simply accepts that he does not understand the workings of Bombay culture. Standing by, in this case, is not "cowardice," then, though he feels a bit like a coward. Later in the novel, after he has gotten to know Bombay, Lin intervenes in a similar auto accident -- at this point, he is prepared. The basic insight of the passage, thus, is that fate often throws unexpected and strange events in our paths, which we later interpret in moralistic and reductive terms ("courage" or "cowardice"). The most we can hope for is to prepare for the unexpected, as paradoxical as that sounds.

They nailed their stakes into the earth of my life, those farmers. They knew the place in me where the river stopped, and they marked it with a new name. Shantaram Kishan Kharre. I don't know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow. Whatever the case, whether they discovered that peace or created it, the truth is that the man I am was born in those moments, as I stood near the flood sticks with my face lifted to the chrismal rain. Shantaram. The better man that, slowly, and much too late, I began to be.

pp. 136-7

This is the climactic moment of self-revelation that occurs during Lin's trip to Prabaker's home village. He has just witnessed a village game -- every year during the rainy season, the members of the village guess how much the river will flood. They mark their guesses with stakes in the ground. This passage makes a metaphor of their activity. Lin, who has been a violent and awful person by every measure before arriving in India, finds that he is treated as not merely a decent man, but a "man of peace" (the translation of "Shantaram") when with Prabaker's people. They have, essentially, "staked out" a new identity for him, a good identity, though he will not always live up to this new, peaceful self in the tumultuous events that follow in the book.

It's a fact of life on the run that you often love more people than you trust. For people in the safe world, of course, exactly the opposite is true.

p. 156

This statement occurs just after Lin has told Karla, the woman he loves, that he is moving to the slum. He thinks about telling her all about his problems but decides to hold back. The sentiment -- that the fugitive loves more than he trusts -- captures perfectly Shantaram's particular romanticism. The book is full of people who love each other with their whole beings, yet still live in morally compromised situations rife with betrayal and subterfuge. Lin, of course, is the preeminent example of this figure. He falls in love rather easily and very deeply, but he never loses sight of the hard facts of his fugitive state.

"You know, Lin," he said softly, "we have a saying, in the Pashto language, and the meaning of it is that you are not a man until you give your love, truly and freely, to a child. And you are not a good man until you earn the love, truly and freely, of a child in return."

p. 353

Khader is the speaker. This quote comes after Lin has spent three months living with Khader's nephew, Tariq, a young boy whom Lin was initially reluctant to take into his charge, but whom he came to love. Fatherhood is a very difficult issue in Shantaram. Lin's own father is barely mentioned; his relationship with Khader is explicitly a type of father-son bond. Thus the episode with Tariq deepens the theme of learning from fathers. One of the primary duties of a father, it seems, is to train his son to be a good father himself, and thus to continue the cycle of wisdom and love that gives life meaning.

What characterises the human race more, Karla once asked me, cruelty, or the capacity to feel shame for it? I thought the question acutely clever then, when I first heard it, but I'm lonelier and wiser now, and I know it isn't cruelty or shame that characterises the human race. It's forgiveness that makes us what we are. Without forgiveness, our species would've annihilated itself in endless retributions.

p. 370

This quote allows for two general observations about the novel. First, it's necessary to emphasize a Karla quote -- she is forever quipping in this sort of clever, rather pat way. Although many of her quips are memorable, it's important to notice that they are a defense mechanism. Karla uses her cleverness to disguise her honest feelings, and to fend off the prying of others. Lin, while initially impressed by her smooth talk and her beauty, comes to find fault with many of her superficial philosophical pronouncements.

The latter part of the quote illustrates an absolutely central theme in the novel: retribution versus forgiveness. Khader's men, to take an obvious example, are caught in a cycle of retribution in the Afghanistan conflict. Khader himself had to flee Afghanistan because of a cycle of revenge killings that he started, and he reenters that violent context with his return. The moral of the novel, if such a massive tome can be said to have a single moral, seems to center on the impossibility of ever ending such cycles of violence without recourse to humanity's better angel, forgiveness. The key to all that is good in our species, Lin suggests, is our ability to swallow pride, to understand the persecutor even as he is persecuting us, in short, to forgive. There is a mysterious and deeply enriching power in such forgiveness.

"The universe," he continued, "this universe that we know, began in almost absolute simplicity, and it has been getting more complex for about fifteen billion years. In another billion years it will be still more complex than it is now. In five billion, in ten billion -- it is always getting more complex. It is moving toward...something. It is moving toward some kind of ultimate complexity. We might not get there. An atom of hydrogen might not get there, or a leaf, or a man, or a planet might not get there, to that ultimate complexity. But we are all moving towards it -- everything in the universe is moving towards it. And that final complexity, that thing we are all moving to, is what I choose to call God. If you don't like that word, God, call it the Ultimate Complexity. Whatever you call it, the whole universe is moving toward it."

pp. 480-1

This is a passage from Khader's explanation to Lin of his life philosophy. Shantaram contains many such conversations of cosmic scope and great philosophical ambition. Khader's thoughts are presented as the most well-developed take on things. Indeed, in his own writings, Gregory David Roberts has devoted much time and energy to expanding this general line of thinking into a school of thought which he has dubbed "cosmosophy." Important for the novel, this passage illustrates a widespread sense of the individual's miniscule yet not-insignificant role to play in the greater patterns that order our universe. Khader sees himself as a being shaped by destiny -- a destiny tending who-knows-where, but still a strong and irresistible destiny. Lin seems to inherit this mixture of fatalism, resignation, and optimism from his mentor.

At first, when we truly love someone, our greatest fear is that the loved one will stop loving us. What we should fear and dread, of course, is that we won't stop loving them, even after they're dead and gone. For I still love you with the whole of my heart, Prabaker. I still love you. And sometimes, my friend, the love that I have, and can't give to you, crushes the breath from my chest. Sometimes, even now, my heart is drowning in a sorrow that has no stars without you, and no laughter, and no sleep.

p. 629

This is Lin's prayer to Prabaker after he learns of his friend's death. There are many discussions of love in Shantaram, dealing with romantic love, with brotherly love, with father-son love. These bonds share certain characteristics -- positive, enriching characteristics, but also negative characteristics, need, intensity, grief. In the world of Shantaram, it's no fun being in love, though love is a necessary condition for survival. Although Prabaker has become less central to the plot of the novel by the time of this reflection, he still represents some very important bonds for Lin. First, he was Lin's guide into the world of real India, Lin's first "insider" friend. Second, he was the means by which Lin received his "new name," Shantaram. Prabaker is a foil for all that is best in Lin, and when he exits the book, it takes on a notably darker tone.

There was a horrible, blood-freezing scream somewhere very close. I suddenly recognized it as my own, but I couldn't stop it. And I looked at the men, the brave and beautiful men beside me, running into the guns, and God help me for thinking it, and God forgive me for saying it, but it was glorious, if glory is a magnificent and raptured exaltation. It was what love would be like, if love was a sin. It was what music would be, if music could kill you. And I climbed a prison wall with every running step.

pp. 778-9

This quote comes near the end of Part Four, as Lin charges with his fellow guerrillas against their foes in Afghanistan. It is important to acknowledge that for all the talk about peace, love, and forgiveness in Shantaram, the novel is at the same time celebratory of violence, crime, excitement, abandon. This is the moment in the novel where violence comes closest to pure ecstasy. Lin is always talking about the dark side of love, about the disturbing counter-parts to the positive qualities in life, but here we see the opposite side of the contrary emphasized -- just as there is a dark side to love, there is a lovely side to darkness. The image of "climb[ing] a prison wall" clearly refers back to an earlier moment of exhilaration -- Lin's escape from prison. It takes on a more metaphorical sheen here -- my his intense involvement in the charge, Lin is climbing out of the prison of his own problems and his own identity. He doesn't even recognize his own screaming voice. He has become, for a moment, totally absorbed in a greater system than himself -- the system of charging men. This is a dark and evil loss of ego, in contrast to the positive feeling of transcendence that Lin feels in his "Shantaram" moments, his moments where he plays the man of peace. The novel balances these two impulses in Lin -- to peace and to violence -- and, like it or not, the latter impulse more often proves the greater.

Looking at the people, listening to the breathing, heaving, laughing, struggling music of the slum, all around me, I remembered one of Khaderbhai's favourite phrases. Every human heartbeat, he'd said many times, is a universe of possibilities. And it seemed to me that I finally understood exactly what he'd meant. He'd been trying to tell me that every human will has the power to transform its fate. I'd always thought that fate was something unchangeable: fixed for every one of us at birth, and as constant as the circuit of the stars. But I suddenly realised that life is stranger and more beautiful than that. The truth is that, no matter what kind of game you find yourself in, no matter how good or bad the luck, you can change your life completely with a single thought or a single act of love.

pp. 932-3

At the close of Shantaram, Roberts reintroduces the positive tone that had distinguished its opening sections. This quote comes immediately after Lin is introduced to his dead friend Prabaker's newborn child -- a baby who is the spitting image of his jovial father. This contact with new life leads him to one of the major conclusions of the book -- that fate, while a mysterious and unpredictable force, is not beyond our powers to shape. This is crucial for Lin, a man seeking redemption, but Roberts seems to want all of his readers to feel a similar sense of control over destiny. The novel ends on an affirming note, reiterating the power of thought and love over the more brutal, physical realities of poverty and violence. Thus the book's end touches its beginning -- though the original affirmation that the mind can find freedom even amidst tortures of the body is cast in a more pleasant mold here.