The protagonist of Shantaram, a man we’ll come to know as “Lin,” begins his story amidst the crowds of Bombay, India. He tells us briefly of his past – as a recovering heroin addict, a felon incarcerated for armed robbery, a fugitive escapee from a maximum-security Australian prison – and of the story we’ll see told in the pages to come. But most importantly, he starts his tale with the plunge into Bombay, a city of new and colorful sights, sounds, and – he’s careful to mention – pungent smells.
Lin is traveling under a New Zealand passport he has forged himself; he falls in with a band of New Zealander tourists in order to avoid arousing suspicion at border control. After making it through, he boards a bus headed for central Bombay. The bus approaches the city through the slums – enormous temporary settlements filled with refugees. Lin finds these slums deeply unsettling. “What kind of a government allows suffering like this?” he asks himself. But Lin catches flashes of a different perspective as well – the people living in the slums, though living in abject poverty, do not seem miserable. Lin even spots a serene Westerner living among them, seeming to enjoy the simplicity of the slum existence; a bit later, however, Lin witnesses a heartbreaking fire devour makeshift shelters. Serenity and misery seem to coexist in the slums.
Lin soon falls into conversation with two Canadians traveling through Bombay on their way to the mountains. They invite Lin to share a room with them, assuring them that they know how to navigate the wily streets of Bombay. The bus stops in Colaba, the central tourist district, and they disembark. A widely grinning man approaches Lin and the Canadians and offers to serve as their guide. The wary Canadians want none of it, but Lin finds the man’s smile genuine and enlists his services. This guide, Prabaker Kharre, will come to be Lin’s closest friend in Bombay.
Prabaker leads the three to the India Guest House, a hotel run by the surly Mr. Anand. Though the Canadians dislike both the hotel and the price of a room, Lin again decides to trust Prabaker and agrees on the lodging. When in their room, Prabaker offers to sell them hashish, known as “charras.” Lin trusts Prabaker once more and they all smoke together. After enjoying the hash, Lin offers Prabaker an unopened bottle of Johnny Walker whiskey as a gift. After this gesture, Prabaker cuts the price of the hash in half.
Having drunk whiskey and smoked hash, Prabaker and Lin exit into the streets of Bombay, leaving the Canadians holed up in their room. Prabaker leads Lin to a Maharashtra restaurant, though on the way Lin drifts into the careening traffic of Bombay. Just as he is about to be run over, someone pulls Lin out of harm’s way. Lin turns to see “the most beautiful woman [he]’d ever seen,” Karla Saaranen. Lin thanks her genuinely (and flirtatiously) and discovers that she is a regular at a bar called Leopold’s. After finding Prabaker again, Lin learns that Karla is very well-known in the neighborhood. In the course of speaking about her and other subjects, Lin and Prabaker grow fonder still of one another. Prabaker tells Lin his pet name, Prabu, and soon thereafter gives Lin the name “Lin” (and the more respectful “Linbaba”), a shortening of “Lindsay,” the false name on his passport. “Lin” sounds similar to the word for “penis” in Hindi and Prabaker assures Lin that it will impress the denizens of Bombay as powerful.
The first chapter closes with a visit to Sanjay Deshpande’s shop, Radio Sick, where Prabaker sells the bottle of Johnny Walker that Lin had given him. Afterwards, Prabaker tries to teach Lin to chew “paan,” an Indian chewing tobacco. Lin, having taken a definite liking to his guide, hires Prabaker for a week. Overjoyed, the guide looks forward to showing Lin the sights of India. He also admits that the hash he sold Lin was still overpriced even after the reduction and vows to deal with Lin as he would deal with a friend.
Chapter Two begins in Leopold’s, an expatriate bar full of characters who will be very important to Lin in the course of the novel. Lin has become a regular at the bar in an attempt to get to know Karla. They talk about the sights of India and Karla alludes to her boss – a man we will come to know very well, but who for now remains mysterious. Lin learns that Karla is from Basel, Switzerland. Didier Levy, the resident wit of Leopold’s, soon joins their conversation. They are soon joined by two more regulars, Modena, a taciturn Spaniard, and Ulla, a beautiful German prostitute; Modena and Ulla are deeply in love with one another. The crew encourages Lin to leave Bombay, assuring him that other areas in India are far more enjoyable, but Lin seems determined to stay.
In a quick exchange in German, Karla and Ulla arrange to pass Ulla’s prostitution money through Lin in order to hide the extent of her earnings from Modena, who works for Ulla’s pimp. Lin complies with this arrangement and Karla soon leaves to run an errand, assuring Lin that she’ll return soon and allow him to accompany her to her apartment. After sitting alone for a moment, Didier joins Lin. He seems to have grown fond of Lin and points out some of the more powerful regulars seated at Leopold’s. These include many Mafioso, men we will come to know well in the course of the novel. Didier discusses the black market in passports, in which he himself plays a small role, gesturing toward an Afghan, Rafiq, and an Iranian, Bairam. He notes that the passport business, after a hard-fought turf war, is firmly in control of Abdel Khader Khan. Didier mentions several other powerful criminals who control parts of the Bombay black market, including Chuha and Abdul Ghani, though he emphasizes that Khader Khan is the king of crime in Bombay, a man respected for his intellect and generosity as well as his power. Didier also fills Lin in on the hashish business, in which he makes additional money as a middleman.
Finally, Didier turns to the subject of politics, noting that there is a seething conflict between the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist political party representing the Maharashtrians (ethnic Hindi), and the Sikhs, members of the Muslim minority aligned with Kashmirian separatists. Didier emphasizes the complexity of the struggle for power in Bombay between these various national interests, noting that the war in Afghanistan following the invasion by the U.S.S.R. (a historical reference that clues us into the setting of the novel, the mid-eighties) has further complicated the picture. Concluding his summary of the Bombay situation, Didier notes that Karla is as powerful as the most powerful politicos and criminals seated at Leopold’s.
Soon after, Karla reenters Leopold’s and Lin accompanies her to her apartment. He gives her Ulla’s money and they begin conversing about Didier. Karla reveals that she and Didier shared an apartment when she first arrived in Bombay. She notes that Didier is famous for his homosexual liaisons with young expatriots – though never with Indians, a point of discretion that endears him to the local authorities. Lin turns the conversation to some other regulars at Leopold’s – the quiet and spiritual Letitia, the handsome and mendacious Maurizio – before a legless beggar whom Karla knows interrupts them. They chat briefly before Karla leads Lin to her apartment, where they say goodnight.
In Chapter Three, Lin has rejoined Prabaker, who has promised to lead him into the “real” Bombay. Prabaker, as is his custom, fails to tell Lin exactly where they’re going, but Lin accompanies him trustingly anyway in a taxi. The congested Bombay streets bring out the worst in their cabbie; he swerves, cuts off, and swears at the carts and cars that fill the streets. Lin encourages the driver to slow down but, unfortunately, this only angers the cabbie. Distracted, he rear-ends the car in front of him in his rage and a pile-up builds behind them. Prabaker immediately goes into a panic, screaming at Lin to get away from the car. When Lin is unable to free himself, Prabaker drags him to safety. In a moment, Lin sees the reason for Prabaker’s urgency: the other drivers involved in the accident mob the cabbie and beat him to a pulp. They then crowd-surf his unconscious body to the police.
Once they are out of harm’s way, Prabaker shrugs off this incident with a nonchalance that amazes Lin, assuring him that such mob violence is a common occurrence in Bombay. Prabaker calls his cousin, who he hopes will fill the taxi driver’s vacant post, and leads Lin on a “dark circuit of the city.” They make their way through narrow, twisting alleys, then through a fetid tunnel full of rats and excrement, until they arrive at a wooden door. Prabaker knocks, revealing a massive man – as it turns out, a policeman – called Vinod. This doorman refuses to allow Lin inside until Lin speaks a few phrases of Marathi, the official language of the state of Maharashtra. Suddenly elated, the doorman allows Prabaker and Lin to enter. A harrowing sight confronts Lin inside the door: a child’s slave market. Lin has an impulse to intervene, to end the market, but realizes that such an act would be futile. Prabaker leads him back out of the slave market, explaining to Lin that the children being sold into slavery are comparatively lucky, the survivors of natural disasters and the refugees of war. At least they would live. For every slave sold, hundreds of absent children had “starved in unutterable agonies.”
Chapter Four finds us back in Leopold’s, where Didier enlightens Lin as to the elegance of the Borsalino hat before their conversation turns more generally to the nature of India. Lin reveals that Prabaker has invited him to spend several months in his native village, a very significant honor. Soon more regulars gather, including Letitia, Ulla and Modena, followed closely by Karla, Maurizio and an Indian man named Vikram Patel. Lin admits that he feels jealous of Maurizio, who is very handsome, and who seems constantly to accompany Karla. Vikram contrasts Indian and European sexual culture, noting that though Indian women seem prepared to embrace liberal Western mores, the men are far from ready to do so. An Indian woman, Kavita Signh, overhears him and joins their conversation, which is simultaneously playful and philosophical. They relate anecdotes about life in India, with some expressing pessimism about the country’s direction and others expressing optimism. Lin finds a moment to tell Karla about his plan to accompany Prabaker on his journey to his home village, a plan of which Karla highly approves. They walk back to her apartment together once more, and though Karla gives him a kiss on the cheek, Lin cannot obey his impulse to kiss her on the lips.
Shantaram begins in a manner at once unconventional and conventional. It is an unconventional beginning in that it begins in an essay-like voice, communicating in a clear and direct way the concern of the narrator (and, one can assume, the novelist) with “love, fate and the choices we make.” This essay voice weaves forward and backward in time, filling us in on the protagonist’s criminal history, his heroin addiction, his escape in Australia, his abandonment of his family, as well as drawing us forward into states of being hundreds of pages to come – Lin’s time in the Bombay mafia, his coming service as a soldier in Afghanistan, his friendships with Prabaker, Karla, Didier and others. In this manner, Lin shows us the understanding of fate that he will develop in the course of the novel – the awesome fact that a moment’s decision has widespread ramifications for one’s life. The whole of Lin’s identify in Bombay seems contained and hovering in the first moments of his arrival. We don’t see this identity develop, as we might in another novel, so much as we hear from the already developed future identity. Thus the novel reads much like a philosophical memoir rather than a straightforward narrative. Though there are moments of suspense, these are comparatively minor; for the most part, we share Lin’s future knowledge.
As for the conventional dimension of the opening, if you’ve studied ancient literature you might well recognize that Lin begins his story in media res – in the middle of things. This way of starting an epic story – and Shantaram is certainly epic – has its roots in Homer’s ancient poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in Virgil’s later Aeneid. (Roberts is clearly aware of his debt to classical form, as will be clear in going through the various events of the novel.) We learn about Lin’s past – insofar as we learn about it at all – in retrospect, through flashback and dialogue. Much like Odysseus, Lin begins his tale in the thick of his trouble, on the run from the authorities, hiding under an assumed identity, reliant upon little but luck and wit to keep him out of prison.
The first chapters of Shantaram underscore the philosophical purport of Lin’s tale. The novel is filled with characters who think philosophically – who enjoy abstract discussions of life’s meaning, and who define themselves in terms of fundamental concepts. This variety of self-definition occurs again and again, as in the discussion at Leopold’s in Chapter Two, when Karla declares power to be the most important thing in life, whereas Didier chooses money and Lin chooses freedom. These choices both delineate the characters – emphasizing Karla’s untrusting, steely nature, Didier’s cynical pragmatism, and Lin’s romantic idealism – and establish a general tone for the novel. In this book, for better or worse, people will live philosophically, believing and striving toward ultimate and perfect meaning. Again and again we will see this to be true.
One of the most important of these concepts for Shantaram, and the most important for Lin himself, is that of freedom. He begins the book with the remarkable claim that his wisdom into the meaning of life came to him in the midst of being tortured. (We never learn where or when this insight arrives, whether prior to the plot’s beginning or in the course of it.) Lin’s reflections resonate with several philosophical traditions, among them the Hegelian account of the “master-slave” dialectic. Hegel notes that though a master “owns” his slave’s body, he can never own his slave’s mind. Thus the slave is, as Roberts puts it, “free to hate the men who [torture him], or to forgive them.” The master is thus dependent on the slave, in a sense; the master needs the slave to be abject in his slavery in order to feel power.
Contemplation of the master-slave dynamic occurs again and again in Shantaram. It comes up twice in Chapter Two alone. First, when Lin is pressed to define his concept of freedom at Leopold’s, he says, “Maybe just the freedom to say no. If you’ve got that much freedom, you really don’t need any more.” Lin’s words can be taken a few ways, of course – he could mean the freedom to say no to physical suffering, for instance – but, as becomes clear elsewhere, his definition also seems to capture the freedom to refuse to submit to mental suffering. In order to be a slave, in other words, one must think like a slave; if one doesn’t, then one is free in some measure. The second instance in which the master-slave concept comes up refers to this definition. Karla notes that Ulla is Modena’s slave, at which Lin says, “Some people need the master-slave thing,” and she replies, “Not just some people. […] When you were talking to Didier about freedom, when he asked you the freedom to do what? – you said, the freedom to say no. It’s funny, but I was thinking it’s more important to have the freedom to say yes.” Karla touches on the other, more twisted take on the master-slave dynamic – the pleasure of submitting to a sort of slavery is a freedom of an opposite kind to that of refusing to be a slave.
Meanwhile, these early chapters establish a somewhat separate interest in illustrating Lin’s contact with a totally foreign culture. This is especially clear in Chapter Three, when Lin is thrust into proximity with some of the more objectionable aspects of life in Bombay. First, the mob that brutalizes the obnoxious cabbie strikes Lin as wrong. And then, Lin comes face-to-face with a slave market. These unsettling moments of intercultural contact seem to contrast with – or perhaps to complement – Lin’s interest in abstract truth. If there is a set standard of right and wrong, how can Lin accept practices that seem blatantly to violate his sense of morality – mob violence and slavery. Yet, on the other hand, Lin must accept that he doesn’t understand the workings of Bombay – that he is not an Indian, and thus doesn’t have a right to disrupt the Indian way of doing things. This struggle is just underway in the novel – and though Lin never really arrives at an easy embrace of one approach to intercultural contact or the other, he sees a deep value in illustrating such moral complexity through sharing and writing. As he writes at the end of Chapter Three, “The only way to know…truth is to share it, from heart to heart, just as Prabaker told it to me, just as I’m telling it to you.”
Chapter Four develops this theme of intercultural contact, showing us the lighter side of European versus Indian mores. Vikram’s “spaghetti western” costume captures this dilemma: he both admires and emulates European films and remains very conscious of his Indian identity. In general, from the talk of the Borsolino hat to Karla’s closing remark that she admires cleverness more than wisdom, the chapter shows the extent to which the Leopold’s crowd uses superficial wit and elegant dress as protection against the complex, dark realities of life – the underside of Bombay that Prabaker exposes for Lin. That said, these characters never seem truly superficial – they each show flashes of deep and honest insight, even though they may mock one for pointing it out. It’s unclear at this point how much a part of this crowd Lin will become. Certainly his determination to visit Prabaker’s village – which might be seen as a further extension of Prabaker’s role as guide to the “real” India – contrasts with the likeable, comfortable cynicism of Didier.