Shantaram Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-21


Lin’s three-month custody of Tariq has come to an end, and Abdul Ghani shares his political theories with Lin before Lin makes his last farewell with the boy, whom he has come to love. On his way back home, Lin briefly chats with Prabaker just before a sudden auto accident. As we saw before, mob violence follows the collision. Lin rushes to the aid of the two large African men in the car who had caused the accident, embroiling himself in a battle against the mob. Eventually, they disperse and Lin introduces himself to Hassaan Obikwa, the passenger, and Raheem, the driver of the guilty car. Hassaan declares himself to be in Lin’s debt and Lin immediately suggests that Hassaan pay for the taxi and cart he damaged in the accident. Hassaan agrees and moreover offers to assist Lin in the future.

Lin runs into Prabaker on his way to his hut, where he finds Didier waiting; Didier fills Lin in on the doings and goings of the Leopold’s crowd. Lin also gleans information about Hassaan Obikwa, who is a powerful black-market trader in dead bodies. Their chat is briefly interrupted by a joyful procession led by Joseph and Maria, who (after Joseph’s disgraceful drunken abuse of her) have been reunited.

Chapter Eighteen opens with Lin in pensive solitude until he is interrupted by Johnny Cigar. They chat briefly before Jeetendra bursts in with news that Radha, his wife, is terribly ill. Lin examines her and finds her in a miserable, feverish state. The same is true of Pavarti and many others. A cholera outbreak has hit the slum. Lin meets with Sandeep Jyoti (a local health official) as well as Qasim Ali Hussein and Doctor Hamid to plan their response to the outbreak, but things look bleak. Nonetheless, Lin throws himself into fighting the cholera. A few days into the battle, Karla appears and offers to help. Lin warns her of the danger but accepts her aid and they stay together in his hut, caring for the constant flow of sick.

In the course of battling cholera together, Lin learns something of Karla’s history. She was orphaned at a young age and raised by her kindly uncle, Mario Pacelli, and her jealous aunt Penelope. After Mario’s death, Penelope insisted that Karla provide for herself. After taking a babysitting job one night, Karla was raped by the father of one of her charges. Soon after, she fled in a plane and met an Indian businessman who gave her work in Bombay. Karla also discusses her past with Madame Zhou. She says that Ulla was once a popular prostitute there until Maurizio managed to buy her away. Afterwards, another prostitute, Karla’s friend Christina, tried to break away from the palace as well to be with her boyfriend, Ahmed. Madame Zhou arranged to have them tortured and killed, giving rise to Karla’s hatred of the madam.

Lin reports at the beginning of Chapter Nineteen that the slum lost nine lives in the cholera epidemic, including Radha. Lin battles the epidemic until it passes, then goes off to replenish his money. He runs into Vikram, who relates his effort to woo Letitia. The city has been flooded and Lin learns that Karla is stranded at her apartment. He quickly hires a small boat and ferries it over to her building. She boards and they share a romantic boat ride – this is spoiled somewhat, however, when Rajan, Madame Zhou’s servant, spots them together.

The next day, Lin drifts over to Anand’s hotel for some business. He finds trouble: an Italian man has overdosed in one of Anand’s rooms and his junkie girlfriend is also slipping under. Lin manages to resuscitate them both, placing Anand in his debt. He is no sooner out of the hotel when Ulla stops by in a taxi. She is distraught. She tells Lin that she will pay him five hundred dollars to meet someone with her outside of Leopold’s at one a.m. Though Lin senses danger, he agrees. He then stops by Karla’s apartment, where they make love for the first time. Just afterwards, Lin rushes to Leopold’s to meet Ulla.

On his way, Lin is surrounded by police, who force him into their jeep. At the station, Lin tries to break away but he is restrained and beaten. After a vicious beating, he is thrown into jail.

Chapter Twenty begins with a description of the Colaba jail. A hierarchy of suffering organizes the rooms, with the most influential and powerful enjoying relative comfort while the weak and friendless huddle near the disgusting latrine at the far room. Lin vividly describes the unspeakable conditions of the prison – lack of nourishment, horrific sanitation, overcrowding. Upon arrival, Lin is at first welcomed into the elite quarters, “the Taj Mahal,” because they assume that the white man has money. Lin rejects this privilege and resides in the second-best room instead. He has to battle for his spot and fights ruthlessly, winning the admiration of a fellow prisoner, Mahesh. Lin soon learns that the prisoners will be transported to a larger facility, the Arthur Road Prison.

Indeed they do make their way to Arthur Road, where they are forced to run through two rows of vicious killers armed with bamboo on their way in. Lin walks the gauntlet calmly, which earns his some respect. He is allowed to wash the blood from his beating and is even invited to join the overseers – the senior prisoners who act as guards at Arthur Road. Lin chooses to remain with Mahesh instead, which leads the overseers to plot against them. On his first night in the jail, Lin is tormented by kadmal – blood-sucking parasites that infest the prison.

Chapter Twenty-One finds Lin engaged in the wretched routine of Arthur Road. He discovers to his horror that the water is infested with small, transparent worms. Lin washes – insofar as he is able – and waits with the other prisoners in a painful squat while the overseers take a headcount. After he receives a series of unprovoked blows, Lin challenges a massive overseer, Big Rahul. Mahesh calms Lin down. Later, Lin witnesses the overseers torture and beat unconscious a familiar man, Hassaan Obikwa’s chauffeur, Raheem. He had struck an overseer. As he goes to bed, Lin learns of another of Arthur Road’s miseries – sheppesh (vicious body lice that infest the prisoners’ blankets) – and learns to crush them one by one between his fingernails every day.

Lin is desperate to get a message to Khader, and with Mahesh’s help arranges to transport it through two young villagers upon their release. However, Lin’s attempt is discovered, and the villagers are brutally beaten in front of all the prisoners by Big Rahul. The prisoners decline to help Lin further. Finally, things come to a head between Lin and Big Rahul in the laundry one day. Lin strikes Rahul with his own lathi and then takes on several of the other overseers. They stop him by beating the other prisoners until Lin relents and gives himself up, at which point he suffers an incredibly brutal ten-hour-long beating at the hands of the overseers. Lin is then forced to wear shackles and his food ration is cut in half. He is soon starving. In the midst of this misery, the brother of the man whom Lin had beaten at the Colaba jail attacks him. Even in his weakened state, Lin is able to defeat this attacker, which brings more corporal punishment upon him. Finally, Lin grows deathly feverish.

On the verge of death, Lin finds one day that he has a visitor: Vikram Patel. Vikram is astonished by Lin’s ghastly appearance. He arranges to spring Lin for an exorbitant bribe of ten thousand dollars. Before this is settled, Lin arranges to have several additional prisoners released as part of the deal – Mahesh, Raheem, and the two men who tried to smuggle Lin’s message out of jail. About an hour later, Lin leaves the prison in a taxi. He learns that Khader had found out about his imprisonment through some imprisoned Afghans who had seen him at the blind singers’ concert. Vikram closes the chapter with the news that Khader would like Lin to work for him.


Roberts has begun to create some clear contrasting episodes in these middle chapters of his novel in order to illustrate Lin’s development as a character – and as a denizen of India. To touch on some of these, the mob scene following the auto collision involving Hassaan Obikwa and Raheem shows the extent to which Lin has become a part of Bombay. Whereas Lin could do nothing more than look on aghast at the first mob scene in Part One, here Lin takes things into his own hands. He is comfortable enough in his Indian identity to intervene in a custom that he finds offensive – and he can do so on his own turf, in the local language. As he writes, “Eighteen months later, the Indian culture was mine, and that part of the city was my own” (356). The balancing act we saw so much of earlier in the novel – in which Lin checked his personal morals with a situational relativism – has given way to moral assurance from within the culture. One can see this change in many of the episodes within these chapters, as again and again Lin finds to courage to do what he feels to be right, regardless of the consequences.

Another parallel comes with Lin’s parting from Tariq. Just as Bombay stands-in for Lin’s abandoned homeland, so too Tariq stands-in for Lin’s abandoned family. Lin has found an opportunity to atone for the mistakes of his past – mistakes which he has recounted at several points in the novel, including the river flood incident at Prabaker’s village – and to replace his neglected family with a new one. Both of these contrasts invite the reader to ask whether Lin has really found a new home in Bombay and a new family in Khader’s group – after all, Lin is still a white man, still seen as an outsider, and still has a (barely mentioned) family somewhere in Australia. But for the time being, Lin clearly sees himself as on the path to redemption.

A third point of comparison arrives in the prison sequence – which contains the most gripping writing of the novel. Shantaram opens with a testimonial to the power of the mind to resist the abuses of the body – here we finally see this testimonial in action as Lin suffers indignity upon indignity and remains steadfast. The guards and overseers, who ostensibly have more power than Lin, appear cowardly and powerless, whereas Lin, who is able to defiantly endure their beatings in silence, gains some measure of dignity. As he says in the opening page, he is free to hate as well as to forgive. We see the questions of master and slave, which remain largely abstract and philosophical in the sections before, come vividly to life in the prisons of Bombay.

There is a strong Christological subtext floating through Shantaram which becomes especially evident in these chapters. To start with, the story of Joseph and Maria calls to mind the relationship of Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ parents. Their story doesn’t strictly parallel the Biblical parents, of course (Joseph never drunkenly beats Mary) but the lessons of the story – forgiveness, penitence, dutifulness – are Christian lessons. Roberts drives this point home when the celebration of their reunion calls to Lin’s mind an incident in prison in which a prisoner crucifies his trained mouse (367). This is a clear Christ-image, connected to the Joseph and Mary lessons by nothing but Biblical association.

The Christ imagery grows clearer still in the person of Lin, who performs several Jesus-like feats – resuscitating the junkie, for instance, or battling the cholera epidemic – in the course of Chapters Eighteen and Nineteen. This Christological trend continues in prison, where Lin is subjected to horrifying punishments for no stated reason. He endures these beatings, for the most part, with patience – and he shows considerable sympathy for the weak prisoners suffering unjustly at the hands of justice. Also, there is a resurrection-like movement as the wicked overseers (whose cowardly nature seems of a piece with the Roman guards who scorned Jesus on the cross) beat him to the brink of death before Vikram rescues him. Of course, for every Christ-like moment of patience and forgiveness, Lin succumbs to a need for violence and outrage. He lashes out at the guards, acting not only on his own behalf but also for the abused prisoners in general. This is to say, though some of the names, events, incidents and lessons of these chapters resonate with Christian messages, Lin is hardly a Christian himself. Roberts simply draws from a powerful narrative source in illustrating the brutality and injustice of prison culture.