Chapter Five opens as Lin and Prabaker wait on the crowded platforms of the Victoria Terminus station to board the first train in their long journey to Prabaker’s home village of Sunder. At the sound of a voice over a megaphone, everyone in the crowd shoves toward two small doors on the side of the train. Prabaker points out a massive porter towering over the crowd whom he has hired to assist Lin; the porter lifts Lin effortlessly and carries him into the packed train. Prabaker, meanwhile, rushes through the crowd and sprawls himself over a bench, suffering the pinches and punches of irate train-goers until the porter deposits Lin next to him. Lin is aghast that Prabaker would suffer such misery for the sake of a seat when he could easily have afforded first class tickets, but Prabaker is proud to have secured such a difficult seat for Lin.
As soon as the train begins moving, the jostling and kneeing and elbowing ceases and all the passengers put on a friendly attitude. At one point in their long journey, Lin gives up his seat for an old man who is standing; this gesture disappoints Prabaker, who had suffered such pains to get the seat. Even the old man himself tut-tuts Lin’s polite gesture when he hears Prabaker’s complaint. Meanwhile, Lin begins to pick up the body language of the Indians on the train, most notably a “head-wiggle” that communicates friendliness. As they change from train to bus and bus to cart in their journey to the village, Lin finds that this head-wiggle immediately puts the locals at ease. They begin to question Prabaker about Lin, and Prabaker fields questions about Lin from curious Indians.
Eventually, Lin and Prabaker arrive at the outskirts of Sunder village, where they meet Prabaker’s father, Kishan Mango Kharre. Kishan looks very much like Prabaker, though he seems somber where his son is perpetually jolly. Lin wiggles his head at Kishan, however, and the older man is immediately enraptured. He asks Lin to pat his belly as a gesture of friendship and they all board Kishan’s ox-cart. As they travel, Lin is disturbed by the way in which Kishan spurs the ox on, striking the ox’s hide with a nail at the end of a board. Kishan laughs off Lin’s objections and they finally arrive at the village. The villagers immediately crowd around Lin, staring dumbfounded at him. In order to put them at ease, Lin dons a jester cap and wiggles his head – a gesture that delights everyone.
At the close of the chapter, Lin strips nude to take a shower. Prabaker sees him and is horrified – “Nobody is ever naked in India,” he says. He arranges to find Lin a pair of traditional Indian “over-underpants” to wear while bathing. After his bath, Lin eats an excellent meal, converses with the villagers (with Prabaker translating), and finally goes to bed. Prabaker’s parents and neighbors, concerned that Lin will be lonely in a strange place, circle around Lin and watch him until he drifts into slumber.
Chapter Six begins with the story of Prabaker’s remarkable mother, Rukhmabai Kharre. Kukhmabai’s marriage to Kishan was arranged, and though she did not at first like the look or status of Kishan, his incandescent smile reassured her. The two were industrious and soon maintained a thriving farm and family. After a devastating hysterectomy, however, Rukhmabai was crushed, until a band of “dacoits” (outlaws) began threatening Sunder village, eventually raping a woman and killing a man. This outrage spurred Rukhmabai to give a moving funeral speech urging the villagers to stand up to the dacoits; she called Prabaker and his friends from the Bombay slum to defend the village. Among them was Raju, a handsome boy who brought a gun. A great showdown followed in which the overconfident dacoits were badly beaten by the villagers. Raju shot their leader down and the rest fled. The villagers tell Lin the story of this battle many times in the course of his stay, even ceremonially reenacting the showdown, with the luckiest boy in the role of Raju. Rukhmabai, for her stirring funeral speech, holds a legendary status among the villagers.
Lin tells of his personal relationship with Rukhmabai – how she taught him to drink buffalo milk and she stuffed him with roti – before describing village life more generally. “It wasn’t paradise,” he says, noting that the women have little creative outlet, that the villagers live at the mercy of the elements, that then men sometimes work themselves to exhaustion – however, that said, village life has its rewards. The people are generally happy; they live with a rhythmic certainty, attuned to the soil and the seasons.
The chapter closes with an anecdote illustrating this attunement. After living in the village for three months, the rainy season begins. After a week of torrential rain, Lin notices that the river has started flooding. He rushes back to the village, warning everyone of the coming danger, and they merely laugh at him. They note that the river floods every year and point out a series of sticks pushed into the ground between the village and the river; each stick represents one villager’s guess as to how far the river will rise. As Lin reflects on the certainty of life in the village, he reveals that they gave him a Maharashtrian name to reflect his acceptance into the culture: Shantaram Kishan Kharre. Shantaram, which means “man of peace” or “man of God’s peace,” definitely represents the happy, serene man that the villagers see in Lin. But, Lin reflects, that is surely not the whole of his nature – he is still, in life outside the village, a convicted felon, an addict, a fugitive.
The next chapter begins after Lin and Prabaker have departed from Sunder village; they are staying in Aurangabad. Prabaker has arranged for Lin to sleep with an immensely obese prostitute, figuring that after six months of celibacy in the village he would be eager for sex. After Lin passes, Prabaker happily takes his place and completes his visit in “about nine minutes.” This business transacted, Lin and Prabaker look for a party on the outskirts of Bombay. Prabaker leads Lin into an unlicensed bar, where he and Lin proceed to get ridiculously drunk; they sing with the local farmers, workers and lawbreakers. Suddenly, a group of men jump Lin, beat him, and steal his money. Prabaker tries to fight them off and screams that the men have shamed their people. In response, they return Lin’s watch and passport and flee.
Without his money, Lin is in serious trouble. He has no way of contacting his family to wire more – he is, after all, Australia’s most wanted man. He returns to Anand’s hotel and pays for three nights with money he gained from pawning his watch. While there, a foreigner approaches him. The foreigner has noticed Lin’s fluency in Hindi and Marathi and asks Lin to secure some hashish for his girlfriend and himself. Lin has suddenly fallen into business as a middleman in the drug trade. Meanwhile, however, he finds that the tourist visa in his New Zealand passport is about to expire. Prabaker shows up and proposes a solution to Lin’s difficulties: he arrives with a friend, Johnny Cigar, a representative of Mr. Quasim Ali Hussein, who runs the zhopadpatti, or slum, where Prabaker lives. They offer Lin a shelter in their slum. Though Lin finds the thought of living in such miserable poverty daunting, he understands the generosity of their offer and accepts it. The chapter closes as Prabaker reminds Lin that the next day they are going with Karla to visit the Standing Babas, a group of monks who have taken a vow never to sit or lie down for the rest of their lives.
Chapter Eight opens with a description of the Standing Babas, who have a ghastly appearance as a result of their vow: their legs are as thin as bones and they undulate in constant, excruciating pain. All visitors to their den stand in their presence, drink water, and smoke very strong hashish. As Karla, Lin and Prabaker stand, admiring the Babas, a wild-eyed swordsman rushes at them, intent on killing them. Lin prepares to fight, but before he can another man trips and disarms the assailant. This rescuer introduces himself as Abdullah Taheri. The three friends depart the Standing Babas den and Karla and Lin discuss his imminent move to the slum. They both seem to know that after this move they will not meet again.
Prabaker meets Lin in a taxi and escorts him to his new home in the slum. He leads Lin through the “narrow rag-and-plastic lanes of the slum” and they arrive at a vacant black plastic shelter. Prabaker introduces Lin to his new neighbors, Anand and Rafiq to one side, Jeetendra and Radha to the other. In the midst of this introduction, Anand suddenly remarks that there is a fire. Sure enough, a part of the slum has been engulfed in flame. The men rush to help fight the fire. Lin is momentarily hesitant before he too joins the effort to save the slum. The leader of the slum, Qasim Ali Hussein, stands above the effort, directing the men to choke off the fire here or douse it with water there. They finally succeed in controlling and extinguishing the blaze.
In the aftermath, Lin realizes that many of the slum residents have been burned or otherwise injured. He has a relatively complete medical kit and offers to treat the wounded at his hut. Soon, Lin is surrounded by those seeking his medical help and calling him “doctor.” At the end of a long day of treating burns, Lin finally drifts into sleep. When he wakes up, he finds Prabaker watching him. His friend announces, “Your patients are ready.” Lin has instantly become the local doctor; he spends the whole of the day treating wounds.
In the miserable slave market of Chapter Four, Lin remarks that Prabaker “played the Virgil” (82) on their tour of the Bombay black market. This is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, in which Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, serves as Dante’s guide through the regions of hell. There is much to say about this off-hand remark. First, it highlights the extent to which Roberts has consciously cast his novel in the mold of the classical epic tradition – a tradition that Dante deliberately emulates as well. (We saw this, for instance, in his decision to begin the novel in media res, as well as in Lin’s descent into “the underworld” of the Bombay slave market, a nod to the epic convention of visiting Hades.)
Second, it sheds light on Prabaker’s metaphorical role as Prabaker’s “guide” in the beginning of the novel. First, Prabaker leads Lin into the “hell” of India, the slave market (though even here, as Prabaker notes, there is moral ambiguity, as the slaves would have perished had they not been enslaved). And just as Dante moves from the Inferno through Purgatory and into Paradise, so too in Chapter Five, Prabaker leads Lin into much more pleasant settings within the “real” India. He wants Lin to know the hidden experience of India and the native languages of India (both the spoken and body languages) in order to understand the people of India. Lin thus gets to know the country as few Westerners do; he walks a mile, so to speak, in their chappals.
To stretch the comparison with Dante perhaps to the point of cuteness, if the slave market is the hell of India, the train ride is definitely the purgatory. Prabaker’s insistence that Lin experience the discomfort and communion of a “genuine” Indian train ride is of a piece with his tour of the Bombay underworld, and in general, the two chapters that follow continue to develop the theme of intercultural contact. Again and again, Lin carries his presumptions and ethical predisposition into situations he doesn’t understand. On the train, his offer to give up his seat for an old man, while courteous in his culture, is deeply rude. He offends both Prabaker and the old man himself in his attempt to be polite. Later, when he takes offense at Kishan’s treatment of his ox, Kishan responds “by striking the dumbly patient ox more often, and with a good deal more vigour, than he’d done before I tried to intercede on its behalf.” Lin is learning to appreciate cultural difference without lapsing into sheer relativism – a balancing act that will continue throughout the book.
Life in the village gives birth to a new identity for Lin – “Shantaram,” the man of peace. Though, as we will see in the course of the story, Lin does not always live up to this name, it represents an ideal identity, a “best possible” Lin. At various points in the novel, Lin finds himself being “reborn” in this manner – finding new families, new parents, new names. This moment in the village is among the most significant of these, but they really begin with the first pages of the book, when he walks through “the umbilical corridor” in the Bombay airport, into a new life. And in each case, these rebirths come with a poignant twist – for as long as Lin continues to be wanted by police, he can never be totally reborn or totally redeemed. Even in the village, at his moment of deep serenity by the flooding river, Lin feels two-faced. The villagers see the man of peace, but he sees in himself the fugitive, the criminal, the addict.
Thus, to a great degree, Shantaram is a novel about an impossible drive toward redemption. Lin wants to be the man of peace, but he is thrust into circumstances that make such a life difficult. He wants to be reborn, but as long as his true identity continues to be hunted, he can never shake the past. In the course of this dark circle, however, there are moments of comparative redemption. Perhaps the most significant of these occurs after the fire in the slums, when Lin sets up a clinic to help the wounded. For the next segment of his life, working as a slum doctor will come to define Lin. As he notes, it is deeply ironic and poignant that he is able to use skills honed as a junkie and criminal – pulling people out of overdoses, stitching and closing superficial wounds, treating burns – in order to help the impoverished people of the slums. Lin has spent his recent life on the run; as the novel progresses, he learns to accept the twists that fate brings.