Shantaram Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What does Shantaram suggest about the nature of freedom? Does the book present a "philosophy of freedom?" If so, what is it?

    Freedom preoccupies Lin throughout the novel, though he never precisely defines the concept as he sees it. In Chapter Two, he refers to freedom as "the freedom to say, 'No'" - that is, the freedom to refuse power. Karla later wonders whether the definition might rather be the freedom to say yes to power. Time and again, the novel explores the paradoxes of freedom - does Lin escape from prison into freedom, or was prison itself a sort of freedom. In short, Shantaram does not settle the question.

  2. 2

    Chart the motif of revenge in the novel. When is vengeance justified, if ever? Look especially at the cycle of revenge in Lin's interaction with Madame Zhou (she avenges herself, he seeks to avenge himself) and the revenge cycle in Khader's past in Afghanistan.

    Khader's philosophy allows for the possibility of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. That is, one can perform an inherently evil act (a murder, for instance) for the greater good (e.g., the murdered man was a ruthless dictator). Revenge seems to stand in contrast to this sort of "productive" violence. Khader, as he recalls in Afghanistan, sets off a meaningless cycle of killings and counter-killings. Lin, too, flirts with the notion of revenge in his dealings with Madame Zhou. Though he "takes the high road" in this case, the question of whether he would have killed Madame Zhou if she hadn't fallen from power remains an open one.

  3. 3

    Shantaram means "man of peace." To what degree is this title justified? Is Lin a man of peace? If so, in what way? If not, why does Roberts choose that word for his title?

    Lin's title, "man of peace," does not refer to the person he is, but to the person he could be. The villagers of Sundar see this potential in him, and indeed in the immediate aftermath of his trip to Sundar Lin does take on the selfless role of a slum medic. He drifts from the peaceful ideal, however, in his mafia years. It's worth wondering whether Lin may fulfill the promise of his name, Shantaram, in his further adventures.

  4. 4

    Lin provides us with detailed histories of nearly everyone in Shantaram - except himself. Why is this? Look at the moments in which Lin discusses his own past briefly and compare them with the way he treats his friends' histories in an attempt to provide an answer.

    Lin seems to revere his friends' stories and histories. His own past, however, remains a source of deep shame. He cannot easily discuss it - not even with the reader. Thus his fascination with others' back-stories seems to be an attempt to compensate. He gives us their histories so he doesn't have to give his own; he relishes their families to avoid thinking of his.

  5. 5

    Shantaram is a roman a clef (a novel that represents real events and people). How does the non-fiction basis of the book affect your reading? Would it be as powerful a novel if it were entirely invented? What does this line of thinking suggest about the comparative value of fiction and memoir? Finally, why do you think Roberts chose to write Shantaram as a novel rather than a memoir?

    Many readers of Shantaram find the novel compelling precisely because of its non-fictional elements. They imagine "Lin" and Roberts to be interchangeable. To some degree, Roberts himself might well agree with this way of reading. He has said that most of the major events are based on his own experiences. However, the fictional threads - such as the Sapna killers - add coherence and suspense to what would otherwise be an even more haphazard plot. Roberts uses fiction to tighten up and build meaning into the non-fictional events of his life.

  6. 6

    Analyze the Sapna subplot of the novel. At the close of the book, we learn that the myth Sapna lives on despite the systematic elimination of the original Sapna killers. What does this thread suggest about the nature of belief and heroism?

    The Sapna subplot ends on an ironic note - though the whole scheme was dreamed up by Karla and Khader and put into action by Ghani, Sapna seems to have taken on a life of its own. This is a comment on the way faith and hope gain momentum on their own - the people need Sapna, and so they continue to believe in Sapna. It also may contain a critique of religion. Belief, faith and hope sometimes spring from the most cynical, mercenary motives - in this case, a mythic vigilante is born out of a mob scheme. This subplot is certainly bleak.

  7. 7

    Why does Lin go to Afghanistan? He provides several stated reasons - which rings truest? How does the Afghanistan episode add to the book as a whole?

    Lin's stated reasons include "I have a death wish," "I owe it to the gangsters who rescued me from prison," "I want to get away from my Bombay life," etc. But the reason that rings truest is probably that he looks at Khader as a father, and that he would do more or less anything the mafia don asks of him. This shows us the extent of Lin's need for approval. The Afghanistan episode in general works as a climax for the novel - it shows us how far Lin will go for a father's love. After, the business of the novel becomes resolution.

  8. 8

    Some crucial aspects of the novel hinge on the Arthur Road Prison. Compare Lin's experience in Arthur Road with that of others - especially Anand Rao. Why does the latter accept his punishment whereas the former resists and seeks to escape? Of course, Lin is unjustly jailed - but he is guilty in other, larger senses. Is Anand Rao a more virtuous man than Lin?

    The short answer to the last question is, "Yes, Anand Rao is more virtuous than Lin." Though Lin was jailed for spurious reasons - simply for angering Madame Zhou - he is, as an escaped fugitive, quite guilty in the larger sense. His amazement at Rao, who prefers to serve out his time rather than use the press coverage of the Blue Sisters as a way out, shows how self-centered Lin continues to be. Of course, the reader probably would do just the same - would use every means at his or her disposal to escape from so horrid a place. But this just renders Anand Rao's sacrifice all the more impressive.

  9. 9

    Examine Lin's love for Karla. Why does he fall for her - and why doesn't she fall for him? (Or does she?) How does Roberts delineate Karla's character and what, in the end, do we know about her?

    According to her own account, Karla is incapable of love. She has been traumatized beyond repair by her experience of rape and the revenge killing that followed. Though she likes Lin very much, she is too emotionally hurt to love anyone. As for Lin, he couldn't be more different. One gets the impression that - however special Karla is - he falls in love all the time. He's a born romantic and the danger and uncertainty of his fugitive life only stimulate these tendencies. It's easy to feel that Lin would be better served loving Lisa Carter, someone without the wit of Karla, perhaps, but with much more heart. But Lin seems most drawn to things he cannot have. He's not the settle-down sort.

  10. 10

    Chart the movement in the novel from Part One to Part Five. Lin begins as a slum doctor and ends as a mafia superstar. How does this trajectory occur? Is there a greater significance to the movement - does Lin's character improve, regress?

    The easiest way to see Lin's development from beginning to end is in his degree of comfort and acceptance within Indian society. He enters Bombay a stranger and, by the end, attains a near-native status. The other aspects of Lin's development are more difficult to chart. Does he improve morally? It's hard to say - likely, no. He's a better man as a slum doctor than as a guerilla. The book perhaps presents Lin as coming into a fuller understanding of his own values - knowledge of freedom, good and evil, etc. - but again this journey does not clearly correspond to improved character. Perhaps the lack of obvious development is a vestige of Shantaram's non-fictional origin; and perhaps it more accurately represents actual human life through its inconsistency.