Shantaram Themes


The overriding thematic concern of Shantaram is freedom. In Chapter Two, the novel's protagonist cites freedom as the most important abstraction in his life. That said, Lin recognizes the paradoxical nature of his cherished ideal: that "freedom" isn't a simple matter of having the power to do what one wants.

One episode from the book might illustrate this point: when Lin is imprisoned in Australia, he is very much "not free" in a simple way. He cannot do what he wants, when he wants. He cannot come and go as he pleases. His body is beaten and shackled. Thus he longs for an escape to freedom. Yet when he breaks out of the prison, he is in some ways less free than before. He is no longer secure in his identity (he must lie to avoid detection); he is forced to trust fate and instinct, taking opportunities to flee when and where he can; doubt torments his sleep, paranoia poisons his relationships. So was he in fact freer in prison, where he was at least able to be who he is - to own up to his own history?

Shantaram doesn't settle this question, but it shows us its complexities. The definition with which he begins the novel holds through much of it: freedom is a matter of mental choices. However enslaved one's body, one is free to hate or forgive one's tormentors. In a tenuous existence like Lin's, the freedom to forgive is as much as one can hope for.


Shantaram explores the rift between love and trust. In one of the pithiest statements of the novel, Lin says that the fugitive loves more people than he trusts, whereas the law-abider trusts more people than he loves. Love is thus a hallmark of life on the run: when one cannot trust people, one can only trust love.

Lin makes difficult (foolish?) choices because he loves Karla, because he loves Khader, because he loves Abdullah. And however much he may rationalize his irrational decisions - most egregiously, the decision to accept the mission into Afghanistan - we realize that the only motivating factor that matters is love. This is true for many other characters in the book as well. Many of them fall in love (Vikram and Letitia), suffer for love (Modena), kill for love (Anand Rao), do whatever they can for love (all of the above).

Lin, by all indications a born Romantic, strives and starves for love above all else. Thus in Shantaram, love is more or less the same thing as fate: though Lin is philosophically committed to freedom, he is a slave to this force that cannot be explained or resisted.

Fate, Choices, Rebirth

At the outset of the novel, Lin tells us that his experiences have taught him to understand "freedom," "love," and "the choices we make." We've briefly touched on the first two categories; the third is entwined with them but worth treating on its own.

Shantaram contains many examples of Lin making spur-of-the-minute choices that turn his life in a new, definitive direction. He decides spontaneously to trust Prabaker based on the guide's beaming smile; this choice sets up a spider-web of connections and experiences that will define Lin's life in Bombay. Similarly, while in the slum he spontaneously decides to help the burn victims, a choice that leads to the establishment of the slum clinic.

Lin's choices of this kind are the essence of his complex understanding of fate and freedom. In one's life, one faces several moments of choice, of truth - forks in experience that set off chains of the inevitable. In these moments, one is more-or-less free; after the point of decision and action, though, one rests in fate until the next moment of choice. This pattern recurs again and again in Shantaram.

Indeed, it informs the motif of rebirth that Lin presents: the images of being re-named, of approaching a new life. Lin's moments of choice serve to refashion him in a totalizing way. He takes on new identities in these fatal instants.

Given his personal, philosophical investment in this pattern, it makes sense that his realization in Part Four that Khader has been the architect of much of his experience in Bombay comes as such a blow. He feels betrayed not just by Khader but by fate itself. His perception of freedom and choice is not true all the time. There are some in power who shape the fates of many, who have the true power of choice, and who keep those they influence in the dark about the extent of their helplessness. Lin must come to terms with these two models of fate and choice in the course of his book.


We know next to nothing about Lin's actual father - which, if you step back, is fairly unbelievable given the length of the novel - except that, well, they didn't get along too swimmingly. One can perhaps infer that the course of Lin's life - the sequence of decisions that led him to embrace such slippery entities as radical politics, heroin, crime - is largely a matter of finding a father substitute.

This becomes especially clear when Khader hits the scene. Lin explicitly tells Khader that he is more of a father than Lin's actual dad, a statement that Khader receives with discomfort. The mafia don seems genuinely to like - to love, even - the Australian fugitive, but his sense of fatherhood is comfortably metaphorical. He wants to be like a father to Lin; indeed, he even attempts to train Lin in this art of metaphorical fatherhood when he suggests that Lin look after Tariq. Lin, however, feels a much more literal connection to Khader. He wants Khader not to be like a father, but as a father.

Lin is not alone. Khader inspires this degree of reverence in several additional characters, most notably Karla. He provides a clear point of comparison between the two characters. Both are needy; both combine toughness and vulnerability; both come from broken families with absent fathers. Both find in Khader (whose very name sounds like "father," doesn't it?) a substitute, a way around their problematic pasts. But this, in itself, proves to be a problematic replacement.

Intercultural Contact

Lin begins Shantaram as an Australian - or New Zealander, to take his disguise into account - and ends it as an Indian. He journeys from a decidedly Western way of being to an identity that combines features of his Western ethics with a "native" comfort within Bombay. Though even at the end of the novel, this is not a complete or total transformation.

The character who shepherds Lin from a Western to an Indian way of sperception is Prabaker. He offers to take Lin on a tour of "the real Bombay," an often unsettling place filled with tragedy, contradiction, injustice, color, life, laughter, love. In the course of this tour, Lin comes to understand life from the Indian point-of-view. He never accepts the rowdier ways of Bombay - the mobs that beat up drivers who cause traffic accidents, for instance - but he arrives at a place of comfort. He is then able to criticize the mob beatings from within the culture, more or less.

Several factors make this transformation from goya to goya-native more or less believable. Crucially, he learns the Marathi language, which very few white people speak. He also spends time in an Indian village where he comes to perceive certain sources of meaning in India - the flow of seasons, the bonds of family and community and music. At various point in the novel, Lin still draws fire for his outsider status - even in the last chapters of the novel, when Andrew Ferriera attacks him - but the movement into a feeling of Bombay-as-home is a rich and crucial vein in the novel.


Shantaram means "man of peace"; though it's the title of the book, it's not particularly representative of the hero within. Time and again, Lin is involved in violent beatings, stabbings, and gunfights. He never commits murder himself, as far as we know, but he is present at several murders and abets the disposal of bodies.

What are we to make of the strain of violence in the novel? To some degree, it contradicts the philosophical claims of the book. But this contradiction comes under explicit scrutiny within the book. Khader, whose moral program asserts that all violence and killing is evil, is responsibly for the deaths of many. He justifies his double-standard by declaring that it is possible to "do the wrong thing for the right reason," that is, to correct for a plethora of killings with one killing. Lin's violence, for the most part, also falls into this gray space of "wrong thing, right reason." He viciously attacks injustice - most of the time.

At the end of the day, it's not clear whether Lin has earned this contradictory dismissal/embrace of violent tactics. He eschews revenge in the case of Madame Zhou - but would he do so if she still had power? He is addressed as Shantaram once more in the closing pages of the book - after having participated in the gang slaying of a dozen or so men. Violence remains the trickiest of themes in this novel - the source of much of its excitement, but perhaps also the crux of its philosophical inconsistency.


Why is Shantaram so long? In short, friends. Lin has many, many friends in the novel, and he is always careful to fill them in with a finer brush than he uses on his own history. We learn the backstories of almost everyone Lin loves - Karla, Prabaker, etc. - and Lin is careful to chart the evolution of his friends' loves and lives attentively.

Chapter after chapter, we hear the gossip about the circle at Leopold's. We inquire into Vikram's quest for Letitia. We shoot the breeze with Didier. Lin's friends are his life and he wants us to know everything about them. To a great degree, he implies his own worth through the quality of his contact with these people. They love him, so he must be lovable.

Lin's actual family forms the glaring absence at the center of Shantaram - where indeed is his ex-wife, his daughter, his mother, his father? How can he have so much to say, in such detail, about comparatively minor characters - Johnny Cigar, for instance - when his own history remains veiled? The size of Shantaram and the intensity of his curiosity into others' lives seems to provide an indirect answer: in forming a new life, Lin seeks a new family. The pages upon pages of surrogate brothers and sisters seek to replace the missing, actual family. They cannot, of course, but the attempt is moving in itself.