Shantaram- A letter from the author himself
Book Review- Gregory David Roberts
The author was studying philosophy at university in Melbourne, Australia when he became a heroin user and addict. He ended up doing several armed robberies and when caught was sentenced to Pentridge Jail He copped close to a life sentence.
He eventually escaped from Pentridge, the jail in Coburg where iconic bushranger Ned Kelly was finally laid to rest, and also where the last man hanged in Australia Ronald Ryan was incarcerated.
The book skims over Robert’s jail time and escape and does not make any reference to the armed robberies he committed. I have served jail time and wrote a book about it entitled “Eating goldfish and other delicacies”.
It is something I am not ashamed of and I took a golden opportunity to turn a huge negative into a positive. Roberts has been quite shy in this regard and missed a golden opportunity to make a lack lustre story a bit exciting
Robert’s story suffers from his philosophy and the fact that he is an intellectual. He quite often rattles off his philosophical diatribes and at times they sound absolutely ridiculous. He uses difficult and hard to read language as if he has swallowed a dictionary. It is certainly not written for the common man In fact you will need to keep a dictionary handy if you want to read this book properly.
I got three quarters of the way through the book and found a lot of it hard to believe. One minute he is robbing people and the next he is running a free clinic for the poor in the slums of Bombay. I eventually looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that most of the book was not true so I took it back to the library un read. I was disappointed I had wasted my time and I wrote to the author telling him so. I also called him a lying junkie-
The author wrote back and this is his response:-
Thanks for your comments. I receive thousands of emails, and although I read every one of them, I can't possibly reply to them all. But with yours, I just wanted to respond to a few issues you raised. Besides, I'm recovering from two operations in 8 weeks: a hip replacement 10 weeks ago, and a knee replacement 2 weeks ago (too much boxing, rugby, jumping out of airplanes, and falling off motorcycles), so I actually have some free time at the moment, which isn't often the case.
First, the book is a novel. It says so on the cover. If it didn't say "a novel" on the cover of your copy, then that's a mistake of the publisher. The book is translated into 42 languages across the world, and it states that it's a novel on all of the covers.
I've never said, in any interview or written essay, that the book is an autobiography. It isn't: it's a novel. I'm a novelist - that's what I do. I wrote my first story for money when I was 16 years old, and I've always written throughout all of my life. When I was in Germany, while I was on the run, I was published under a false name. When I was in India, I was published under a different false name. I was always a writer, long before my life took its drastic turn in the wrong direction. I'm not a criminal who wrote a book: I'm a writer who became a criminal.
Nevertheless, the experiences in the book are all real experiences taken from my life. The slum, the village, the Bombay mafia, the smuggling runs to India and Sri Lanka (in the next book), the escape from prison as described in the book - they're all real experiences. The created part of the novel is the characters and the dialogue. I created all of the characters, and all of the dialogue. But the experiences are all real. They're so real, in fact, that the United States Department of Homeland Security won't allow me to have a visa to enter the USA - not because I was in the Bombay mafia or escaped from prison (they're fine with that), but because I was in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka during the wars there. That's a matter of record, and it's the sole reason why I can't enter the USA.
About the crimes and prison years: I'll write about them in the third novel.
When I decided to use the real experiences of my own life for a series of novels, I knew I had enough experiences for three books. I planned the three novels as a trilogy, with Shantaram as the middle novel, and the early years of crime, punishment and escape as the first novel, and the war in Sri Lanka and the last years in Bombay as the third novel.
I started with the second book, Shantaram, because I thought it was the one that would establish the series for me. I've been writing the third book in the trilogy (the sequel to Shantaram) for the last 5 years. It's almost finished, and I have to hand it in to my publishers by the end of February at the latest. In a few more years, I'll go back and write the first book - the one dealing with the prison years and so on.
When you say that I think of myself as an intellectual, that's quite true. I was an honours student in philosophy and literature at Melbourne University when my life fell apart and I got into drugs. Throughout my life - even in the Bombay mafia years and in the seven and a half extra years I had to serve when I was finally recaptured - I always continued to study philosophy. Now, I work as a consultant for international companies that hire me as a philosopher. One of my major projects in the last few years was working with Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu on their Elders concept. If you look up The Elders (Nelson Mandela and others), all of the material written on the website was written by me. I am a philosopher, and I don't apologize for it.
By the way, that doesn't mean that my philosophy is "right" or the only way to look at things. I'd never try to shove my philosophy down anyone's throat. I know that a lot of people don't agree with my philosophy (what they know of it from my book and website), and I have arguments and discussions with other philosophers who disagree with me, when I'm invited to speak at philosophy conferences.
I'm not trying to make anyone agree with me, or to convince them that I'm "right". I'm just passing on the things that seem to be wise and helpful, after many years of study and many experiences that are at the edge of what most people can know.
As for not writing for the common man, as you say, the thing is that I write with my own style. I developed the style over 30 years of writing, and it's simply the way that I write. I don't write for any target audience: either the common man or the uncommon man. I just write in the way that comes from my instinct and the voice speaking in my head as I write.
In fact, I get a lot of emails from people who could be called "common men", even though I don't use the phrase myself. I get emails from soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, from cops, bikers, serving and ex-prisoners, union members and other working people from all around the world. I'm happy to say that none of them have ever told me that my book was too hard to read. I know that there are lots of people who don't like my style of writing, but the bottom line is that it's my own style, and it's authentic to me.
With regard to the Wiki page, please don't ever take anything on Wikipedia at face value. I didn't write that page, and I've tried to get it changed or deleted many times. In one version of the Wikipedia page, the person who wrote it said that my father was deported back to Canada from Australia. That's just ridiculous: my father, God rest his soul, died of a heart attack, in his bed, in the house in Melbourne where he'd lived most of his life. I never said any of the things that the Wikipedia page alleges that I said. What I've said, a thousand times, across the whole world, is that the experiences in my novel, Shantaram, are all real experiences, taken from my life, but that the characters and dialogue are created - as they are in any novel.
With regard to ripping people off, I just don't think it's fair or right. With the money I've received from the novel, I retired my Mum and Step-Dad from work, rebuilt their house, paid the mortgage on my daughter's house, and paid all the bills for everyone else in the family. When that was done, I went back to Bombay, and started a charity there. I now support 39 men who work in three bicycle and motorcycle repair shops that I set up, and their 200 wives, children, and parents. I pay for that with my own money, and I never accept donations from anyone to help me with it, even though a lot of business people offer me money to help with the work. I have a few motorcycles ( I'm a bike nut) but I don't own a house, and I don't have reserves of cash in the bank. What I earn goes to my family, and to support my charity in Bombay.
The last thing I'd like to say in response to your email, is that I very strongly disagree with the points your making about junkies.
First, I've known a lot of junkies who could be trusted. I've known junkies who went through turkey and took beatings from cops while they were doing the turkey, just because they wouldn't give up information about someone else. I've also known junkies you can't trust - but I've known plenty of straight people you can't trust, as well.
As for me, I hit the Turning Point 20 years ago, and I gave up everything on the same day. I haven't had a drink of alcohol, or a cigarette, or any kind of drug, for the last 20 years. I never think about drugs, and I don't miss them. I'm not a junkie. I know that a lot of people have been helped by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and I think that's a good thing, for the people who are being helped. But I don't agree with the AA and NA philosophy that "once a junkie, always a junkie" or "once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic". In my experience, that simply isn't true.
People continue to lapse and take drugs or drink booze, even after they turkey or are put in prison, until they reach the Turning Point. And nothing in the world can stop them before they reach that point in their lives. But sooner or later, if they live long enough, almost all of the junkies in the world reach the Turning Point, and give up drugs once and for all. This is just a biological and psychological fact. There are very few 50-year old junkies, because by the time they get into their 50s, the vast majority of junkies are dead, or they reach the Turning Point and they quit.
Well, it's been a long response to your email, Trevor, and if you've read this far, I thank you for your patience. I'm not trying to convince you that I'm a good guy, or even a good writer. I know all the bad things I've done in my life, and I remember them every time I look in the mirror. That's one of the things that keeps me straight, and keeps me doing my charity work: not because I'm a good guy, but because I'm still a damn long way from being a good guy. And as for the writing, well, I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but at the very least it's my own style and my own way, not copied from anyone else.
If the new book comes out next year, in about August, I hope, and you take a look at it, maybe you'll like it a bit more than Shantaram. The sequel doesn't have to do all the explaining that Shantaram did, and it's much more active than passive. It's still based on my own real experiences, but the characters (old and new) are all created - just like in Shantaram - and the dialogue and philosophy (yes, there's some more in the new novel, sorry) are all mine.
As you wrote at the end of your email, I send you warm regards, Trevor, and my wishes for your happiness and health,