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Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

26349 Pan_Shanataram_cov.indd Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”

So begins this epic, mesmerizing first novel set in the underworld of contemporary Bombay. Shantaram is narrated by Lin, an escaped convict with a false passport who flees maximum security prison in Australia for the teeming streets of a city where he can disappear.

Accompanied by his guide and faithful friend, Prabaker, the two enter Bombay’s hidden society of beggars and gangsters, prostitutes and holy men, soldiers and actors, and Indians and exiles from other countries, who seek in this remarkable place what they cannot find elsewhere.

Read more . . .

As a hunted man without a home, family, or identity, Lin searches for love and meaning while running a clinic in one of the city’s poorest slums, and serving his apprenticeship in the dark arts of the Bombay mafia. The search leads him to war, prison torture, murder, and a series of enigmatic and bloody betrayals. The keys to unlock the mysteries and intrigues that bind Lin are held by two people. The first is Khader Khan: mafia godfather, criminal-philosopher-saint, and mentor to Lin in the underworld of the Golden City. The second is Karla: elusive, dangerous, and beautiful, whose passions are driven by secrets that torment her and yet give her a terrible power.Burning slums and five-star hotels, romantic love and prison agonies, criminal wars and Bollywood films, spiritual gurus and mujaheddin guerrillas—this huge novel has the world of human experience in its reach, and a passionate love for India at its heart. Based on the life of the author, it is by any measure the debut of an extraordinary voice in literature.
St. Martin’s Press (2004)

Book Club Ideas


I had a hard time coming up with decorations that specifically tied into Shantaram. After ruling out heroin needles and counterfeit passports, I decided on taxis (raided by sons’ Matchbox collection), in honor of Prabaker and a bear (remember the “bear hug” and the reappearance of the bear later in jail). I also included some generic Indian decorations, such as a buddha, prayer beads and an elephant statue.

bear, taxi, buddha, prayer beads, elephant


I loved Prabaker’s rendition of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks:

Oh, yes, by God, you are a girl!
And you really, really got me, isn’t it going?

I forgot how awesome The Kinks You Really Got Me is!

Book Club Menu

Below are several quotes that can provide inspiration for a book club menu for Shantaram.

“Rich fruits used in desserts and juices – paw paw, papaya, custard apples, mosambi, grapes, watermelon, banana, santra, and, in the season, four varieties of mango – were displayed across the whole surface of one wall in gorgeous abundance” (page 45).

Linbaba was quizzed by his taxi driver about Indian dishes: alu palak (potato and spinach), phul gobhi (cauliflower), bhindi (okra) and baingan masala (spiced eggplant) (page 66).

Alu Palak Recipe

Spinach, potatoes, indian recipe

In the home of Prabaker’s family, Linbaba ate roti and chai.

“The roti, or unleavened flatbreads, were made fresh for each breakfast, and cooked in a lightly oiled wok on an open fire. The hot, pancake-like bread was filled with a dab of ghee, or purified butter, and a large spoonful of sugar” (page 130). Lunch often consisted of “ubiquitous roti, spicy lentil dhal, mango chutney, and raw onions, served with lime juice” (page 131).

Roti is also known as chapati.

Chapati Recipe

Pakistani bread

“Abdullah and the driver had ordered plates of fruit salad and coconut yoghurt, and they ate with noisy appreciation when the four of us were alone. Khaderbhai and I had ordered only mango-flavoured lassi” (page 188).

Fruit Salad with Coconut Yogurt

bananas, mangoes, papaya, watermelon, coconut yoghurt

Mango Lassi

Mangoes, yogurt, indian drink

“A great feast was being laid out on clean reed mats. Huge banana leaves served as plates. A team of women scooped out servings of saffron rice, alu palak, kheema, bhajee and other foods” (page 253). “Several women came to clear the used banana leaves away, and lay out small dishes of sweet rabdi dessert for us” (page 255).

“He poured another glass of cold Kingfisher beer, and sipped it appreciatively” (page 453). Kingfisher beer is India’s largest selling beer.

“He summoned the waiter with a glance and waved the menu aside, launching straight into his list of preferences. It began with a white soup entree made with lamb cooked in a blanched-almond milk, worked its way through grilled chicken in a cayenne, cumin, and mango marinade, and ended, after many other side platters, with fruit salad, honey kachori balls and kulfi ice cream” (page 618).

Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 4.2 stars (93,385 ratings)

Amazon: 4.5 stars (2,489 ratings)

LibraryThing: 4.2 stars (1,419 ratings)

My Rating: 4.75 stars. The writing was magnificent but there were some areas where the story slowed for me. Sometimes after I finish a book, just a thought about a book can fill me with emotion (The Help, Cutting for Stone). Shantaram is one of these books. There were numerous times I had to stop and think about what I just read and how it tied in with my own belief systems. Often I felt the need to modify how I think about things.

Discussion Questions

A great way to discuss Shantaram is through the wonderful quotes throughout the novel. Discuss the significance of the following quotes and how they tie into the story:

  • The past reflects eternally between two mirrors – the bright mirror of words and deeds, and the dark one, full of things we didn’t do or say (page 36).
  • I was numb, in those first years after the escape: shell-shocked by the disasters that warred my life. My heart moved through deep and silent water. No-one, and nothing, could really hurt me. No-one, and nothing, could make me very happy. I was tough, which is probably the saddest thing you could say about a man (page 37).
  • Civilisation, after all, is defined by what we forbid, more than what we permit (page 52).
  • The truth is a bully we all pretend to like (page 60).
  • One of the reasons we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you (page 124).
  • They nailed their stakes into the earth of my life, those farmers. They knew the place in me where the river stopped, and they marked it with a new name. Shantaram (which means man of peace) Kishan Kharre. I don’t know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow (page 136).
  • The truth is that there are no good men, or bad men. It is the deeds that have goodness or badness in them. There are good deeds, and bad deeds. Men are just men-it is what they do, or refuse to do, that links them to good or evil (page 199).
  • When we’re young, we think that suffering is something that’s done to us. When we get older – when the steel door slams shut, in one way or another – we know that real suffering is measured by what’s taken away from us (page 301).
  • They couldn’t understand that every time I entered the slum I felt the urge to let go and surrender to a simpler, poorer life that was yet richer in respect, and love, and a vicinal connectedness to the surrounding sea of human hearts (page 889).
  • Every human heartbeat is a universe of possibilities…No matter what kind of game you find yourself in, no matter how good or bad the luck, you can change your life completely with a single thought or a single act of love (page 932).

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. Although Gregory David Roberts refers to Shantaram as a “novel,” what do you make of the fact that its events are based on his own life? Does that knowledge make the story more interesting, more powerful? How does it affect the way you view the primary character Lin?
2. What would you most like to ask Roberts if you were to meet him?
3. In an interview Roberts says,I don’t believe that there are Good men or Bad men. I believe that the deeds we do are Good and Bad, not the men and women who commit them…. I’ve known mafia men who took responsibility for feeding the poor in their district, and I’ve known cops who were ruthlessly cruel. We human beings are just that—human animals with the capacity to do Good or to do Bad—and we all do both, to a greater or lesser degree.What do you think of his remark, and how is his philosophy expressed in the novel? Are there good and bad characters in Shantaram—or characters who do good and bad things? What about your own life—”good” and “bad” people…or actions?
4. According to Roberts, one of the novel’s major themes is loneliness—through exile and alienation. How does Roberts use islands, a central image throughout the novel, to represent his theme? Consider Bombay itself (known as the Island City) or Leopold’s Beer Bar (referred to frequently as an island). What other islands, literal and figurative, can you indentify in Shantaram? How do they work as images of exile and alienation? Read more . . .

5. Lin comes to India as an exile, already set apart from the villagers with their profound sense of belonging. How do Lin’s experiences change him, gradually rescuing him from his isolation. Consider, for instance, the two different taxi accidents—and Lin’s two different responses. What else and who else help Lin overcome his alienation—from himself, from humanity, from a sense of meaning in his life?
6. What draws Lin to Khader Khan? Does Lin’s connection with the mafia don alleviate—or exacerbate—his isolation? Consider his emotional bond with Khader Khan, but also his moral alienation as he reverts to a life of crime.
7. Love represents the only real hope for escaping exile and alienation. There is love between Lin and Karla. What other forms of love occur in Shantaram? Who else experiences love?
8. Events occur twice in the novel, like the two taxi accidents mentioned in Question 5. There are other parallel events and character relationships—what Roberts has referred to as the story’s “house of mirrors.” Here are several mirror examples:floods — secret staircases — face “amputations”— wedding parties — the green scarf and green banner — Ulla and Khaled (both have sold themselves to survive) —Mourizio and Aabdul Ghani — Karla and Lisa Carter Find other “mirrors,” and talk about how each pair reflects one another. Roberts says the mirrors represent the self-referential nature of the universe itself. You might also think of them as symbolic of the deep connectedness within all of life.
9. Talk about the novel’s many characters: why you like or dislike them—admire them or find them abhorrent. Does Roberts present them as complex individuals, or as one-dimensional cartoon-type characters? What do you think about the author’s frequent references to eyes, for instance, as a sort of shorthand method of characterization. Does that device work?
10. Some reviewers find Roberts’ prose style heavy-handed, even silly, bordering on the purple prose of cheap romance stories. Others find the prose lush, vibrant, and compelling. Can you find examples of either style? Overall, what is your opinion of Roberts’ prose?
11. What about the book’s ending? Do you see it as hopeful? Has Lin found…or will he find…redemption?
12. Shantaram represents the second work (though the first published) in a planned trilogy. Are you inspired by this work to read the other installments once they are published?
(Discussion Questions from St. Martin’s Press)

Purchase Shantaram at your favorite bookseller

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Other Resources

One interesting part of the novel that I just had to research further were the Standing Babas, men who had taken a vow to never sit or lie down ever again, for the rest of their lives. Here is a video:

The Author

Author Shantaram Gregory David Roberts, the author of Shantaram and its sequel, The Mountain Shadow, was born in Melbourne, Australia. Sentenced to nineteen years in prison for a series of armed robberies, he escaped and spent ten of his fugitive years in Bombay—where he established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers, and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner, and street soldier for a branch of the Bombay mafia. Recaptured, he served out his sentence, and established a successful multimedia company upon his release. Roberts is now a full-time writer and lives in Bombay. From

From Gregory David Roberts: Dear Friends, Readers and Fellow Writers, I retired from public life in January, 2014, I no longer continue. . .

Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for Shantaram? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.

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