Book Notes: Shantaram

I finally read Shantaram. A lot of people list Shantaram as one of their all-time favorite novels. Tyler Cowen put it well when he called it one of the best bad books he’s read. It’s engrossing, often insightful, often beautiful in its description of India, and keeps you hooked for nearly 1,000 pages. There are also cheesy foreshadows, clunky one-liners, and a bunch of other elements that would prompt eye rolls from high brow book reviewers. But no matter. I enjoyed it! Recommended for all those with an affinity (or aspirational affinity) for India. Or those who just get a kick out of a fugitive on the run in an exotic land with exotic mafia friends.

The author, Gregory Roberts, himself escaped from an Australian prison and ended up joining the mafia in India before being re-captured. It was in prison that he wrote this book. Much of the novel is presumably autobiographical, though how much exactly is “true” seems to be up for debate. But knowing at least some of it is first-hand lent a certain immediacy to the experience of reading.

It’s mostly a plot book, but occasionally there were highlight-able sentences on my Kindle, which appear below.


The real India is up near the Himalayas, at Manali, or at the holy city of Varanasi, or down the coast, at Kerala. You gotta get outta the city to find the real India.

Let me put it this way: Karla is reasonably good at being a friend, but she is stupendously good at being an enemy. When you judge the power that is in a person, you must judge their capacities as both friend and as enemy. And there is no-one in this city that makes a worse or more dangerous enemy than Karla.

Even on that first train ride, I knew in my heart that Didier had been right when he’d compared India and its billion souls to France. I had an intuition, echoing his thought, that if there were a billion Frenchmen or Australians or Americans living in such a small space, the fighting to board the train would be much more, and the courtesy afterwards much less.

One of the reasons why 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.

Like outcasts everywhere, I courted danger because danger was one of the few things strong enough to help me forget what I’d lost.

What I didn’t tell Karla was that the girlfriend had described me as interested in everything, and committed to nothing. It still rankled. It still hurt. It was still true.

I also agree with Winston Churchill, who once defined a fanatic as someone who won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject.

If you do not speak English as your first language, the word “characteristic” has an amazing sound—like rapping on a drum, or breaking kindling wood for a fire.

The only kingdom that makes any man a king is the kingdom of his own soul. The only power that has any real meaning is the power to better the world. And only men like Qasim Ali Hussein and Johnny Cigar were such kings and had such power.

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