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April 29, 2008


I agree strongly with this critique. I found the first half of the book profound and highly entertaining, especially Gregory's description of slum life. What bothered the reviewer and myself were his clumsiness and forced metaphores when it came to his attempts at emotional honesty.

Another thing I found irritating was Gregory's narrative style. He included many meaningless conversations that felt as though they were slapped together improvisationally, which can probably be excused because of the destruction of the first two manuscripts, yet still annoying. And finally, I found the second half of the book lacked the development and cohesion of the first half. It was as though his lessons learned and progress made through the first half had no meaning to the second. The color and texture of the life and peoples of the slums were lost in the hustle of moneymaking and the arid waste of the hastily described deserts and people of Afganistan.

I just managed finished reading “Shantaram”. Word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, all 933 pages of the book. It has so many howlers that it brings Mr. Roberts basic credibility in doubt. It has very little resemblance to what is life in Bombay like now or in the 80s. For example:

 Where in India are only sweets served along with tea? In the novel it is mentioned in at least three places (and very proudly too).

 Bombay suburban trains run on very high voltage electricity drawn from overhead electric cables. It takes a mighty big stretch of imagination and a lot of fool hardiness for a young man to serenade his lady love on top of a moving local trains without being burnt to death in a manner of seconds.

 The description of the take out lunch shared with Vinod and his family (page 395) seems to be copied down from the menu of some road side eatery rather than an actual meal which ordinary people eat even as a feast.

 Khalid Ansari seems to be a pretty unique Palestinian, since I believe he would be one of the very, very few Palestinians with “Ansari” as part of his name. I wish Mr. Roberts had done a little bit of research in this matter.

 Saurabh Restaurant is said to serve Bombay’s best masala dosas. When Lin is having his meal there with Khader, he mentions that Khader is having dosas while he finished his pea flour roti. Does he mean missi roti? I would really love to find an authentic, great dosa joint which also serves missi rotis even in Bombay!

 I know that in India Ganges & Jamuna are considered holy rivers. I am yet to come across any river with the name “Jamner”.

 I did not know that spoken Hindi is so different from spoken Urdu (for me they are indistinguishable) that speakers of one language have difficulty in understanding the other. Novel is literally strewn with such references.

 I never knew it gets so cold in Bombay (even after living there for 2 years) that people have to take hot water baths. I also don't think Bombay has a culture of taking hot water baths. Why does Shantaram need to have hot water for his bath (inspite of coming from a much colder clime) beats me.

 Khader is referred to as Khader‘ji’ at least twice during the Afghanistan episodes. Once by Lin and then by Khalid. Sounds a little strange.

 A sikh named “Anand Rao”?

 I would love to know as to what kind of computers were being used in mid 80s and for what purposes. Yes microcomputers had come around, but I don't think there were too many utility programmes widely available for say word processing, accounting, or even data base management. What was available needed a fair amount of technical skills.

 Another example is “Utna hai” which is translated as “He’s awake”. Does he mean “Utha hai”? with the “h” becoming an “n” by a typo? Or is it because he jotted down the Hindi equivalent of “He’s awake” in his journal and then transcribed it as “Utna” rather than “Utha” since he did not have adequate knowledge of the language?

 Similar might be the case of “kadmal”. It would be more accurate to write it as “khatmal”, which roughly translated means “the insect (mal) which resides in the bed (khat or khaat)”.

I feel that the book is nothing but a collection of tall tales picked up at random in course of long chat sessions (addabaji describes the situation better) at Leopolds and other similar haunts in Colaba and Fort areas along with regular visits to C grade Hindi movies. No doubt the author is helped by his fertile imagination and practice of keeping notes.

Mr. Roberts seems to have a more than nodding acquaintance with a few selected areas of South Bombay such as Colaba, Cuffe Parade, Flora fountain, Fort and a slight familiarity to Bandra & Juhu. But there is much more to Bombay than these two areas. It is surprising that he shows little knowledge of vast areas of Bombay and its culture, a city where he claims to have worked and lived for such long years. There is no mention of the typically Maharashtrian localities of Girgaum, or the Ganapati pujas, the Dahi-Handi festival, the typically Maharashtrian fish based eating joints, or even the Koli fishing village all of which are within a few kilometers from the locale in which most of the novel is set.

The language, the description of situations or build up of characters are mediocre at the best and at various points the thread of narrative is lost, before petering out in the end.

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Books by Namit Arora

  • “Namit Arora does for Silicon Valley what Tom Wolfe did for Wall Street in The Bonfire of the Vanities: with keen eye and sharp wit, he captures the culture and mores of the place. But Arora is funnier. And sweeter.” —S. Abbas Raza, Editor, 3QD.

  • The Lottery of Birth reveals Namit Arora to be one of our finest critics. In a raucous public sphere marked by blame and recrimination, these essays announce a bracing sensibility, as compassionate as it is curious, intelligent and nuanced.” —Pankaj Mishra

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