A book has a reader in its mind and that usually decides its merits. You cannot, for example, take a work of chick lit and apply to it the yardsticks of literary fiction (though a really good genre book will make that leap). Readers have myriad tastes but, as a general case, the one who can’t put down Half Girlfriend is not the one staying awake reading My Name Is Red. Who then, let’s ask, is the reader of Gregory David Roberts’ The Mountain Shadow, the sequel to his bestseller Shantaram? The answer is not so clear.
As literary fiction, it is a clumsy book. As pulp fiction, it fails because the book does not want to be that. And at over 850 pages, it is a struggle for any reader to remain interested beyond a point unless there is something extraordinary before him. The Mountain Shadow floats in the middle, neither here nor there, and very unsuccessfully at that.
Linbaba or Shantaram, former drug-addict and prison escapee, is still there in self-willed exile in Mumbai, part of the underworld as a passport forger, yearning for redemption from his past, questioning the meaning of existence, a warrior with his own code of honour balancing love, life, spiritualism and philosophy in the middle of gang wars and smuggling runs. Not a bad character except that, like the book, he is a caricature desperately trying to be profound and ending up repetitive in a meaningless sort of way on the back of lines like these:
– ‘Our humankind, at this moment in our destiny, is a child blowing on a dandelion, without thought or understanding.’
– ‘Fear is a wolf on a chain, only dangerous when you set it free. Sorrow exhausts itself in the net of forgetting. Anger, for all its fury, can be killed by a smile. Only hope goes on forever, because hope doesn’t belong to us: it belongs to our ancestors, the first of our kind, whose brave love for one another gave us most of the good that we are.’
– ‘Home ground advantage is the ace of spades, in turf wars. Attention to detail is the ace of hearts. A supportive community that likes and trusts you at least as much as they like and trust the police is the royal flush.’
– ‘Function is servant or master, and wherever it rules, suffering sits in corridors purged of consideration.’
– ‘‘Birds are the spiritual language of the sky,’ Idriss said. ‘And trees are the spiritual language of the earth.’’
– ‘Love is always a lotus, no matter where you find it.’
– ‘Faith is also its own challenge, like sincerity, and purity draws swords in fearful hearts.’
In one page, Lin’s lover accuses him of ‘aphorism harassment’ and it is actually a lesson that Roberts, the author, should have taken. The Mumbai underworld is amusing in how much gravitas Roberts infuses into street thugs. ‘I opened the black jacket, showing the blood, and closed it again. They were abashed, as gangsters are, when they realise that they’re in a debt of honour.’ We are somewhere in the middle of a Samurai flick here and the feeling is inescapable that the author has not been shy to draw references from movie scenes and not particularly nuanced ones. Roberts worked as an extra in Bollywood movies in the 80s and there is hearty melodrama in the book as well.
If The Mountain Shadow had been written as exaggerated farce around Mumbai and its underworld, it would have been quite a good one, but Roberts is in serious territory. There is actually a lengthy debate on a mountain top on the outskirts of the city with the spiritual guru of an underworld don answering questions from four ‘great sages’ of the surrounding districts. (‘‘And what is life, great sage?’ Let Me See asked. ‘Life is an organic expression of the tendency toward complexity.’… ‘And what is Love, great sage?’ ‘Love is intimate connection.’’)
Police stations have officers designated as ‘sergeants’, and mothers who serve tea to guests at home talk like this: ‘‘I have to warn you in advance, though,’ she cautioned. ‘I lean towards determinism, and I’m ready to roll my sleeves up, if you’re a free will man.’’
Maybe editing the book down to one-fourth its length might have helped. Or it might not have.