I’m lounging under an umbrella on a white sand beach in Turks and Caicos, vigorously turning the pages of my novel, my heart racing. The humid air and ocean breeze coat my skin and the tropical sun bends behind my glasses to shock my eyes. But it is not the sun or the heat which is causing my eyes to tear. I reach the end of Chapter 29, shut the book, and throw it onto the beige beach chair.
“I don’t know if I can go on,” I say to my husband. And I mean it.
I feel the devastation of the main character, Linbaba, as if it is my own. A testament to the author’s strong and connective writing. Like life, parts of Shantaram are unbearable, and others are full of tenderness. This novel offers an important reminder, that within each person, each life, each city, and each moment, there are worlds of pain and depths of beauty if only we look close enough.
I’ve chosen to read Gregory David Roberts’s novel, Shantaram, while on an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation with my extended family. It’s like being emersed in two foreign and contradictory worlds at once. Pristine turquoise waters, tourists in straw hats walking the beach with rambunctious children in tow, versus the sewage-stenched slums of Bombay, “those writhing alleys of struggle and dream .”
THE FICTION PORTAL
I look up from the page to see bikinied bodies sipping pina coladas, and back down to read viscerally detailed and brutal prison beatings, stories of hard men with unimaginable depths of cruelty and kindness, and insights about human nature that bring me to my knees in the sand as if I am the one taking the punches. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Something that I love about reading is how it shapes my view of reality, alters my perspective, and adds harmonies and dissonance to that voice in my head which narrates life. Reading Shantaram, compels me to look closer at the world around me.
My pink, sun-kissed two-year-old daughter, giggling, building a sandcastle near the water’s gentle edge with her grandpa. A Caribbean woman passing by with beads balanced on her head, calling out “Hair braids? Who wants hair braids?” with a richly accented singsong. Shockingly different worlds exist here around me, just as in Shantaram’s Bombay. I want to know the woman selling the art of hair braids, in the way that Linbaba would have known her, fully, deeply. Her brown eyes open wide despite the relentless sun. Maybe she has children in a modest home by the sea. Maybe her family has lived on this island for generations. Well before this tourist resort ever existed. I want to describe her with the level of detail and proficiency that Roberts uses to describe the multitude of characters that populate his novel. Like he describes Rukhmavai Kharre, the mother of Linbaba’s beloved guide and best friend, Prabaker.
“… Rukhmavai Kharre was forty years old, and at the peak of her personal power…Her black hair, gleaming with coconut oil, had never been cut, and the majestic rope of it reached to her knees. Her skin was tan brown. Her eyes were the color of amber, set in rose gold. The whites of her eyes were pink, always, giving the impression that she’d just cried or was just about to cry. A wide gap between her front teeth gave an impish mischief to her smile, while the superb hook of her beaked nose endowed her serious expression with an imposing authority. ”
And that’s just about a third of the initial description that brings her to life.
Roberts’s novel is written with a wholly empathetic gaze. He examines each character, no matter how minorly featured in the story, no matter how downtrodden, criminal, or dislikeable, with consideration and care. He describes the faces, postures, lives of each person in his story, as if he is describing his beloved. Seeking the components that make us all neither good nor bad, but fully human. The novel shows his wisdom for life and that to know someone, truly, the good and the bad, is to love them. “Love is the passionate search for a truth other than your own; and once you feel it, honestly and completely, love is forever. Every act of love, every moment of the heart reaching out, is a part of the universal good…” 
The author lived, once, like I am, within a family, within a society, but he also lived as an addict, criminal, prisoner, and fugitive. I think only someone who has lived in many factions of society, within its bounds, and also outside, can truly offer his perspective. I remember something that my AP English teacher said to me sophomore year of high school when I told her that I wanted to be a writer. “To write, you must really live,” she told me. “Become worldly. Experience everything. Try. Fail. Make sure to fail.” I was a painfully shy and studious girl in high school. It took me years to begin to heed this teacher’s advice, and in these years of living, I learned about the world, and the people in it. I got hurt, I messed up, and I looked up the word “worldly” many times, to see if I yet embodied it. Roberts is nothing if not worldly, and it shows in his every line of writing.
“Nothing in any life, no matter how well or poorly lived, is wiser than failure or clearer than sorrow. And in the tiny, precious wisdom that they give to us, even those dread and hated enemies, suffering and failure, have their reason and their right to be, ” says the narrating character. I’m calling him Linbaba, though he is called many names throughout the book (Lindsay, Lin, Shantaram, to name a few), by those friends who come to love him. His having many names is appropriate for this story which is ultimately a record of his trials and transformations, as he seeks to find his identity, his true self, amidst the chaos of his life. This is a mission most of all of us find ourselves on, I think. We are all trying to understand ourselves in the world. Conjuring a philosophy that makes sense, which can get us through hardships and through the day.
Shantaram has given me much to contemplate. After my allotted seven days of warm waters, endless buffets, and family time, I am nearing the end of the Shantaram story as we prepare to depart Turks and Caicos. Alongside Linbaba, I’ve made it through wild adventures and passions, gotten to know India and the Indian people, suffered death, grief, and relapse, and I’m savoring the meaningful ending of the book as I sit in the crowded, stiflingly hot airport packed with agitated tourists. There is disorganization in this small island airport. Chaos. It is not like the U.S. with crisp air conditioning and endless rules. My daughter is throwing a tantrum on the floor, there is nowhere to sit or even stand, the boarding lines weave endlessly on and though we are well past our boarding time no one can tell us if our plane has arrived. My sister-in-law proclaims, “I’m never coming here again!” And I think of the families living in the slums of Bombay, the heat and the crowds akin me to them. Their tolerance of the hard parts of life, their ability to overcome and embrace joy in the face of struggle, is not only a strength but a virtue. Many people suffer from their lack of tolerance, the world suffers from it. Linbaba says it best:
“That unequivocal involvement, one with another, and its unquestioning support… was something I’d lost when I’d left the slum to live in the comfortable, richer world. I’d never really found it anywhere else, except within the high-sierra of my mother’s love. And because I knew it with them, once, in the sublime wretched acres of those ragged huts, I never stopped wanting it and searching for it.” 
My trip to the soft white-sand beaches of Turks and Caicos would have lacked a certain richness, without the companionship and contrast of Linbaba’s perspective by my side. Linbaba’s mentor, the big-hearted and brutal gang leader Khader, explains his philosophy of the world by saying:
“I think that we all look for an objective way to measure good and evil, a way that all people can accept as reasonable, we can do no better than to study the way that the universe works, and its nature… the fact that it is constantly moving towards greater complexity. We can do no better than to use the nature of the universe itself.”
I believe that Roberts’s novel Shantaram is, itself, propelling us toward seeing the very complexities of human nature. The baffling and striking intricacies of life. The tolerance for all kinds and ways. And this clearer vision, can make the world a better place.
 Shantaram, pg 929
 Shantaram, pg 125
 Shantaram, pg 740
 Shantaram, pg 872
 Shantaram, pg 893