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Review: Shantaram


A little note: I am currently working on a book. This review will be going in to my book but I figured it would be ideal to share it with you first.

I am not sure what the setting should be for an epic novel but it seems clear that India would be one of them. India has over a billion people on a small subcontinent and, despite its own societal problems, seems to abstain from involvement in wars and armed conflicts. India is most often heard about for its up and coming appeal and its attraction as a place for investment and ingenuity in the future.

Ahmed Ghosh's book Sea Of Poppies set in motion the Ibis trilogy, a series of books that certainly illustrate the ability of India to be a setting for an epic literary adventure. There is a bit of a similarity between Ghosh's work and that of Gregory David Roberts. Some of the settings are even mirrors of one another, making me think that the authors were or are aware of one another. Both Ghosh and Roberts' books feature protagonists who find themselves in imprisonment under harsh and brutal circumstances, recovering their dignity through sheer power of will alone.

A critical difference between the two, however, is that Ghosh created a franchise that almost mirrors Star Wars taking place in the subcontinent during the nineteenth century. Roberts' book is much more jarring - we are faced with a protagonist, the author himself nonetheless, who finds himself faced with a degree of circumstances that would be enough for a dozen characters in your average novel. Whereas Ghosh sparsed out his grand adventure for three books, Roberts is more ambitious. Shantaram is jarring at over 900 pages and impressive as those 900 pages are extremely readable and never tedious. Towards the end, you don't feel as if anything had been drawn out but instead as if the book could have been longer - perhaps a trilogy of collectively 1500 pages, like Ghosh's series.

While Ghosh's Ibis trilogy reflects Lord of the Rings or Star Wars in its narrative, with various characters of very different backgrounds coalescing together due to shared elements and circumstances, Shantaram is something else entirely. As Lin, Roberts' character, becomes involved in the Afghan war against the Soviets toward the end of the book, Shantaram actually begins to reflect less a drug version of Forrest Gump, which a friend described it as after hearing me talk about it initially, but an Indo-Australian version of Lawrence of Arabia - a sort of Lin of India. Like the famed T.E. Lawrence, Lin finds that the warrior men of a much different culture save him and push him toward redemption in a way that his alienated Western life never could.

Shantaram is filled with some of the most epic quotes about the meaning of everything from love to death to God. His response to the deaths of those he has come to love in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan reflects a level of empathy he never had in Australia, when other's lives were almost superfluous. He finds himself almost dispassionate after being betrayed by many of those he had come to rely on and one of the book's most beautiful passages arrives as he is overcome with resentment but drowned by love:

They'd lied to me and betrayed me, leaving jagged edges where all my trust had been, and I didn't like or respect or admire them any more, but still I loved them. I had no choice. I understood that, perfectly, standing in the white wilderness of snow. You can't kill love. You can't even kill it with hate. You can kill in love, and loving, and even loveliness. You can kill them all, or numb them in to dense, leaden regret, but you can't kill love itself. Love is the passionate search for 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: it's a part of God, or what we call God, and it can never die.

Films stir quite a bit more easily than a book. The effect of good and accurately placed music, along with an emotionally stirring storyline, can make anyone emotionally healthy well up. I still tear up when I watch or just listen to the soundtrack of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. George Lucas' storyline and dialogue certainly left a lot to be desire and even the best efforts of actors didn't seem to help but John Williams' music was so beautiful and so stirring that I can't help but feel great emotions.

It's similar with Life is Beautiful, one of the best films made about World War II and the Holocaust. The ending scene there is so stirring emotionally that one must be dead inside to not cry while watching it. Nevertheless, even the most stirring book has a hard time penetrating the soul and emotions than a well produced emotive film. Despite that, I found myself stirred by that paragraph. It made me think about Jennifer and why I loved her and defended her despite the warning signs of addiction and mental illness that were clear and undeniable on her. To love others is not to look in others for a carbon copy of yourself or even for positive reinforcement of yourself - love is the passionate search for truth other than your own, as Roberts writes. He found it and so did I - and once we found it, it was forever, death be damned.

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About Radical Second Things

Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

Mark Cappetta is a practicing Catholic and active LGBT activist. He has been instrumental in keeping Radical Second Things and updates the Facebook account almost daily.

Eva Gnostiquette is an artist, programmer, "future scientist," bi-trans girl and graphic designer. She voluntarily helped to create the first print issue Radical Second Things and designed our beautiful banners. Thanks so much, Eva!

Jordan Denato is a professional artist based out of Iowa. He took the initiative to illustrate both Jennifer Reimer's story and Michael Orion's Oscar Romero work. He has his own art studio, Tar and Feather Studios, and is a critical part of Radical Second Things.

Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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