Around 6 years ago when I was living in Riyadh - Saudi Arabia, a friend of mine introduced me to a man named Ayoub. Ayoub was an eccentric type of guy. He was tattooed from the neck all the way down to his ankles. He had multiple piercings on both his ears and eyebrows, and a huge biker beard that matched the entire ensemble.
Contrary to his looks though, Ayoub had a very quiet personality. He was soft-spoken and stoic in his behavior. We immediately became friends. There was a certain freedom in his character which I envied, and “if you envy someone for all the right reasons, you’re halfway to wisdom.”
Still, as interesting as Ayoub’s character was, this piece is not about him. He was merely the vessel which led me to discover the most influential novel I’ve ever read, Shantaram.
Just like Ayoub, Shantaram could be just as misleading with its daunting 933 pages. However, within its sheets lies a philosophical story that will immediately suck you into its spirit of adventure.
It was another scorching weekend in Riyadh, and just like every weekend, Ayoub would come over and we would play “Call of Duty” until the sun relieved us of its blazing heat. I had been reading a book and left it on the coffee table, while the PlayStation was loading, Ayoub picked it up and flipped it over.
“Do you like to read?” He asked me while casually skimming through the book.
I nodded at him lazily with my attention fully on the TV screen.
“Then I have a book for you, I’m sure you’ll love it.” He mentioned nonchalantly before putting my book down and picking up his controller.
He now had my full attention. By this point, I’d known Ayoub for around 6 months, admittedly I shamefully mistook him for someone who does not enjoy reading books. So I rudely remarked:
“Umm, you want to recommend a book?” Luckily, he was not offended by my coarse remark. He just chuckled and then responded with an indifference only someone like him can pull off.
“Haha, I do… It’s called Shantaram, and it changed my life.” I was intrigued.
“Shantaram? What’s it about?” Ayoub contemplated for a moment before he answered.
“I’m not really sure… it’s just about life I guess.” He remarked, still with a chuckle.
At that moment the videogame started, and our attention was diverted towards killing zombies, but I made a mental note of the book and kept repeating its name in my head until it stuck.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
The next day, I passed by the library on my way back from work and searched for Shantaram. The librarian directed me to an aisle, and I found it. It was protruding out of the shelf, almost presenting itself to me. The book was so thick, and I hesitated before picking it up.
Nonetheless. I did. I flipped it over, read the blurb, and thought for a moment. Do I want to commit to such a long novel? I looked at the last page… 933. I hesitated, but then remembered Ayoub and how he’s the living embodiment of the proverb “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. So I picked it up and checked it out.
6 years later, Shantaram protrudes off the shelf of my personal library at home, and every now and then the book prompts me to pick it up once again and randomly rift through its heavy pages losing myself in the journey of the man, and his love for the city, the city of Mumbai.
The man of peace
Before I go on, you should know I do not plan to spoil any of the book’s events or share any of its intricate details. Whatever I will share can be found in the book’s blurb. My hope is to inspire you to pick it up and check it out just like I did and then allow yourself to be lost in the spiritual journey of a lifetime.
Shantaram is a novel by the Australian author, Gregory David Roberts. Its events take place in 1980s Mumbai where the author finds himself after escaping from an Australian prison and fleeing with a fake passport. The book is based on Gregory’s real-life experiences so it’s almost a semi-autobiography more than a novel.
The meaning of the word “Shantaram” in Marathi, which is an Indian language spoken mainly in the western state of Maharashtra, is “man of peace”. Throughout the book, the author is on a quest to find inner peace to redeem him in his own eyes, as well as, in the eyes of the people he let down.
The love for the city
Just as Ayoub found it difficult to explain to me what the book was actually about, I’m also finding it hard to encapsulate the main essence. It’s a book intended to change you as you dive deeper into its story. The author is an exiled man seeking redemption in the lively city of Mumbai, India. There are many themes in the book, but perhaps the strongest of them is one of love or more precisely, unrealized love.
This is where the story begins and where you can feel the author’s connection to the city. Mumbai is not a setting or a location. It’s described as a living and breathing organism, an important character dictating the flow of events in the story. She is a constant source of hope for the author despite the poverty, corruption, and myriad other vices which sully its streets.
Dotted with many deep and well-developed characters, each of whom are also influenced by the great city in one way or another. The theme of love is perfumed throughout the pages of the book; although, the most fragrant and potent love is the love for Mumbai itself.
Living in Mumbai’s slums, the author survived a cholera outbreak, forged life-lasting friendships, and ended up speaking Marathi as fluently and proudly as any Maharashtrian. The hardships he experienced were grueling, yet inescapable on his path to redemption.
Only Through Hardship
As I went through the book’s massive skeleton, I fell in love with Mumbai and all its imperfections and found myself longing for similar life-changing experiences.
When I turned the last page (more than a month later), I set the book down on my coffee table and found myself contemplating life and its true meaning.
Ayoub was right. Shantaram is a book about life, and a book which will change your life.
Several years later, I traveled to Nepal to volunteer in an impoverished rural school. One of the first things I packed was Shantaram. My goal was to go and experience hardship just as the author had, submit to a greater cause just as he, and most importantly fall in love with a place that springs to life and becomes more than just a location. During my trip, Shantaram was my guide, my Virgil guiding me through the purgatory of my own life.
During these many years, as I kept riffling randomly through the book, I've realized we are all seeking redemption one way or another. We are all searching for our own Mumbai, for the city that will challenge us, and make us better people.
Only through hardship are we able to grow. If there’s anything I learned from this book, it’s this lesson.
“Love is the passionate search for a truth other than our own.”
So if you decide to pick up this book and lose yourself in its world of love and philosophy, I hope you will find a truth that will make you fall in love and a city that will challenge you every step of the way.
Hadi El Talje is one of 7 billion human beings living on a tiny blue ball floating in the vastness of space. He hopes his writing intrigues your mind and inspires you to be true to who you really are. For writing opportunities, connect with Hadi.