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Shantaram and travel plans

It took a few weeks, but I finally got through Gregory David Roberts’ 944-page potboiler Shantaram. It’s the quasi-autobiographical story of an Australian armed robber and anarchist who escapes from prison and flees to Bombay, where he leads an action-filled life as a slum medic, petty criminal, junkie, counterfeiter, gangster, and soldier, with long pauses to reflect on life, love and India. The writing is stilted and pretentious, and many of the characters thinly drawn, but I really enjoyed the characters and situations Roberts was able to get a grip on, and, above all, his obvious love for India and her people. The book was a gift from my Australian friend Janelle, who tells me it’s practically a phenomenon down under, and I can see why: to crib from Tyler Cowan, it is one of the best bad books ever written.

The timing of my much-delayed completion couldn’t be better, because this past week I was also finally able to put aside enough money from my job for my planned post-PhD 2010 trip across Asia, which will certainly include several months in India. In fact, after reading this book, I’m thinking that I may well want to spend more time in there. Not that the book makes India seem glamorous, or that it glosses over the bad stuff — in fact, there’s a hint of wallowing in the poverty, disease and crime. But the one thing that comes through is that for Roberts, India is a country that rewards trying to understand and adapt to her. Actually, to hell with spending more time there — this book makes me want to pick up and go there, learn the language, and live in Bombay for a decade or two.