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Up, close and personal

Prema K on her brief encounter with Gregory David Roberts aka Shantaram.

books Updated: Apr 02, 2009 16:49 IST

I’d read Shantaram a few months ago at the recommendation of friends. I was told that the book was influenced by real events in the author’s life. But some also warned me that I wouldn’t be able to go beyond 25 to 30 pages.

I must admit that I started reading the book with doubts about seeing it through it till the end. The book introduces Shantaram as Australia’s most wanted man seeking shelter in Mumbai under a fake name and passport. His life sure sounded very exciting.

Then the writer takes him down Colaba Causeway and introduces him to Leopold Café, which, soon, becomes his favourite hangout. Then follows his regular walks to and fro VT station to his hotel. All that felt so nostalgic. Shantaram scored another point with me. But what really worked for me was the fact that the book zoomed into the streets of Mumbai right from page two.

Stellar qualities
Perhaps it was the vivid contents of the book but I felt as if the book was based more on facts and less on fiction. I was convinced that Gregory David Roberts was Shantaram in real life. With every page, it was as if I was peeling away his various layers.

Despite his criminal background, I liked Shantaram for his stellar qualities. He had to be smart to mastermind his escape from a prison in Australia. He was street smart and even conned people, but I justified that as his means of survival.

But he never cheated his friends or let them down, ever. He was large-hearted and never hesitated to part with his money to help his friends who were in trouble.

Not apologetic
He wasn’t apologetic about the fact that he made his living in Mumbai as a smuggler and counterfeiter. It would suffice to quote lines from his book, “I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum-security prison.” And he came across as a strong man in body and spirit.

So when I heard that he would be there at the Lakme India Fashion Week on Sunday evening, I dropped by to meet him. Dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a crisp white shirt, he looked every bit the man who could have endured many beatings and physical and mental abuse in a Mumbai prison. He radiated a lot of positive energy.

Warm and friendly
Flashing a friendly smile, he shook my hand warmly. He was pleased to hear that I’d loved his book and told me a bit about the sequel, which is due for release soon.

He introduced me to his wife, Princess Francoise Sturdza and attributed his exuberance to her. “It’s nice to have her in my life. She has a very positive effect on me. I talk to her when I’m feeling low and soon I’m set to meet life head-on. She has set up the Hope For India Foundation in Chennai, where she’s involved in projects on education, health and nutrition of poor children. That feels good.”

I don’t care if I sound star-struck but I had made it a point to carry my copy of Shantaram and asked him to sign it for posterity.