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5 Books like Shantaram: Foraying Into India

Kedar Prasana itcherGregory David Roberts fomented the world of literature when he published his almost‐autobiographical escapades in India as an on‐the‐loose robber and a junkie. If you took this bullet to the heart, here are a few more books like ‘Shantaram’ to keep you high on reality: ‘Narcopolis’, ‘A Fine Balance’, ‘Midnight’s Children’, ‘Moth Smoke’ and ‘The God of Small Things’. ~ Kedar Prasana

High on Fuel but Low on Future

‘Shantaram’ is all about how a young Australian man, who also happens to be a perpetrator of crimes such as credit frauds and loan evasions, escapes from prison and somehow, ends up in the busy streets of the erstwhile Bombay of the 80’s.

The portrayal of Bombay in this book has often been challenged but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s not too far off the mark. The ‘underbelly’ of this great, circuitous city, replete with prostitutes, opium addicts, petty thieves, corrupt policemen and Bollywood starlets, wielded its charisma on the young, impressionable author who had nowhere to go.

If you can’t really pack your bags and wind up in India, you can still probe the lanes and gullies of this manic city with these books similar to ‘Shantaram’.

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Books Similar to ‘Shantaram’…

‘Narcopolis’ (Jeet Thayil, 2012)

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I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay…

Jeet Thayil, before penning this one down, had never published a book before. He was more of a poet, a man of few words. But ‘Narcopolis’ broke on to the English literature stage with a bang that only the best can accord. Welcomed universally by critics, the book shot straight to the shortlist of the prestigious Man Booker Prize of 2012. It shares many themes, including the city itself and its drugs, with ‘Shantaram’.

The wordplay in the title is not all, by the way. The first sentence of ‘Narcopolis’ seems to go on forever, spanning a whole of no less than 7 pages.

Similarity Match: 95%
From a young protagonist who has burnt all the bridges to interesting side characters that make a dent in your head, ‘Shantaram’ and ‘Narcopolis’ are much too similar. The only difference probably lies in the ‘Indianness’ of their points of view.

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‘A Fine Balance’ (Rohinton Mistry, 1995)

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Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.

Rohinton Mistry is best known for the portrayals of Parsi families inBombay. With ‘A Fine Balance’, he managed to stretch his array of accomplishments and portrayed many other strata of the Bombay of the 70’s and the 80’s.

Much like ‘Shantaram’, various characters in ‘A Fine Balance’ struggle against the backdrop of a city that doesn’t seem to relent at all.

Similarity Match: 85%
Both of these books are set in the Bombay of emergency and post‐emergency era. Where ‘Shantaram’ focussed on a set of low‐life characters, ‘A Fine Balance’ tried to deal with the middle class of the time.

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‘Midnight’s Children’ (Salman Rushdie, 1981)

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Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.

‘Midnight’s Children’ brought English literature in India a new found glory. Hailed by eminent novelist and critic Anthony Burgess as one of the finest stories in English he ever read, the book itself managed to win a bag of prizes and Hollywood‐worthy publishing deals.

Unlike ‘Shantaram’, it is set in the pre and post‐Independence decades in Bombay. Employing then‐novel techniques like magical realism and conflicting storylines, ‘Midnight’s Children’ didn’t take long to get anointed as a high‐literary accomplishment.

Similarity Match: 80%
Undoubtedly, Salman Rushdie is a more stylish writer than Gregory David Roberts. But it’s interesting how much love their characters share with the
city they live in.

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If You Like ‘Shantaram’, You Will Like…

‘Shantaram’ is not for the faint of the heart. If you really devote your time (it’s a tome, so to speak) to it, you will get rewarded with some great entertainment. Here are two more books, not really set in Bombay, but depicting much the same enthusiasm about their settings.

‘Moth Smoke’ (Mohsin Hamid, 2000)

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Pride tells me to give it back, but common sense tells pride to shut up, have a joint and relax. I shrug and put the note into my wallet.

Set in Lahore, Pakistan at the turn of the 21st century, ‘Moth Smoke’ revolves around a group of people who try to make sense of the tumultuous times and invariably end up finding solace in drugs and alcohol when they fail.

To ‘Shantaram’ lovers, it will be an interesting thing to read how a quintessentially different setting can alter the very concept of ‘wasting your life away’.

‘Moth Smoke’ and ‘Shantaram’ are spaced by about two decades, but they share a certain central concept, that of exploring the human nature in dire straits.

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‘The God of Small Things’ (Arundhati Roy, 1997)

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He folded his fear into a perfect rose. He held it out in the palm of his hand. She took it from him and put it in her hair.

Perhaps the most controversial book on this list, ‘The God of Small Things’ has had its share of troubles. Regardless of the controversies, this is a great read. More than that, it’s a book one can read over and over again, if not for the plot, then for some truly beautiful prose.

The author, Ms. Arundhati Roy, is an outspoken political activist. ‘The God of Small Things’ is her, so far, only published novel and to careful observers, it might appear that she put all she had to say in this magnum opus of sorts.

‘The God of Small Things’ tries to work out how families disintegrate, just as ‘Shantaram’ grapples with the rapid unravelling of his own life.

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Got Your Reading Hat on, Yet?

If you want to take a more vivid sneak peek into India and her people, a book like ‘Shantaram’ can be a perfect start. If you are already at it, why not try ‘City of Djinns’, ‘Untouchables’ and ‘A Passage to India’?

As always, all of your comments and suggestions are welcome!

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