Thursday, February 04, 2016

Fugitive endurance

Recalling the therapeutic value of SHANTARAM

Analgesic, Antitoxicant and Anti-depressant – that’s the only way to describe this outwardly runaway work of therapeutic value. That the author Gregory David Robert was once a drug-addict fugitive makes his therapy as enduring as his experience. His gratifying eye-drops infuse such raving inspiration that the reader sees nothing but splendor in the celebration of life with all its trials and tribulations.

It’s almost a worthless exercise to fix a genre for such work where each of the author’s rich and varied experiences - refuge and revenge, despair and hope, love and solitude, virtue and vice, loyalty and betrayal - goes beyond mere dictionary connotations to reveal a truth that appears more complete in its partiality. The lasting fragrance of the poignant theme can never be undermined in the name of fiction.

Although the story spans the continents of Asia, Africa and Australia, it is in Mumbai that most of the action takes place. Having escaped from an Australian prison armed with fugitive disillusionment, the protagonist comes to this pulsating city and things happen in quick succession. The undemanding charms of a street-smart tourist guide Prabhaker leads him to a life in a slum. At the same time, a popular joint frequented by foreigners of varying nationalities and motives introduces him to the underworld and its belligerent lords. And thus begins a string of contrasts in each of his exasperating roles – a determined slum doctor saving lives amidst filth and disease, an underworld mediator thriving on the profits of crime and forgery, a sensitive lover pining for his love in solitude, a loyal confidante ready to die for his Godfather’s life-mission and the individual disasters of his vulnerable friends.

In each of these roles, he clings to a sense of purpose found embossed on the other side of each coin – purity of life in the wretchedness of the slum, soul-searching mysticism in the twisted morality of the underworld and a cosmic hope in the heart-wrenching tragedies of new-found friends and situations……

The diminutive, sprightly guide Prabhaker and his rustic clan, the iron-willed Afghan don Kader Khan and his August followers, Karla his enchantress lover ever shrouded in mystery, the enterprising and God-fearing slum inhabitants, hardened prisoners serving detention in atrocious jails, helpless victims trapped in gaudy brothels and the bizarre code of conduct followed in pubs, hotels, police stations, hospitals, railways stations and pavements.

Every story is a rainbow of human emotions offering sparkling lessons in philosophy, religion and psychology, sans the aridness of curriculum-trapped disciplines. Roberts shows amazing finesse in capturing the parochial beliefs and universal commonality of his characters. He also unveils the true character of Mumbai – hidden from the roving eyes of animated visitors and missed by the weathered outlook of busy locals - as a city that swears only by the doctrine of necessity.

What’s necessary invariably comes ahead of what’s right or wrong. Roberts finds an astute example in the contrasting behaviour of fatigued railway passengers in Mumbai. The do-or-die on-board pandemonium for vacant seats is almost condoned by overt gestures of solidarity as the journey progresses. Such rapid alterations of human behaviour in adverse situations - less space and more people - is only found in Mumbai, he discovers.

The racy account, however, seems stretched towards the end, much like a forced attempt to suit best-seller expectations of magnificent landscapes, do-or-die missions and larger-than-life anonymity. But more importantly, Roberts avoids the temptation of romanticizing his semi-fictional escapades. Instead, he surrenders to the divinity of his experience as if playing his part in the scheme without pride or prejudice. As he rightly says, each one of us only adds our “little consequences to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world”.

Couldn’t have been said better!

Originally Published in by Sudhir Raikar (link no longer active)