‘There is astonishing freedom in Bombay’
Harsh A. Desai talks to Gregory David Roberts and reviews his novel Shantaram

How did you land up in Bombay after you escaped from a prison in Australia? Was it just happenstance?

I bought a ticket from New Zealand to Germany which had a two-day lay over in Bombay. I just stepped out in the city to get a feel of it and in 20 minutes I was in love with it and in a sense have never left it since then.

What aspects of the city did you fall in love with?

People of India find this hard to believe. But a city may be dirty on the outside but is clean on the inside. Many cities in the world are clean on the outside but dirty on the inside. Then there are the physical features of the city which are beautiful such as Marine Drive as also juxtaposition of the rich and the poor who live side by side.

Then there is the astonishing freedom in the city. For instance, the traffic and the way it works, particularly in contrast to Australia. It is an expressive and creative communication, which is just one example. The fact that people such as workers and dabbawallas are free to sit together in open spaces such as a maidan and have their lunch as a group and people won’t disturb them but will simply walk around them is amazing. As you all have grown up in Bombay, you all take this for granted but to an outsider this is astonishing.

Also, I have met so many wonderful people in Bombay who taught me the meaning of friendship and love.

I find the title Shantaram a little peculiar for a book written in English by an Australian about Bombay.

The title is designed to reflect the theme of the novel which is the exile experience. All the main characters in the book are exiled. The city is a symbolic representation of the theme of exile. In the book, the Haji Ali mosque is referred to several times as it is cut off from land. The name Shantaram encapsulates the exile as even his name becomes unfamiliar to the writer and Shantaram means god’s peace, which I have been seeking. Shantaram is the second in the series of a quartet of novels that I have planned about my life but is the first to be written. The third book is a sequel to Shantaram, the first a prequel.

Which are the facts in the book and what is the fictional part?

A general rule of the thumb is that the events in the book are real; but they have been shuffled in the narrative and the characters are fictional. Praebakar and Karla are also fictional characters.

Despite all the hardship you have faced in Bombay, how do you continue to love Bombay?

Once you love something, you can never stop loving it. Even after a divorce, the heart will not stop loving. For every one negative thing that happens everyday in Bombay, a hundred positive things happen.

Somewhere in the book you say that Indians are ruled by the heart. Is that not a disadvantage in today’s world?

Nobody who has done business in any country with an Indian would doubt the shrewdness of Indians but what Indian people bring to the world is something special and unique, which is the capacity for a loving interaction. Brief as an exchange may be — could be a smile between a cart-puller and a businessman on a busy street — it is always significant. It is also, for instance, reflected in the Indian response to Pakistan, which has a measure of heart despite all the provocation.