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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January 2005, 15:26 GMT
Greg Roberts' amazing story
Shantaram book cover
Greg Roberts plans to make Shantaram part of a quartet
In a HardTalk Extra interview screened on 30 December, Mishal Husain spoke to Greg Roberts about his new book Shantaram -- a tale of a bank robber who escaped from prison in Australia to live a fugitive life in the slums of Bombay.

Gregory Roberts' first book Shantaram tells an extraordinary story of a man who becomes a drug addict and bank robber, escapes from an Australian prison and flees to Bombay -- where he works a doctor in the slums and runs with the Indian mafia.

Roberts admits that the novel very closely mirrors his own extraordinary life. So why decide to write a novel and not a memoir?

Roberts told Mishal Husain that "I think the novel form chose me. I was a writer before I became a criminal .. my first instinct was to write."

Australia's most wanted man

Roberts became a heroin addict after the break-up of his marriage and losing custody of his young daughter.

"You think that it's going to solve all your problems, but what it does is roll all your problems up into one huge problem which is getting the money for drugs."

In an attempt to fuel his addiction, Roberts began to rob banks, and his three-piece suits and polite manner gained him a degree of notoriety in his native Australia.
Sometimes, when you live a life at such a wild edge, an extreme edge of experience, you can come back into the world -- if you come back at all -- with some essence from that experience that people find useful
Gregory Roberts

He was eventually caught and imprisoned -- only to escape in broad daylight and flee the country. He ended up in Bombay, where he was captivated by the huge city and its remarkable energy.

"The first thing you see is the wretchedness and misery. You see the slums and it really does strike you so powerfully. It's a kind of agony looking at it for the first time."

But Roberts said when he got beyond the first shock of the slums, he began to see "the real city and the real people and the real lives that are being led .. it was the freedom that I saw around me. It's a city that manifests a huge degree of freedom compared to the freedoms I'd experienced in my own life."

"Man of Peace"

Roberts befriended a local man who took him to stay in his village in the country. There, the local women decided he needed a new name -- they called him Shantaram, which translates to "man of peace". Roberts was intensely moved by this.
Greg Roberts
Roberts was once Australia's most wanted man

"I went into the jungle and I sobbed .. because they saw something in me that I didn't know was there."

Eventually, Roberts was arrested and thrown in prison in Bombay, where he was tortured. A man eventually bribed the police to release him, and that man turned out to be a senior figure in the Indian mafia. Roberts repaid his kindness by going to work for him. He smuggled drugs and passports and ran with the mujahedin in Afghanistan.

Writing Shantaram

Roberts was eventually captured in Germany and extradited to Australia, where he served the rest of his prison sentence.

In prison he began to write the book that would become Shantaram -- but saw his manuscript destroyed by prison officers, not once but twice.

The second time he decided the only thing to do was forgive the man who ripped up his life's work: "I looked at the shattered pieces of my own life in front of me and thought, if I don't do something to move past this, it will destroy me .. I found the prison officer who destroyed the manuscript and told him that I forgave him and I understood why he did it."

So what next for Gregory Roberts? He plans to make Shantaram part of a quartet of books. He is reconciled with his daughter, plans to set up mobile clinics in Bombay and works with young offenders in Australia.

"Sometimes, when you live a life at such a wild edge, an extreme edge of experience, you can come back into the world -- if you come back at all -- with some essence from that experience that people find useful."

HARDtalk Extra can be seen on Fridays on BBC World at 04:30 GMT, 11:30 GMT, 15:30 GMT, 19:30 GMT and 00:30 GMT.

It can also be seen on BBC News 24 at 04:30 and 23:30

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