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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 May, 2004, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
A fabulous tale of Bombay nights
by Chris Summers
BBC News Online

Many of the world's greatest writers lived quiet, sheltered lives but conjured up great stories out of the depths of their imagination.

Gregory David Roberts is not one of those authors.

Front cover of Shantaram
Shantaram has become a bestseller in Australia
He writes from his own bitterly personal experience and has experienced enough, he believes, to fill four gargantuan books, the first of which, Shantaram, has just been published in Britain.

Technically it is the second of the quartet, starting as it does with his arrival in Bombay in 1981, having escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving 19 years for armed robbery.

It tells of his time working for the Bombay mafia.

"More dreams are realised and extinguished in Bombay than any other place in India. I've been to Delhi, Madras, Bangalore and a lot of other cities but I have never seen a crime set-up like that in Bombay," he said.

Roberts is a charismatic figure in person, his long hair setting off piercing, intelligent eyes and a weather-beaten face, and it comes across in Shantaram.

As a young man he was a left-wing radical, a revolutionary leader who led anti-Vietnam war protests and obtained what he described as a "national profile".

His world collapsed

He married, had a daughter and a promising career in academia.

But then his world turned upside down.

His marriage collapsed, he succumbed to heroin in a bid to numb the pain, and was drawn into a tawdry world of crime to pay for his habit.

After a spree of armed robberies he was eventually caught and jailed.

He escaped and fled to Bombay, via New Zealand.

Roberts arrived in Bombay - where he was known as Linbaba - and within weeks was living in a teeming slum, where he set up a clinic and carried out health checks for the residents using his rudimentary first aid training.

Throughout the 1980s he made his living as a black market currency dealer and later a passport counterfeiter.

Gregory David Roberts
As I sat in my cell that day I had a clear vision of my mother's face...I thought of what it would do to her if I went on the run again and realised I could not do that to her.
Gregory David Roberts
It was this work which led to him joining a Bombay mafia group. He met several of the city's most prominent gangsters, and was involved in several gang wars.

Then, in 1990, while using one of his own forged passports, he was captured in Germany and began a long fight against extradition.

Having lost the fight he was considering trying to escape from jail again.

But he told BBC News Online: "As I sat in my cell that day I had a clear vision of my mother's face. She had not seen me for 10 years and had no idea what had happened to me until I was captured in Germany.

"I thought of what it would do to her if I went on the run again and realised I could not do that to her.

"That was the first time I had put someone else before myself. From that day everything fell into place.

'Turning point'

"Since that day I have never had a cigarette, a drink or taken drugs. I wish I could give people the formula but I can't.

"There is a turning point in everybody's lives and that was mine," he said.

After completing his sentence in Australia he set to work writing his life story.

A Bombay slum
Millions of people in Bombay live in makeshift slums
But Shantaram is much more than just a memoir.

His true story is superbly interwoven with delicious dialogue, purple prose and exquisite descriptions both of places and characters.

From the first page the reader is drawn into the life of the characters and becomes desparate to know what becomes of Linbaba, Karla, Lisa, Prabaker, Khaderbhai and Didier.

Roberts relied not just on his prodigious memory but also on prolific notes which he made while in Bombay, some of which he had to copy out again after they were destroyed by prison guards.

"All the substantial events which happened to Linbaba are real events. Some of the other events were invented to help with the narrative," the author told BBC News Online.

'Social agenda'

Shantaram is already a bestseller in Australia and Roberts plans to invest part of his profits from the book in what he calls his "social agenda".

"I want to go back to Bombay and set up a mobile diagnostic clinic to do in a more formal way what I was doing in my own ad hoc way," he says.

He hopes that, if successful, he can persuade Australian corporations to follow suit and fund their own clinics in India.

Roberts is already working on a sequel to Shantaram, which will include a recollection of his time in war-wracked Sri Lanka in the late 1980s.

A Bombay gangster arrives in court
Bombay gangsters dominate the city's black conomy
That, he says, was the most shocking experience of his entire time on the sub-continent.

He told BBC News Online: "There was something unspeakably grotesque about children killing children in this lush, fecund paradise.

"You would go from one jungle clearing, where there were the most magnificent red and blue blooms - flowers so big you couldn't put your arms around them - to the next, where there would be severed children's heads impaled on sticks."

He plans then to bring the series - dubbed by one Australian hack as "Lord Of The Wrongs" - up to date with the fourth book before returning to write the prequel, telling of his fall from grace and his descent into drug-fuelled crime.

"Some of the people affected are still alive and I don't want to upset them. Plus, it will be the hardest for me to write," he said.

Shantaram is published in the UK this month by Time Warner Books. It will be published in the US in October.

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