Back in 2011 (seems so long ago now), I read Gregory David Robert’s debut novel Shantaram and I absolutely loved it. So much so, that when I found out the sequel ‘The Mountain Shadow’ was being released I reread the original, something I’ve not done with a novel before. Reading it again I still enjoyed it.
Unfortunately that also gave insight into seeing how far the sequel is from the original. Whereas Shantaram was the story of escaped convict Lin discovering a new country and embracing its culture and taking a reader along for the ride, this novel makes it feel like Lin has become the typical gora in India, living in a world of controversial art exhibitions and fetish parties. Lin in Shantaram was a man looking for his place in Bombay, which he finds amongst new family and friends in the slum, in his best friend’s village in rural Maharashtra, with his Godfather-esque mentor Khaderbai and his mysterious love interest Karla.
Now there’s none of that, Lin has settled into place in Bombay and has become complacent. With that the plot suffers, whereas before we discover that nearly all the events that happen to Lin in Shantaram are the result of Khaderbai getting him ready for his mission in Afghanistan, here there is no drive or goal to what is happening. One minute Lin is taking a friend out of a drug den, the next he’s making his hustler rounds in the city, the next he’s fantasizing about Karla (which becomes a bit much at times), the next he’s on a smuggling mission to Sri Lanka, the next he’s having philosophical discussions with Khaderbai’s guru, and then the cycle goes back to the beginning and it starts all over again. There’s no drive or goal to the story, at the end of it it felt like it was just a fantastical white man’s imagination of what life might be like living in the criminal underworld of Bombay.
It pains me to say that, because Shantaram was based largely on Robert’s own experiences of India. Reflecting the author in Lin, it felt like this was someone who embraced the culture they were living in, as opposed to having a voyeuristic and shallowly excitable attitude that many westerners have when visiting other countries. The Lin in The Mountain Shadow seems to have gone past that and now is just living his life as a permanent tourist, occasionally visiting the slums to deliver medicine or needing a favour.
This is apparently the second part of a trilogy. On its release Roberts announced his withdrawal from public appearances. Given the amount of time and dedication he spent on this novel it feels like he was trying too hard to make something on the same level as Shantaram and as a result lost sight of what he was trying to achieve. I hope for the third part a more relaxed attitude will bring about a more nuanced novel. We will see.