Novel set in Bombay (“Bombay, even now, is a city of words”)
- Book: The Mountain Shadow
- Location: Mumbai (Bombay)
- Author: Gregory David Roberts
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, published 2003, is an iconic book, a cult classic that has become one of the go-to books to explore Bombay via fiction. A tightly plotted story, part fiction part memoir, it is the story of Lin who survives encounters and experiences – many of them in the Bombay slums – that would leave many people reeling. The manuscript for the book was destroyed a couple of times during Gregory’s period in prison and yet he found the determination to re-write and publish to a wide and enthusiastic audience. He had the ability to capture the heart of a generation. It went on to sell over 4 million copies.
Shantaram was also one of the books that inspired us to create the TripFiction website, as the book offers readers an often gritty peek behind the closed doors of slum dwellers in the city and describes the exploits of the black market racketeering, and is populated by a diverse range of interesting characters with back stories and personalities.
The Mountain Shadow is the much anticipated follow up to Shantaram, appearing more than 10 years after Shantaram found wide acclaim. It is a tome – nay, a mountain of a book – at well over 800 pages, and it will inevitably invite comparison with the latter, as Lin, once again, is the main protagonist, together with some of the characters from the first book. There is still Leopold, the real life café in Colaba (its strapline: “getting better with age”) where many of the characters still hang out.
Lin is now working for the Sanjay Corporation creating forged passports. Bombay is full of mafia style operations, all vying for business and power. Lin has one final task to fulfil for his old boss Khaderbhai, down in Sri Lanka and thereafter he will be a free man to pick and choose his own path. But with Lin’s history of violent encounters is this purely a pipe-dream?
In the first book Karla with the green eyes was Lin’s huge love but when the story picks up in The Mountain Shadow, he is living with Lisa. However the shadow of Karla hangs heavy over his new couple relationship and the cracks begin to undermine any chance of something longer term.
The book is populated by a mêlée of exotic Moulin Rouge-style characters – Madame Zhou and her henchmen from Shantaram, for example, are still around. Lin is still trying to make good but he grapples with his irascible temperament and finds himself in many a scrape, caught up in the violence perpetrated by The Cycle Killers and general gangland warfare. At times, it certainly brings the Dan Dare out in him.
There are many subplots and encounters going on to keep the entertainment flowing – even a nod to love detectives, as expounded in the great novel The Case of the Love Commandos by Tarquin Hall, in that Naveen sets up an agency for lost loves. Overall a rich stage of characters, settings and action.
So, does this sequel work? The lyrical quality of the first book is still evident in parts and the prose can still assault the senses: “The allure of the perfume gave way to the sugared sense of firni, rabri, and falooda sweet shops. The glittering splendor of bangle and bracelet shops surrendered to the gorgeous fractals of Persian carpets..” The author does indeed know how to write a story, evidenced by the success of Shantaram. But in this book the construct slides across the pages, delving into the dark souls of the gangs, rather like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, then rising to quasi-philosophical heights, Idriss atop his mountain holding court with Lin and Karla in attendance.
The narrative relies heavily on dialogue between the characters to move the story forward – perhaps 70% of the book, at a guess, is speech, which actually can be quite a labour to read – and tedious. It is also punctuated by innumerable quotes and aphorisms that left me scratching my head: make what you will of “Fear is a wolf on a chain, only dangerous when you set it free” or “living alone as a freelancer in Bombay…is a cold river of truth” and “My happiness was a cheetah, running free in a savannah of solace” and “Happiness abhors a vacuum” to “Love and faith, like hope and justice, are constellations in the infinity of truth”. Oh, and “crime is feudal”, indeed; but you no doubt get the drift.
Ultimately there is a fair amount of drug use throughout the book, but the chemical rides are clearly much more entertaining and enthralling to the characters themselves than they are to the reader looking in. Shantaram was a tightly woven page turner. The Mountain Shadow is a loosely woven series of chapters (91 in all) that sadly freeloads on the success of the first novel.
It is apparently the second book in a trilogy, so here’s hoping that there is a return to form in book number 3.