In the long shadow of an Indian epic: The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts

‘Shantaram’ was a thrilling page-turner. This sequel badly disappoints

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The Independent Culture

“Teachers, like writers, never die while people still quote them.” These words appear near the beginning and then again at the end of Gregory David Roberts’ enormous sequel to his cult classic, Shantaram (2003). And with its mixed metaphors, unfortunate aphorisms, trite philosophies, and prose so ornate that it makes the 920-page Shantaram appear positively understated, a misplaced desire to produce quotable quotes appears to be the primary preoccupation of The Mountain Shadow.

Like its predecessor, this mountain of a book follows the exploits of the tough but kind-hearted ex-convict Lin, who has escaped from Australia to the underworld of Bombay [Mumbai]. The novel starts as Lin is returning to this beloved city after a stint in Goa. He resumes his job as passport forger for the Bombay mafia, when a message from mafia boss, Khaderbhai, takes him on an unexpected expedition. A series of chance encounters, mysterious deaths and unexpected turns catapult the reader from one dizzying scene to the next, each one introducing a host of clichéd characters, brought together to enable the uncovering of an obscure philosophy of life.  In the backdrop is Lin’s love interest, Karla, who remains, for most of the novel, just out of his grasp. 

So to the quotable quotes: “My happiness was a cheetah, running free in a savannah of solace, and pain ran away, afraid of love,” proclaims Lin, in a bizarre over-reaction of delight when he sees his friends soon after the death of a loved one. The wordplay is no clever ploy to add dimension to the protagonist – practically all the characters break out into this overblown lyricism time and again: “detest is the doormat,” Karla says of her nemesis, “what I feel for that woman is a mansion of malice.” And a bartender the couple meet at a hotel states that “most of the time, I prune the conversation tree. It’s all bonsai. It’s all punchlines now”. 

Shantaram, for all the faults – its exoticised, often-patronising gaze of India; its romanticised notion of the poor; its improbable storylines – was a thrill to read, a page-turner, full of vivid characters and rare insight into Bombay’s underworld of gangsters, smugglers, and pimps, as well as of life in the slums. In Lin – a bewildered and lost Western man – foreign readers found the ideal central character to guide them through this world. We followed Lin when he stepped off that plane into Bombay, encountered the well-meaning but overly comical tour guide, Prabaker, lost his money, moved into the slums, and fell into the life of a gangster. 

In The Mountain Shadow, however, the man we meet is a navel-gazing writer who has already done the legwork. The journey we go through is ludicrous, cheesy – a large portion consisting of a sage on a mountain-top expounding long lectures on the meaning of life. Meanwhile, the characters are flattened out, removed of the insecurities and the back-stories that made them engaging in the first place. Even die-hard advocates of Shantaram may find this novel hard-going. Another reason for Shantaram’s success was the link between the life of the writer and that of his protagonist. The fact that Roberts himself was an escaped convict who had made the slums of Bombay his home for at least some time was capitalised upon in the marketing of the book. The author himself, while maintaining that Shantaram was fictional, encouraged the association by taking journalists on tours of the slums in which he lived, and offering press photos that showed off his rugged appearance and his penchant for motorcycles. Later, he admitted that the colourful characters in the novel did not actually exist. The Mountain Shadow doesn’t seem to be adopting the same tactics as its predecessor, declaring curtly on its back jacket that the author retired from public life in 2014. 

Nonetheless, commonalities between writer and protagonist are clear when it comes to the sentimentalised view of the Indian poor. Lin, when handed a towel by an ingratiating restroom attendant, muses: “One of the great mysteries of India, and the greatest of all its joys, is the tender warmth of the lowest paid.” We find this cringe-inducing wonderment in the writer’s own words too, when in an interview with ABC News Australia, he is quoted as saying of his convict days: “I’d been in gang wars in prison, I’d had to stab men ...and I had a body language which said that... But in this [Indian] village they didn’t read it. They only read my heart. ” 

This idea of the earnest native permeates through Roberts’ novels, overlooking the effects of his own position as an English-speaking white man of privilege in India. The servile kindness that is less likely a product of some kind of “Indian purity” than a response to him; the comical language spoken by the Indian characters that loses nuance not due to its innate simplicity but to things lost in translation; the favours and concessions granted to both Lin and Roberts in Bombay; the sense of entitlement of the writer himself, to believe himself capable of representing an Indian city – all of this goes unnoted. 

And then, there are the women. “Women,” Lin explains to his friend Johnny, “have a psychic witchy spooky talking-to-the-dead way of knowing everything you think.” The women in Roberts’ novel are temptresses and witches. Above all, they are objects of lust or affection. There is the elusive Karla, whose fleeting appearances are frequently accompanied by homages to her arresting green eyes. Other female characters include the rich socialite Divya, who prefers to go by the name Diva; the wily seductress and expert contortionist “Half-moon Auntie” (because a moon is tattooed onto each of her breasts); and an armed, angry, “chunky” woman who goes by the name Blue Hijab. 

These women are depicted as strong, brash and active but in stereotypical ways and for the pleasure of the male gaze. For instance, Lin is delighted when he sees Karla and Blue Hijab interact, saying he is glad “to see two wild, strong-minded women meet”, and during this meeting, the women exchange make-up and nail polish, and poison-infused darts that double as hair pins and that overcome “the disadvantage of high heels”. Shantaram and The Mountain Shadow are part of a trilogy, the third of which is believed to be first in chronological order, exploring Roberts’ time in Australia and his days as a convict and heroin addict. My fingers are crossed for a work more honest and straightforward, nuanced and humane.