Central & South Asia

“Shantaram:” A Tale of Two Evils

Less refined writers, rather than seeing a deep moral symbiosis between poverty and crime, find poverty culpable for crime.
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Mumbai, India, 3/10/2015 © knyazevfoto / Shutterstock

August 15, 2020 05:03 EDT

The trouble with “Shantaram,” the 2003 best-selling novel by Australian author David Gregory Roberts, is that it makes you wonder if it really is fiction. Paradoxically, too much credulity makes us incredulous. “Shantaram,” too incisive for non-fiction and too believable for fiction, is an insightful account of Mumbai’s criminal scene by an Australian fugitive on the run.

After being robbed of his money, the story’s protagonist, Lin Baba, moved to Mumbai’s slums where he opened a medical center and treated the slum dwellers for free. Impressed by Lin’s charitable medical work undertaken at personal risk, particularly during the cholera epidemic, the unusually erudite and fiercely theistic mafia don, Khader Khan, offers him a job in his company. Importantly, it wasn’t Lin’s toughness that impressed the Khan but his love for the poor and destitute, his integrity and benevolence.

Poverty and Crime

The juxtaposition of poverty and crime isn’t a novel trope, but Roberts doesn’t make an idle, first-order connection between the two, which is so tempting for less refined writers who, rather than seeing a deep moral symbiosis between poverty and crime, find poverty culpable for crime. Lin’s resume, which could have fetched him a job with an NGO or a place in medical school, endeared him to the Khan, who felt morally responsible for the well-being of the slum dwellers. The don’s moral confidence grew by helping the poor.

The mafia filled a void that should have been filled by the state. The slum dwellers revered the Khan and trusted Mumbai’s mafia more than Mumbai’s police. For Khan, slums were a moral sanctuary where he could play Robin Hood, even as he continued enriching his coffers by breaking the entire spectrum of law. Without the subjacent poverty, he might have become morally bankrupt and, quite possibly, financially, too.

Shantaram” is set in the 1980s, when the Berlin Wall still stood, before Narasimha Rao’s famed deregulation softened the markets, and when Indian roads were full of homegrown Neanderthal Ambassadors cruising over potholes and petite Marutis gently avoiding them. The mafia peddled in stuff Indians can now buy from the supermarket. Crime had bucolic innocence and a touch of scholarly refinement. Recall the films from that era — “Don,” “Deewar,” “Do Aur Do Paanch” — in which Amitabh Bachchan fought comically evil pantomime villains who contrived to let him prevail.

Mumbai’s first mafia don, Haji Mastan, had a strong moral fiber and, like Khader Khan, was revered by the poor. He refused to patronize narcotics or prostitution. In those days, gentlemanly gangsters like Mastan and the charming “Jewel Thief,” played clever cat-and-mouse games with the police. Thanks to socialist India’s abundant red tape, plenty of harmless things were illegal to play with. “Shantaram’s” mafia dealt with document forgery, foreign currency — at the time, Indians could buy only limited amounts of international currency — and luxury goods such as Walkmans and watches upon which customs would slap taxes several times higher than their actual price.

Dissidents fleeing dictatorships flocked to Mumbai for fake passports and false identities. Mumbai’s mafia upheld the Geneva Convention for asylum seekers. Crime was the sigh of an unrequited market. Mumbai was the center of global unmet need.

The Lesser of Two Evils

As India liberalized, Walkmans and Breitling watches were no longer illegal. The mafia, still needing illegal things to trade, turned to narcotics and guns. Mastan, a pragmatic gangster, divided Mumbai into zones so that gangs didn’t fight against each other. Dawood Ibrahim, who replaced the principled Mastan as Mumbai’s top criminal don, scaled the violence industrially. Crime, no longer an art, became more scientific and precise. Mumbai transformed from the city of forgery to the city of carnage. The new order was more corrupt and, in hindsight, Haji Mastan was the lesser of two evils.  

To understand India, you must stop feeling sorry for her. Lin Baba, later christened “Shantaram” by a Marathi family, was quickly dispelled of the “lacerating guilt” of his better fortunes he felt when he first saw the slums. Once, he was in a taxi that rammed another car, killing its passenger. His guide, immediately recognizing the seriousness of their predicament, pulled Lin out of the car to escape the mob that gathered from nowhere with a spontaneous rage that arose from nowhere to beat the reckless driver to death. Twitter mobs, as annoying as they can be, are the lesser of two evils.

Helpless to help the hapless driver, Lin was outraged at the mob but still reserved his judgment on Indians. He realized that once a single life loses value, like devalued currency, implicit in the reckless driving, more lives lose value. In India, Newton’s third law — every action has an equal and opposite reaction — eventually comes to fruition. When the rule of law is capricious, mobs deliver justice. Mobs fulfill an unmet need. To understand India, you must understand her unmet needs.

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India affects a foreigner’s affect that is caged in Schrodinger’s dual state of empathy and indignation. Lin was viscerally nauseated when he first saw child labor. But he realized that the child’s plight could have been far worse. The child had a roof above his head and three square meals a day. The child could have been sleeping on the streets, exposed to the monsoons, and eating from dumpsters. Child labor was the lesser of two evils.

It’s easy to get indignant with India, and there’s much to get indignant about. I once got on my high horse about the organ trade, lecturing a few Indian doctors about the moral superiority of Western physicians. I was viscerally offended by the thought of a poor man selling his kidney to pay for his sister’s dowry. Recognizing evil is easy, but it takes a higher intellect to know when an evil is the lesser of two evils. A poor man may be better off without a kidney but with a married sister than with both kidneys and an unmarried sister. The organ trade, as evil as it is, is the lesser of two evils.

Like Rudyard Kipling, Roberts views India from 29,000 feet, and also from the ground — the Leopold Café, where much of the story is set, is where networks intersect, where gangsters, police, tourists, journalists and Mumbai’s aspiring divas, separated by whispers, rub shoulders. Like the protagonist, Roberts fled to Mumbai’s slums and worked for the mafia. “Shantaram” isn’t a good-versus-evil parable but a nuanced tale of lesser of two evils. The arc of the moral universe doesn’t necessarily bend toward justice, but toward the progressively lesser of two evils. Roberts narrates Mumbai’s wobbly arc masterfully.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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