all my heroes are weirdos

We're All Mad Here

Gregory David Roberts

A revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum security prison.

How can you not love somebody who went from being a crack-addict bank robber to the author of something so beautifully philosophical that every sentence could be considered poetry?

Today’s Monday Motivation comes in the form of Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram.

Fate gives all of us three teachers, three friends, three enemies, and three great loves in our lives. But these twelve are always disguised, and we can never know which one is which until we’ve loved them, left them, or fought them

His long flowing locks could get him auditioning for a L’Oréal advert, his speech is articulate and considered, and despite his obvious physical strength, he comes across as overly gentle. When he’s stood there on stage, suited and booted, you would not in a million years be able to guess the stories of his past.

One of the many incredible things about this man is that he’s a walking talking contradiction, and as such, his occupation listed on Wikipedia looks a little bit like this: armed robber, gun runner, fugitive, novelist, charity organiser and screenplay writer.

Roberts was working as a publisher in Melbourne when his marriage broke down and he lost the custody of his daughter – a series of events which led him down a dark path and he began taking heroin. To fund his new-found addiction, he turned to robbing banks, although was admittedly the worst criminal to have ever existed. In local newspapers he was dubbed The Gentleman Bandit for being the most well-dressed and polite bank robber anybody had ever encountered.

No matter how polite he was, his new occupation ended up getting him locked behind bars in a high security prison, and his escape from that prison is where Shantaram was born.

It’s a story that begins with a woman, and a city and a little bit of luck.

If fate doesn’t make you laugh, you just don’t get the joke.

Shantaram immediately hit the number one spot for best book I’ve ever read and it will be seriously difficult to beat.

For almost a year, I spent every Sunday luxuriating in long, hot bubble baths, with wisps of nag champa incense dancing to Indian flute music in the flickering candlelight as I relished every sentence. It became a ritual that I didn’t want to relinquish, so much so that some chapters got a double read.

I was there, inside the book, living out every moment as if I were Lin Baba and I could feel the warmth of India’s heart as I turned every page. When I stepped out of the book, out of the bathtub and into reality, I used his words as a spiritual guide.

His opening paragraph grabs your attention with heart-wrenching suffering and unfathomable courage, and ends with a sentence that is closely linked to the teachings I’ve recently learnt from Buddhism.

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life

Roberts began writing Shantaram when he was put into solitary confinement for two years; two conviscated manuscripts, five years of writing and one year of editing later, his story was published. Although it’s closely based on his truth, he refers to it as a novel – but whatever it is, Shantaram has taught me everything I want to believe about the philosophy of Love.

Any Indian man will tell you that although love might not have been invented in India, it was certainly perfected there

I’ve always had a magnetic pull towards India and I’m forever telling people I was Indian in a former life. In the not too distant future I’ll hopefully make my pilgrimage, and that’s where I’ll read Shantaram for the second time, sat on Girgaum Chowpatty beach watching the sun go down over Mumbai.

It’s the nodding heads, the fact that they wash themselves with their under-under-pants on, the conspicuous corruption, the colours, the spices, the life. It’s that every man is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is music inside the body, and music is food inside the heart.

Although I’ve been chauffeured around places in India in the back of a blacked out jeep, feeling unjustly privileged and very uneasy, when I stepped outside to be with its people I felt like one of their neighbours in an instant.

There’s something different about the way they love each other over there; whether it’s family, friends or lovers, there’s just something different to what we know in the West, something maybe more pure and spiritual. They call strangers uncle and auntie, and I find it magic how they use one single word to create a sense of family, the strongest and most unbreakable love, with people they’ve never met before.

…That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace. They are not perfect, of course. They know how to fight and lie and cheat each other, and all the things that all of us do. But more than any other people in the world, the Indians know how to love one another

Shantaram casts a shadow of thought over all the grand topics of love; the love of friends, the love of neighbours, love for a mother, a father, a child and self. It talks of love for your virtues and your vices, love for food, travel, adventure, lust and earthly pleasures as well as spiritual ones. But there is one love in that book that is different to all the rest; Lin’s love for Karla.

He sees her with spellbound eyes of adoration, and he notices every single detail about her. He describes her ethereal goddessness with poetic words of desire and infatuation. He marvels at her wisdom and cherishes each word that passes her lips. He savours every glance of her piercing green eyes, every touch of her hand and every smile.

Lin’s love for Karla is how every woman wants to feel loved.

Shantaram has guided my thoughts on everything from love, to the universe, our moral codes, human nature, politics, business, relationships and community, to faith, pain, suffering and peace.

Gregory David Roberts’ words became my heroin, I became the polite thief stealing time from Sunday’s clock, pressing pause on reality and delving into this Indian dream. And now I’m on the run, fleeing my homeland and headed East, my armaments are inherited wisdom and a welcomed awakening; interested in everything and committed to nothing.

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6 Comments

  1. cabrogal 17 October 2018

    I’m looking at the remaining copy of Shantaram on my bookshelf as I type this. I was independently given three copies by friends and a relative within a few months of its release, for reasons obvious to those who know my history.

    I love the book and years after reading it still think back over parts of it often. Roberts is a fine writer and a great storyteller with a heck of a story to tell. A fair bit of Shantaram is fiction though and I think it was the A Million Little Pieces scandal that sunk the Shantaram movie. But whatever the facts of his torture accounts I think the insight Roberts offers into transcending such trauma is real and I can see why someone might embellish the details to try to communicate something like that.

    But overall I don’t think he’s a standout philosopher. His moral consequentialist aspiration to reverse the second law of thermodynamics is particularly incoherent. There’s a lot of much better stuff in the incredibly deep and broad philosophical tradition of the subcontinent.

    • allmyheroesareweirdos 18 October 2018 — Post author

      I guess that’s the beauty of a book – everybody takes something uniquely different from it.
      There are certain books I’ve read three, four or five times over at very different stages of my life that I see from different perspectives and take something different from each time. The fact Shantaram was recommended to you by several people, gave you some insight on transcending trauma and you still sometimes reflect on its words, must mean that even if you don’t see it as I do, it was at least also a significant text for you.
      When I say philosopher, I’m talking less rational theories and more the Ancient Greek meaning “lover of wisdom”. I think Roberts is wise; whether his wisdom comes from these experiences or his mind, or a combination of both is irrelevant. He’s wise enough to conjure up an incredibly eloquent and captivating story that teaches or at least provokes thought on a broad range of deep and interesting topics.
      He also shows great appreciation for the wisdom in others in his story, particularly Karla and Khaderbai – which in itself is a great lesson for its readers.
      Also, if you look beyond the words and beyond the paper pages, his melange of what’s generally accepted as fact and fiction may actually be closer to truth than many of us know.
      And finally, I understand what you’re s aying about the second law of thermodynamics (albeit after a quick Google) but I’m not quite sure which part you’re referring to in particular, if any?

      • cabrogal 18 October 2018

        Well, if you mean some of Roberts’ writing might be ‘truer than facts’ in a mythological kind of way I can agree with that. But I don’t think it takes specialist knowledge to see that a lot of his action scenes – including pretty much the entire Afghanistan narrative – owe more to Hollywood/Bollywood than anything likely to have happened in real life. His ‘tied to the bed’ heroin withdrawal account, for example, is straight out of 1960s drug exploitation flicks with no similarity to the real challenges (or tedium) of breaking a smack (not crack) addiction. This is strange as I have no doubt Roberts is intimately familiar with the reality of dealing with heroin addiction and I can only conclude he judged it too boring to write about factually.

        I was also in India for much of the time Roberts was – though only a for a few months in the parts of Bombay/Mumbai that are the main setting of the book – and had a fair bit of not-always-courteous interaction with Indian police. Though torture of Indians in police cells is SOP there are several things in Roberts’ account that don’t ring true to me.

        And finally, I understand what you’re s aying about the second law of thermodynamics (albeit after a quick Google) but I’m not quite sure which part you’re referring to in particular, if any?

        Around 3/4 of the way in Roberts lays out a consequentialist moral code – which he attributes to Khaderbai – in which the right or wrong of an action is judged by whether it results in a net increase or decrease of the overall order of the universe. But Sir Isaac assures us that every action results inescapably in a net decrease in universal order – so Roberts’ moral system is on a hiding to nowhere. More serious are the well recognised shortcomings of consequentialist systems in judging or justifying moral actions. The explanations are a bit long-winded but if you’re interested and would rather not research it yourself I’ll give it a shot.

      • allmyheroesareweirdos 18 October 2018 — Post author

        I agree, he did lose my attention slightly during the Afghanistan narrative and I guess in my short blog post about it all, that’s something I failed to address because the post was about how I deem him to be one of my Heroes.

        Interesting take on his pieces on heroin – I personally am unable to make any judgement on that but I’d love to hear how he’d respond to your comments. Maybe it was deemed too boring to write about factually, or maybe unnecessary, maybe there’s a deeper meaning in how he expresses it or maybe he’s using this story as a metaphoric representation of something completely unrelated.

        I’m still not with you on the moral code topic, but that’s due to my own lack of understanding on the topic. Although you have given me homework (which I love). I’ve actually got a copy of the book here with in Thailand so I’ll dig that out and re-read this part to formulate my own ideas around it all. Once I’ve done that I’ll give you a shout as I’d like to hear more of your thoughts! 

      • cabrogal 18 October 2018

        I’ve actually got a copy of the book here with in Thailand

        Where ya at?
        I spent a bit of time in Thailand too, back in the day. Fortunately not as much of it in police stations as in India.

      • allmyheroesareweirdos 18 October 2018 — Post author

        It took a one-way flight to Chiang Mai last week to start some volunteering but have decided to stick around for the forseeable!

        p.s. thanks for today’s blog inspiration – https://allmyheroesareweirdos.com/war-of-the-words/

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