On April 17, CBS’ 60 Minutes ran a blistering exposé of Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, and its corresponding charity the Central Asia Institute. (Scroll down to watch the exposé.)
A thorough investigation found that more than one of Mortenson’s inspirational tales about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, primarily to educate girls, were exaggerations or outright fabrication.
Over 4 million readers purchased Three Cups of Tea and countless charitable souls (including many children in the Pennies for Peace program) contributed millions toward Mortenson’s cause, which unfortunately was more graft than humanitarianism.
The 1,000-page novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts provides an eerily similar ego trip. Both books are written by the slyest of white male hustlers, seducers who take advantage of their reader’s quest to find a beautiful spirit in the world.
The seduction of Shantaram begins with the back cover biography of Gregory David Roberts: “Sentenced to nineteen years in prison for a series of armed robberies, he escaped and spent ten of his fugitive years in Bombay--where he established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers, and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner, and street soldier for the Bombay mafia.”
This enticing resume forms the fictional plot of Shantaram, yet Roberts’ true character is revealed between the lines. The author’s photograph on the back cover gives a hint of what the text subtly exposes: Roberts gazes with eyes like a Rasputin-inspired hypnotist.
The events of Shantaram took place in the 1980s; the book was crafted in the 1990s (when Roberts was arrested and returned to jail) and published in the 2000s. Roberts’ writes very well, with a great pace to his story, a lightning read for a thick tome.
The city of Mumbai is the star of the book. The characters, neighborhoods, and motivations that surround the central fugitive character, Lin (aka David Roberts), are drawn with insight and genuine detail.
As honestly as Lin narrates the life around him, he is doubly dishonest about his own persona. The subtlest of spin transforms Lin from a selfish drug user/dealer, armed robber, bully, hustler and materialist, into the perception of a sensitive humanitarian, all under the banner of “fiction.” This is the most insidious form of egomania.
Propaganda of David Gregory Roberts is the only fiction of the story.
The title of “Shantaram,” or “blessed man of peace,” is bestowed upon Lin during a long visit to his close friend Probaker’s Maharashtrian village. In the prisons of Australia and India, Lin stabs men and brutally beats them, yet they never die. Lin’s Mumbai mafia cohorts kill people frequently in the name of business and honor, yet Lin is mysteriously exempt from any murders. When Lin joins the holy war in Afghanistan, he never mentions that he is fighting for the Taliban. Like Greg Mortenson’s myths of Afghan village convalescence and Taliban abduction, something does not add up amidst the flow of euphemism.
Lin seemingly develops a very close friendship with a man named Probaker while visiting his village, working as a pseudo-doctor in the Mumbai slum, and exploring the city together. Yet Lin suddenly drops Probaker’s friendship and an ascetic life for the “honor” and money of the mafia, although he repeatedly repudiates any materialist desires. Lin cites Arthur Road prison trauma rather than pure selfishness for the change of heart. When the abandoned Probaker later dies from car accident injuries, Lin is cocky enough to blame himself, assert God-like control of fate: “If I had not given him the gift of a taxi, he might still be alive.”
Throughout the tale, Lin repeatedly refuses prostitution. Yet the central female characters, Karla and Lisa--young, vivacious, adventurous, deeply admiring of Lin--are drawn one-dimensionally, in sexual terms. Like all Don Juans, Lin’s ego demands conquest in physical terms, overshadowing Karla and Lisa’s humanity.
Like Mortenson, Roberts lathers his own attractiveness with more exaggerations: Lin saves the lives of numerous heroin addicts; Lin solves all acquaintances’ problems in the expatriate bar and the Mumbai slum; Lin smuggles a bear out of the shantytown; Lin never fails.
But even Roberts’ real-life prison sentence does not add up honorably: He was sentenced for nineteen years for armed robbery in Australia and served two. He was arrested again for drug smuggling in Germany, negotiated extradition to Australia, and only served six more years. He is now a free man living in Malibu, California, thanks to Johnny Depp’s two million dollar movie option for Shantaram.
At every step of life and written page, Roberts’ hustle is on. Enjoy the Mumbai insight of Shantaram, yet beware of the insidious seduction.
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com).
WATCH the 60 Minutes exposé of Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea: