“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 realized, 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 have got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”– Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
While I have always had an affinity for India, reading the book Shantaram engulfed me in an entirely new experience of life there from a westerner’s perspective. As background, this novel depicts a tale based on the life of the author Gregory David Roberts, Australia’s ‘most wanted man’ in the 1980’s after he escaped from prison and found refuge in the bustling streets of Bombay (now known officially as Mumbai, but I will refer to it by both names in this post), before settling to live in the slums under the name Linbaba and joining the mafia. While the book is contested among many Indians as to what is actually true in the story and what is fiction (the author certainly took his creative liberties in his account of true events), a general consensus is that such vivid depictions of a tumultuous life in Bombay cannot simply be from one’s imagination but from experience. As it turns out, much of it is, in fact, true.
When I learned I had a short business trip to Mumbai in early February, my mind immediately went to Shantaram and whether there were any tours of the places from the book. And after some research, reading reviews and talking with other tourists on TripAdvisor, I found the Original Shantaram Tour, led by the brother of one of Shantaram’s most beloved protagonists, Prabhakar Khare, or Prabu, as he’s affectionately called in the novel. While Prabu died tragically many decades ago, his brother Kishore is still very much alive and leads tourists daily through the places in the book right in his own backyard, where he shares his insights on what actually occurred versus what Roberts wrote in the book.
After I made certain this tour wasn’t a scam or a copycat operator, I found myself heading in an Uber, driving from the Bandra Kurla Complex of Mumbai just hours after I had landed from Texas, heading to the seaside peninsular neighborhood of Colaba, where I would meet Kishore and begin the tour of Shantaram.
The barebones: the tour began at 10:00 am and lasted 4-5 hours, as Mumbai’s unpredictable traffic can jam up at any given moment. The cost was 50 USD or 3,500 rupees. Kishore has a small van that can transport about 5-6 people (probably more, as this is India, and they tend to make the impossible work!). If Kishore is not available, his son Kumar does the tour. Taking an Uber is quite affordable, as I came from the BKC business district, and the cost one way was about 280 rupees in the morning. If you’re already staying in Colaba, Fort or Nariman Point, even better, as the meeting point is just outside of the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel opposite the grand Gateway of India monument. Kishore speaks very good English, he is very friendly and answers any questions you might have.
As soon as I met Kishore, I felt like I had known him all my life. He was just as I pictured, beaming with a proud and friendly smile. The tour is a mix of riding around in Kishare’s vintage van and walking – you drive past places like Leopold Cafe where so many scenes took place, the India Guest House where Lin first makes his arrival in Bombay, and then you stop at the Sassoon docks, one of Mumbai’s oldest docks where you’ll learn a bit about the illegal drug smuggling in the area.
Next you head to the impressive Dhobi Ghat, which is the world’s largest open air laundry. Indeed there nearly half a million sheets, clothes and other items being laundered and pressed daily, while somehow staying remarkably well organized by a number tagging system. It’s a very neat sight indeed, and I made a personal note to never complain about doing my own laundry after seeing the magnitude of this place and its laborious working parts.
And what’s probably the coolest part of the tour, getting to walk through the Babasaheb ambedkar slum, or zopadpati, where Linbaba lived for several years with Prabhakar (fun fact: Madonna visited this slum after reading the book). Now Indian slums are not for the faint of heart. Although this was not my first time in India, I was still taken back by the extreme poverty, building and expanding before my eyes formidably. The sight hurt my heart, just as it strangely warmed it. Perhaps who other to describe it best than Roberts in this excerpt of Shantaram:
“And then, last, what should’ve been first, I saw how beautiful they were: the women wrapped in crimson, blue, and gold; the women walking barefoot through the tangled shabbiness of the slum with patient, ethereal grace; the white-toothed, almond-eyed handsomeness of the men; and the affectionate camaraderie of the fine-limbed children, older ones playing with younger ones, many of them supporting baby brothers and sisters on their slender hips. And half an hour after the bus ride began, I smiled for the first time.”Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
Indeed I did meet grinning, curious locals who smiled and wagged their heads in the charming Indian side-to-side manner – and I wagged my head in return, garnering even wider grins from around me. You also see the former huts where Lin, Prabhakar, Kishore and Johnny Cigar lived (I even get to briefly meet Johnny Cigar’s brother and see Joseph, the drunk who beat his wife and was later depicted as a redeemed member of the slum). The characters from the book are all real, and although most are dead now, to feel it brought to life and to walk their steps is truly extraordinary. Just ask Kishore about the beautiful and mysterious Karla, the french drunk Didier, the mafia lord Abdel Khader Khan, the prostitute Ulla, slum leader Qasim Ali Hussein, and he’ll tell you his account of them.
Since I’m Russian and speak the language, Kishore introduced me to a young doctor in the slum, Dr. Virendra Koli, who studied medicine in Russia and came back to open up a clinic to service members of the slum community where he grew up. This was such a treat, and hearing his story in fluent Russian was very impressive. He could have gotten a great, well-paying job as a doctor in Mumbai, but he chose to return to the slum and help people there. Folks like Dr. Koli are inspirational and a reminder of the goodness in humanity.
We had a nice cup of chai atop the slums in a breezy cafe overlooking a beach, the same beach where Prabhakar humorously refers to using the bathroom as ‘making motions in the oceans’. And yes, the shoreline was completely littered, without so much as a grain of sand to signify it ever being a beach. Unfortunately, the culmination of population and poverty will ultimately lead to pollution if the municipality does not intervene.
Note: While Kishore does not force this, there are times in the tour where it’s customary to tip a couple hundred rupees to the locals you visit, for instance to the clinic I went to and the chai shop. I didn’t mind, but I wish I had brought more cash with me in smaller bills. Just helpful to keep in mind!
When we left the slum, we stopped briefly at the former Victoria Terminus, the railway station and UNESCO Heritage Site, for a quick photo, then expertly made our way through typical Mumbai traffic. We drove past Madam Zhou’s former brothel, where Lin and Karla helped get Lisa out. It’s all in ruins, burned down – but I learned nearby brothels are still booming with business and run by thugs. In fact, the street called Fawkland Lane was formerly called Fuck Lane, which makes sense, as the street is wrought with prostitution, porn and human trafficking. It’s a dark reality of an overpopulated city full of corruption and broken dreams.
We also drove by Arthur Road, the cruel prison Lin served several months in, where he was tortured and beat brutally. This prison to this day is extremely overcrowded, and it’s such a harsh place, criminals who serve time there come out and never come back – I guess they truly are reformed after that experience!
We passed by the Thieve’s Market where stolen items are sold, the Muslim Quarter where much of the drug trade is handled (hard drugs come from Afghanistan and Africa), and you get a general sense of the controlled chaos that is Mumbai traffic, moving to a harmonious rhythm of cars, bikes and pedestrians. You pass by the docks where many junkies hang out, looking for tourists to star in Bollywood films as extras – they are rewarded by the production companies in small bits of heroin to feed their addictions. As you may recall, Lin was a hardcore heroin addict, and he partook in the Bollywood business by enlisting local junkies to target tourists.
As the tour came to a close, I joined Kishore for a quick beer and delicious garlic cheese naan break in a local café called Canara Lunch Home & Bar. He is so chatty, so open, always smiling – and while I had exhausted my stream of fanatic questions about the book, he was more than happy to indulge me. While Kishore moved out of the slum some time ago, he comes back every day, bringing the Shantaram book to life for fans, and getting to do so in his old home, where everybody knows his name. He still gives back to the community, to people in real need – and he warned me of the fake beggars that target tourists and are actually part of a larger scheme.
As the jet lag fog finally took over, I realized this was an incredibly worthwhile and lucky experience, not to mention a unique way to see parts of Mumbai off the beaten track. My heart was full, and I knew that the next time I’d read Shantaram, the experience would be completely different. Oh, and if you’re wondering about Linbaba, aka Roberts himself, it seems he’s back in Mumbai after serving out his full prison sentence in Australia and Europe. While I didn’t get to see him, maybe you will one day in the bustling streets of Mumbai!
“That’s how we keep this crazy place together – with the heart…. India is the heart. It’s the heart that keeps us together. There’s no place with people, like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart.”Gregory David Roberts,Shantaram
If you come to Mumbai, be sure to do this tour – even if you haven’t read the book, it’s such a cool experience. And if you have any apprehension about going alone as a woman, I can say that you’ll be in the best hands and as safe as I felt if you go with Kishore. Feel free to ask me any questions or share your experiences on this tour!
The best way to reach Kishore Khare of the Original Shantaram Tour is through Whatsapp +91 91461 12289 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.