Devoted fans have been awaiting the sequel to Gregory David Roberts's cult classic Shantaram for twelve years. A bestselling book in Australia and overseas, Shantaram centres on Lin, an escaped Australian criminal who becomes a Bombay gangster. Loosely based on the author's own life, Shantaram encouraged an intriguing frisson between the writer and his protagonist.
At the beginning of The Mountain Shadow, Lin has returned to Bombay after undertaking a dangerous mission in Goa. He resumes his underworld activities as part of his Afghan 'father' Khader's mafia company, but soon becomes disenchanted. The title refers to the mountain that Lin must ascend to find Idriss, another wise mentor figure. On the way to meet Idriss, Lin comes across a 'fake' holy man who is making a fortune by preying on his students' insecurities. Although Lin is aware of the possibilities for fraudulence, he is seduced by the teachings of Idriss, propelling him toward a better existence.
The 'Australian convict', as his arch-enemy Concannon calls him, has developed a deep affinity with Indian culture, whereas other expats like the Irish Concannon refuse to 'go native'. Concannon exclaims: 'These people like you. They don't like me. And I don't want them to. I don't want to eat their food. I hate their bloody food. I don't want to watch their movies ... But you do. You understand them.'
In his essay 'A Foot in the Stream', David Malouf reflects on the 'dense, shifting economy' of India, 'that passage of coins, goods, services from hand to hand that keeps a whole subcontinent honourably alive and moving from one day to the next'. At its best, The Mountain Shadow gives us a sense of what it might be like to inhabit the 'island city', an urban landscape teeming with entrepreneurs from shoeshine boys to billionaires.
'Bombay is a city of words. Everyone talks, everywhere, and all the time,' Lin observes. Words are the connective tissue that keeps everything going amid apparent chaos. As in Shantaram, the details of everyday life in The Mountain Shadow are especially compelling, as when Lin describes a slum area he used to inhabit: 'gleaming towers of pots and pans, garlanded images of gods, and smooth, highly polished earthen floors glimpsed their way through low doorways, attesting to the neat, ordered lives that persisted within.' Yet the representation of slum-dwellers as uniformly hard-working and kind is problematic in its simplicity.
The Mountain Shadow is an unashamedly testosterone-fuelled narrative. Lin admits that he has spent most of his life in exclusively male societies – prisons, gangs, and boxing gyms. He feels most comfortable in this 'simple' world in which you only need 'one key to every locked heart: confidence'. The implication is that the world of women is more confronting because they are 'witchy' in their uncanny intuition. Lin never really fathoms his two girlfriends, Lisa and Karla, who are always tantalisingly opaque. As in Shantaram, Karla inspires the most florid excess: 'her hips the sea, her eyes the flute, her hands the cobra. Karla.'
'The Mountain Shadow is an unashamedly testosterone-fuelled narrative'
In Shantaram, the protagonist demonstrates a talent for storytelling, but does not 'come out' as a writer. In the sequel, Lin discusses his short story writing, adding a meta-textual dimension. He is inspired to write stories 'built around' his friend Abdullah: 'There were eagles of narrative in him, each tale a winged contradiction.' He later discovers that it is bad luck to write about the living, but it is already too late to avert disaster. This story within a story draws our attention to the construction of the novel we are reading.
In the later part of the book, coincidences, signs, and symbols proliferate to the point where they become almost ludicrous. After a fatal knife fight, Lin finds a yantra, or upside down triangle, inscribed in blood on his chest; the same symbol happens to be on a card recently given to him by a penitent holy man. This makes Lin feel as if his heart is 'breaking on a wheel of coincidence', causing him to ask the question: 'What do you want from me, India?'
As an author, Roberts seems very concerned with his power to influence people. He includes a 'proclaimer' which states that authenticity demands that his characters drink smoke and take drugs, but that he doesn't endorse these things or encourage crime and violence. Ironically, it is the substance abuse, underworld intrigue, and gang violence that give the book its edge. Once these elements have dissipated, there is less dramatic tension. The plot seems hampered by the overly long passages about spirituality, most notably the debate between Idriss and the sages, which goes on for eleven pages.
'Roberts seems very concerned with his power to influence people'
Roberts has created a varied and colourful cast of characters who are intricately interconnected throughout the novel. Rannveig and Vinson, a couple whom Lin introduced to each other, open a café called Love & Faith and invite many of the other characters to the grand opening. They give away free T-shirts featuring quotes from Idriss such as 'A heart filled with greed, pride or hurtful feelings is not free.' Lin ought to be disturbed by the commodification of his mentor's words; instead, he observes that 'teachers, like writers, never die while people still quote them'. The Mountain Shadow is full of quotable spiritual phrases – no doubt meant sincerely to move people – but they can have a jarring effect, leaving the reader feeling preached to, rather than converted.