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Shantaram was a phenomenon by any publishing standard. The secret of its success—it has reportedly sold four million copies—was a Janus USP. Westerners breathlessly consumed the experiences of an Australian escaped convict holing out in the underbelly of Mumbai, living in a slum as an amateur doctor and then as a passport forger for a mafia gang. On the 900-odd page way, he meets stereotypically uber-weird characters, certifiable maniacs who speak in Kahlil Gibranesque aphorisms, Caucasian expats who have found their last port of call at Leopold’s Café, and a woman he loves but who strings him along with a lethally addictive strategy involving betrayal, secrets and sadistic catch-me-if-you-can gaming.

Indians loved the book because this was an authentic Australian jailbird who had thrived among the low life in Bombay, ridden a powerful motorbike through its mean streets, shat in holes in the ground, got pounded to pulp by corrupt policemen, descended to the underworld and lived to tell the tale. Gregory David Roberts was a hero to both browns and whites. The prose was purple enough to embarrass best-selling gurus, but the characters were larger-than-life fascinating.

Roberts returns now with a mountain of a book. Lin (or Shantaram) is back in Bombay, motorbike intact, living with Lisa, whom he loves but doesn’t really (the feeling is reciprocated), pining for his one true love, Karla, who is now married to shady media tycoon Ranjit. The equations in the Bombay underworld have also changed—the big boss is dead, his place taken by a, well, not up-to-the-mark fellow, while the departed boss’ 14-year-old son waits to kill him and take over. The south Bombay crime world is in flux, with other gangs smelling blood, literally. And all of them hate Lin.

Meanwhile, all sorts of loser expats are in all sorts of trouble—one has got an unexpected and gigantic inheritance and has been cursed by a Hindu holy man; there’s an Irish thug who wants to use Lin as bait to kill Lin’s Iranian blood brother Abdullah; Lisa, unknown to Lin, is sleeping with any human being of any gender; Karla is not sleeping with Lin even though she is living in the hotel room next to his and he is paying her rent; and several underworld dons have retired and become spiritual gurus with their own hilltop ashrams.

The Mountain Shadow is a fine thriller with that true touch of locale and atmosphere that makes the tale and the reading experience special—just visualizing the sounds and lights and by-lanes is thrilling. It has multiple subplots and almost all of them have a happy ending. At the end of the 880 pages of words, words, words, the reader will probably feel satisfied. All the good guys are happy, the bad guys are either dead or have turned legit, and the few tragedies are par for the course. People die and Lin mourns in his own way. But if only Lin wasn’t such a saint.

This is the problem. Skim those pages, rapidly, and you will get a fine thriller, even a very feminist love story. Read it sincerely, and you will find a man trying so hard to be, if not the Buddha, at least a rock ‘n’ roll Jesus figure, that it is irritating. Open the book randomly, and you will find a Paulo Coelho with a snub-nosed automatic… Page 593: “Sin is disconnectedness, and nothing disconnects us from one another more completely than the great sin, war." Page 509: “His pages settled on mine and mine jammed his, and the wind wrote crime as love, and love as crime, as I slept." And the last lines of the novel: “But the wonder in the child is the wonder in us, and there’s no limit to the good we can do when human hearts connect. It’s the truth of us. It’s the story of us. It’s the meaning of the word God: we are one. We are one. We are one."

A jailbird troubled by B-grade questions about life and the universe found India—in a very limited sense—in south and central Bombay. Then he found spirituality, with two knives hidden up the back of his shirt. And then he asks: What do you want from me, India? Mr Roberts, India doesn’t want anything from you. Write books, make money, get stoned, babble about nirvana, love the debauched expat life. India accepts you. We are not one, but we are us.

Sandipan Deb is editorial director of Swarajyamag.com.

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