By Suma Varughese December 2005 Gregory Roberts, author of Shantaram, was a poet and writer who became a criminal, fugitive and Mumbai gangster before he found redemption. Here he talks about his philosophy and the turning points in his life. The author of the celebrated book, Shantaram, is a man as much of contrasting appearances, as of nature. Long, almost feminine, blond hair streams down to his waist. His imposingly high forehead cranes over a pair of gentle blue eyes. Yet the body is thickset and burly and the jawline is pure steel. Not surprising for a poet and writer who also happened to be a criminal and gangster in the Mumbai mafia. The life that Gregory David Roberts has led and which has been faithfully documented in Shantaram, is so extraordinary that one can only believe that the Absolute must have some far-reaching plans to have created it. Consider this: Roberts was a respectable poet and writer until the time when he lost his daughter in a custody case. The anguish of the loss sent him into heroin addiction, to support which he became an armed robber. Finally, indicted and condemned to a high-security jail, he made a sensational escape, and came to India as a fugitive. Here, he spent many months in a slum, using his rudimentary knowledge of medicine to treat some 25,000 people of numerous afflictions. He was also tortured in Arthur Road jail, and became a gangster with a Mafia overlord, in the course of which he went to war in Afghanistan. In between all this, he lived in a Maharashtrian village for six months where the villagers gave him the peaceful name of Shantaram. Remarkable as the tale is, it is the sheer lyrical beauty and tenderness with which it is told that makes the book both a literary and spiritual masterpiece. His ability to understand and respond to the spiritual side of India, his open and grateful appreciation of the simple-hearted slum dwellers, and his gift for seeing the greatness in the acts of ordinary people, give this tale of crime and redemption a high moral tone. Incidentally, the book is being made into a Hollywood film starring Johnny Depp among others. Roberts lives in Mumbai, a city that he has grown to love and consider his own. In a spacious lounge of the Hotel Taj Mahal, he spoke to Life Positive at length. Excerpts from the interview: You mentioned earlier that people have not really understood the philosophy of Shantaram.There is only one major fragment of the philosophy in this book. I divided my personal philosophy into four fragments and I put each of those fragments into my books. Shantaram is part of a quartet of novels. It is the second one in the quartet. I am writing the third one next, the sequel to Shantaram. Everyone who is left standing in the end of the book will go on. And then I will go back and write the prequel. My early days in Australia leading up to escaping from prison and going to New Zealand and from New Zealand to India… Would you like to tell me a little more about the philosophy?The philosophy is an analysis of all the available data we have on the universe. I spent 25 years studying it. I did philosophy at University when my life went down and I went in the wrong direction when I lost my daughter in a custody case… When I was rearrested, I spent 71/2 years in prison. I read the 200 most important books ever written in our human heritage. Everything from Aristotle through the Enlightenment, Einstein, Eisenberg, biology, particle physics, anthropology, history, philosophy and so on. Prison was the equivalent of an intensive university for you…Yes, it was. Fortunately, I had the mentality to say, I am going to use the time. And the conclusion is this. Our universe begins as a huge inflationary event that many would call the Big Bang. And it is getting more complex, not simple. And there is a time line involved. There is movement. Things don’t go backward. Humans don’t become babies and climb back into the womb. And if you were to shoot the universe, as it was four million years ago which you can now do, or five million years ago, it was far more simple than it is today. From the beginning to now it is always getting more and more complex. This movement towards complexity is the single most defining characteristic of the universe. Everything else is a contingent. That being the necessary characteristic, I would use it as my criterion for establishing the definition of good and evil. Anything that helps this process along is good. And anything that holds it back is evil. A quick rule of thumb. I’m thinking I want to steal this thing. If everyone in the universe did what I am about to do, would it help us to get there? If everyone would steal from everyone all the time, cooperation would break down, civilization would break down. We would never get where we need to go. Where are we going?Toward whatever greater manifestation of complexity… But there’s no end?Well, yes, I think there is probably a bounce back. I think there is probably a point at which matter and the Absolute interact. It may be that this happens through black holes. And at the epicenter of the black hole, all sorts of strange things are happening. It is radiating x-rays, it is sucking in something as huge as neutron stars, crushing them in and reducing them to less than an electron. It’s crushing it down to this density. Where does it go? It’s possible that it bounces back into another universe. That’s how a universe begins. Your understanding has been through science. But how about any experiential understanding?I think these experiential understandings are very limited. I have listened to a number of teachers who are experts in experiential knowledge. I have not come across a single one of them who has struck me as providing me with a profound insight. From your own?From my own experience I can tell you that certain things happened. I used to be a very hard materialist. If I couldn’t measure, weight it, quantify it, it just didn’t exist. Then I met some people, one after another, on this strange path of mine who opened my third eye to non-physical experiences – ghost experiences, non-physical beings whom you cannot see though they are clearly there. Two times it was absolutely clear. It was an auditory manifestation. The spiritual dimension coincided with the science, teaching me that there is an Absolute that is connected with the nature of light, in such a way that I transformed, agreeing that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in our philosophy. Returning to the book, Lin’s fascination for Kader Khan overshadowed Qasim Ali, who was the better man…The fact is that Lin is desperately searching for his father’s love. He fixates on Abdul Kader Khan as the father figure, which leads him to a blindness where he fails to realise that he is wise but also cruel and is capable of ruthlessness. Qasim Ali Husain isn’t that same father. There are various reasons for that. The psychology of it is that Lin was beaten by his father as a child repeatedly again and again, until, when he was 16 years old, he beat his father for the first time. The reality is that this happened to me. As a 10-year-old boy I learnt karate for seven years and boxing as well. And on my 16th birthday, I beat my father for the first time and said, ‘Now don’t ever lay a hand on me again’. And I left the house. If this is your history, then the man you are attracted to as a father figure will have some of it; you’ll be drawn to someone more violent than the peaceful Qasim Ali. Sometimes we need someone else to tell us that we are stuck in a negative pattern. Sometimes we get the insight ourselves. I finally realized that every time I got into a fight, I was hitting my father. It took me years to understand this. I stepped back from it and said, I don’t want to be this person any more. I was fighting a war of resistance against my father. The war is over. My father died. Now I don’t have to fight my father any more. I’m not attracted to that kind of life anymore. There was a time when I was irresistibly attracted to the dark side, the wild side. But now I’m not. I’m attracted to people who are creative and cooperative, gentle, loving and tender. Would you say that that was a turning point in your life?There are a couple of really significant turning points in my life. One was when I was recaptured in a prison in Germany. I was planning to escape from it. I was ready to go – this was after 10 years on the run. And I got an image of my mum’s face. I suddenly saw what it would do to her if I spent another 10 years on the run or got killed. It would destroy her. I finally put someone else ahead of myself. When I said to myself, I can’t do this to my mother any more, everything changed for me. I call it the maturity moment. I suddenly had a power coming to me, a maturity power. It rushed into me and from that moment I have never taken a cigarette, a drink or a drug or committed a crime. It just stopped dead from that day. Plus I had a clear vision of what I would do. I knew I would complete my prison term, that I would write a book, that it would be successful, that there would be other books following it, that there would be a movie, that I would use the money to come back to Mumbai, to help the work here. I could see it unfolding. That was 15 years ago. And I have never lost sight of that vision. That was a big turning point. The second turning point was later when I was in prison in Australia after I came back. I spent two years in solitary. It gave me a long time to think about my self and my life. And when I came out, I was watching a television programme about a man called Iron John in America. He deals with violent men. There was an exercise when a group of men form a ci
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