I'm reading Shantaram by Gregory Roberts. It's a cracking real-life story of an Australian con-on-the-run ending up in Bombay, first living in a slum, then becoming involved in organised crime, which apparently is to be made into a film shortly, staring Johnny Depp. It can be read on many levels: as simply a gripping read, as an insight into Bombay as megalopolis (offering more than Mehta's Maximum City in my opinion), but at a deeper level, it offers insights into the informal economy and how we view criminality. The urban poor often have no access to the formal economy, bank accounts, legally-backed accommodation etc. In that wise, they have to rely on informal networks that formal capitalists systems view as 'criminal'. However, oftentimes, these informal-yet-illegal networks are wholly supportive and mainly positive in the work and service they provide. Roberts helps to set up a medical facility (in his hut!) in the slum, receiving black market drugs from a community of lepers and paid for by one of the underworld mafia dons. At no point in this value-chain is there bad intention, and the end-users in the slum only benefit. Shantaram forces us to question the relationship between social disenfranchisement and criminality. Some reviewers on Amazon criticise it for being overlong and riven with overly poetic flourishes. I say bollocks. It's a profound meditation on the nature of human suffering and agency, from someone who has experienced more than a lifetime of limit situations.. At 900 pages+, its ideal for long commutes, flights etc.
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