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''Shantaram''s bizarre story is true to life

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It dawned on Gregory David Roberts that he had a novel in him about 20 years ago, during a brief stay in an Indian prison, while being flogged with bamboo canes. ”My skin was virtually flayed off my body,” he recalls. ”There was one point, as I was chained facedown, that I thought I was going to drown in my own blood, and in that moment of terror, a voice clearly spoke in my head and said, ‘This is damn good material.”’

Thus, the origins of Shantaram, a 933-page autobiographical novel that was a best-seller in both the author’s native Australia and India. And if you think the story of its creation is bizarre, get a load of the rest of Roberts’ material: In 1976, Roberts, now 52, was a rising star in the philosophy department at Melbourne University when he developed a drug habit. Toy gun in hand, he committed a string of robberies and landed in a maximum-security prison. Three years later, he escaped and embarked on an odyssey of drug smuggling, passport counterfeiting, gun-running for the mujahedin in Afghanistan, and working for the local Mafia in Bombay — where much of Shantaram is set. Roberts also ran a health clinic in a slum, acted in Bollywood movies, and retailed his adventures in a newspaper column until he got too popular for his own good: ”It was compromising my status as a fugitive.”

Recaptured, he started Shantaram in 1991 and saw his manuscript twice destroyed before his 1997 release. The first time, Roberts says, ”I was about 400 pages in when I came back from an exercise period and discovered that a prison officer had torn my manuscript into tiny fragments and that they were flowing out of the toilet bowl. He was a very harsh critic. If you get past something like that, you can take some criticism when you get it from book reviewers.”

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