Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Sunday, February 05, 2006

How much constancy, how much change?

I just finished reading this 900+ word braindump of a book called Shantaram. It's about this guy who escaped from an Australian maximum-security prison in the early 1980s, and in so doing became one of the most wanted men in the world. He jumped ship using a fake passport, and landed up in Bombay. That's where the book begins.

In Bombay, he befriends a slum-dweller tour guide, and travels with him to his village ("natiwe-place") in the interior. Stays there for a few months, working alongside the locals. returns to Bombay and sets up in a shack in the Cuffe Parade slum. Gets round to becoming the local paramedic, with the aid of medicines procured on the black market from an axis of mysterious lepers. Gets thrown into prison, and brutalized for four months (his weight drops from 90 kilos to 45). Gets released without knowing how, and joins the underworld. Is a useful operative on account of his foreign-ness. Forges and runs passports as far abreast as Zaire and Singapore. The mafia don looks on him as a son.

Follows the don to Afghanistan, to fight the Soviets alongside the Taleban. Is one of only four people of the original party to return alive, after harrowing months as a fugitive. Resumes underworld activity. Is admitted to the mafia council -- the uppermost echelons. And as the book ends, it's 1989 or so, and he's contemplating going to Sri Lanka to join battle there.

It's a completely rumbunctious read, and what makes it absolutely unbelievable is that it is, as the NYTimes review put it, a "thinly disguised autobiography".

So how much of this actually happened? The forum is alive with the debate. My personal feeling is that a lot, if not all, of it did. In fact, it seems to me that the only parts that are not convincing are the romantic bits -- I'm pretty sure some of that isn't quite as it happened. But the more interesting aspect that's stuck with me is, details of this one particular life aside, it's funny how much variation there is in the amount of things that people do with their lives. This guy is clearly way off the right tail -- there were several instances during the story where he had the option to just stick to one particular thing, but he chose not to. Psychologists have studied "sensation-seeking tendencies" a lot, and in my line we talk about how variety seeking behaviors are linked to the "optimal stimulation level", but I don't think anyone's ever looked at variety seeking on this scale.

Kind of links back to a discussion I once had about people whose day jobs require "intelligence" vs. not, and the types of hobbies they prefer -- "intelligent" vs. not. But that's another can of worms.

PS. BTW, the Kolkata domestic airport bookstore is a killer. It's tiny, but somehow they always seem to have books that call out to me. Way way better than the WHSmiths and the Hudson Posts that seem to have their tentacles everywhere.


Blogger wildflower seed said...

Or "how much silence, how much stimulation?"?

2/05/2006 8:38 PM  
Blogger Old Spice said...

Domestic airport bookstores are awesome places. I've had much fun in the stores in both Bombay and Bangalore. I always find the older books I've been searching for in secondhand bookstores. Cricket collections are never that great, sadly.

Shantaram has cult status in these parts. So many of my friends who like to think they're well-read have read it. (I've recommended "Train to Pakistan". They're not interested.) It even features in "Rang de Basanti", interestingly enough.

Thanks for stopping by my little sandaas on the web. Hope you enjoy yourself.

2/12/2006 1:13 PM  

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