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This interview is with Murali K. Menon, of the Indian Express newspaper (damn cool summary of latest Indian news online). Muralibhai, by the way, was a very nice guy, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interview.

Q. 1) You were a published writer in your 20s, much before Mumbai happened? What kind of stuff did you write then?

A. 1) That’s a damn fine question, Murali. That’s a char sol bis (420) question. It’s great to start an interview with a question I’ve never been asked. Okay, as a young writer, I was drawn to the same sorts of themes and scenarios that still capture my interest today: love and pride; sin and suffering; hope and greed; the moral act and actor in a situation of turmoil; the hero as villain, and the villain as hero; the search for meaning in a world that seems absurd; and all the passionate exaltations of art. The major differences between my early work as a writer at the beginning of the wordsmith journey and today are these:

i) As a young man I never wrote myself into my work – I was always the invisible, omniscient author – whereas today I often include the created version of myself in my work;

ii) My work then was haphazard, almost a kind of automatic writing, but now everything I write is informed by a literary theory that I’ve developed through 30 years of experience;

iii) In my youth I searched for meaning blindly, seizing upon and displaying fragments of knowledge in much the same way that some kinds of birds will seize shiny objects for their nests. The young writer worked from intuition alone, and while the baubles of instinct sparkle with a mystic lustre, they’re brittle slivers of glass that crack and shatter if we hold on to them too tightly. Now, after 30 years of study in the fields of particle physics, theology, biology, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, archaeology, geophysics, cosmology, complexity theory, astrophysics, game theory, and other disciplines, I’ve drawn a few conclusions about the nature of the universe, and of our place in it. As a result, my writing today is founded on that bedrock of essential truths and passionate experiences.
It’s my hope that the truth, experience, and literary theory that inform my work today give it a coherence that readers will recognize and respond to emotionally. If I’m right, my readers should find themselves in a world that they don’t want to leave.

Q. 2) You probably travelled to a lot many cities? What makes Mumbai, if at all, special?

A. 2) I love Bombay, so I see Her through the parallax of love. I’m not blind to Her faults, and I know that She can be the most frustrating city in the whole world of my experience. Most Mumbaikers will tell you that they say, at least once every day, “God, I hate this city!” But the same people, me included, will also tell you that at least once every day they say out loud, even if only to themselves, “God, I love this city!”
There are so many things that make Bombay special: the cool breezes that caress the island city are like kisses from the sky itself; the music that’s everywhere, in every car and shop and open window, as if the city is perfumed with sound; the movie posters, soaring above, like dreams in the mind of the street; the gorgeousness of women, where the city is a temple, and the women of Bombay are its Goddesses; the Parsee community – can any city that doesn’t have a Parsee community ever call itself great – and every other sector in the gad-bad mix of faces from a million places; the best restaurants, serving the best food on the planet; the easy affection and enduring friendships between the men; and beyond all the colours, tastes, smells, and textures of Her, there’s the fact of Bombay’s ineffable beauty. She is beautiful, proud, dangerous, charismatic, and compassionate.
I could go on, but I think you probably get the idea why amchi Mumbai is special to me, na?

Q. 3) I haven't read the book yet. Will get my hands on it tomorrow as soon as it gets launched here in Mumbai. But tell me, you were Linbhai, Linbaba, and even a Bollywood stuntman. How was it like living through those times, being different things to different people?

A. 3) We are all – every one of us – different things to different people. We are father to a young child, with a set of reactions, gestures, and expressions that are appropriate to that role. But none of us translate that same set of gestures and expressions to our roles in say, the business world. We are lovers, most of us, who express all the tenderness that intimacy inspires, yet we wouldn’t show that same intimate tenderness to the strangers we meet on a crowded train. We are all living out roles that define the different sets of interactions involved in the activity of being a social being. In my case, the roles were more extreme than they are for most people, but the experience of differentiation is the same.
To answer the first part of your question, living through those times was a little like being wildly in love: the peaks and valleys, the roaring intensity, the thrill of a leap into the unknown, and the exhilarated, agonizing fearfulness of risking it all, again and again, on one toss of the coin.

Q. 4) What was the mafia like, as good or as bad, as 'normal' people around you?

A. 4) I don’t believe that there are Good men or Bad men. I believe that the deeds we do are Good and Bad, not the men and women who commit them. The best of us can do Bad things, and the worst of us can do Good. I’ve known mafia men who took responsibility for feeding the poor in their district, and I’ve known cops who were ruthlessly cruel. We human beings are just that – human animals with the capacity to do Good or to do Bad – and we all do both, to a greater or lesser degree.
The mafia men I knew in the 1980s, the goondas, were mostly men of honour. I know that sounds strange and incongruous to people who’ve never lived inside that world, but it’s the fact of my experience. The gangsters of the old school lived by a rigid code of honour that was different to, but no less scrupulously observed than, the codes that civilians live by. I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of expert on the Bombay mafia, and there was a lot that I, as a gora, was simply not permitted to know. I can only tell you that I never saw a mafia gangster raise his hand to a woman or a child, and I never knew one to break his word to me or abandon me in a fight.

Q. 5) The mafia, love, loss, your book has all the ingredients of a great read. But what if Roberts was an ordinary expat in Mumbai, with literary ambitions and a normal life? Would the city still have acted as a spur for a non-autobiographical literary endeavour?

A. 5) A city, when all’s said and done, is the sum of its people. A novel, in a very similar way, is the sum of its characters. The sum of the people I came to know in Bombay was such that I had no choice but to write them. Every market street, every lane in the zhopadpatti, every motor cycle ride, and every rose-drenched evening sky reflected in the eyes of a pretty girl forced me to write my own eyes and hands and lips onto the page. This is Bombay, amchi Mumbai, we’re talking about, Murali: I would’ve been inspired to write there, no matter what my circumstances.

Q. 6) When did the idea of an autobiography, with the city both as a character and as a backdrop, first strike you?

A. 6). With respect, Shantaram is not an autobiography, it’s a novel. If the book reads like an autobiography, I take that as a very high compliment, because I structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact. I wanted the novel to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it had the authentic feel of fact.
That being said, the answer to your question is that I made the decision – to include myself in my own work – while I was on a smuggling run to Africa. I sat at a table in my favourite dive in Kinshasa, in what was then the nation of Zaire, and shared a drinking session with five other men who were all in the city as smugglers, mercenaries, and law-breakers. We took turns to tell each other our stories. When the other men voted my story the most interesting, I made the decision to stop writing from the invisible, omniscient author’s perspective, and to include myself in my work.

Q. 7) From a most-wanted man to a fugitive to writer (three more books are set to follow Shantaram, isn’t it?), but what does life look like now, when life itself is so much more predictable?

A. 7) There’s nothing more exciting, rewarding, or challenging than doing what you’re born to do. I think there are two kinds of writers in the world: those who think it’s a good idea to be a writer, for whatever reason, and those who write because they have no choice but to write. I’m the second kind of writer. It was always my first instinct to write. When I was chained to a wall in Arthur Road prison and being tortured by convict overseers, one part of me was writing the experience even then, in the bloody, lacerating bite of the lathis. To be able to write now, as a free man, and to be published internationally, is the realization of my deepest and most cherished desire.
There are three more books in the Shantaram quartet. I hope to have the sequel to Shantaram completed by the end of 2005. A book of romantic poetry, My Love Is The Sky, will be published in a limited collector’s edition later in 2005. I’m working on the screenplay for the movie version of Shantaram, and I’ll have a book of short stories ready for publication by May, 2006. There is also a book of philosophy projected for later in 2006, and in my spare time I’m working on the libretto for an opera.
Apart from writing, I’m committed to supporting a number of charities, and I’ve set up a trust fund to manage the funds I’m raising for charity work. I see the work for these causes as dove-tailing with the travel and publicity I’m doing world-wide to promote Shantaram. There’s never a dull day, and life presents new challenges and opportunities with every sunrise.