Shantaram – Facts or Fiction or Both?

My brother, late Prabhakar Khare

My late older brother, Prabhakar Khare

The novel Shantaram weaves through reality and fiction. Gregory Roberts, his sponsors and his authors at Time Warner UK (Abacus Publishing) has presented him as a Shantaram – a hero who rescues people from slum fires, runs a clinic, is kind and benevolent to humans and animals alike. Roberts has taken literary liberty to portray himself as a savior among the utterly poor. Perhaps, realizing the difference between the real Shantaram and the fake Shantaram, Gregory has claimed from the very beginning and very successfully in the media that all the characters in the book are “fictional”.

About 50% of the book which is the heart of the story about Prabhakar, my late older brother, my father Kisan Mango Khare and mother Rukhma and our village are true facts that can be dated on the calendar. Some information has been stretched without our permission to use our identities in the story and to take liberties on our life events. The rest is meant for the audience who want to see a superhero, who falls in love, is loyal to his friends, is adventurous and who is befriended by none other than the Don of Dongri.

My family and I are living proof of the true characters of Shantaram. Gregory during the 1980s came to Mumbai and lived with us until 1994, when he suddenly vanished then resurfaced in Mumbai a decade later in 2005, after his book became a bestseller. After his return, he expressed a keen interest to help our family, but this intent quickly vanished as the Mumbai Mirror, published an article falsely claiming that I (and not my late brother) was Prabhakar. Maintaining that the story is 100% fiction, Gregory Roberts went about amassing great wealth and fame, including a multi-million dollar contract with Warner Bros for rights to make the movie.

Some parts of his story are absolute facts and a narration of real-life events. But there are others that are fiction. Gregory lived in the slums a life of crime and drug addiction. My family cared for him and rescued him from his addiction. There was never a clinic that he ran in the slum or treated anyone for anything. He did not buy Prabhakar a taxi as the book claims. Sadly, Karla was also a drug addict who eventually died on the street in the massive AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

The narrative on gun running for Afghan Mujahideen against Soviets also cannot be true. Gregory was in Mumbai until the early 1990s, still deep in addiction. The Soviet war in Afghanistan ended in 1989. The don of Mumbai, Abdul Karim Sher Khan or Karim Lala (Abdul Kader Khan in the novel) was a savvy crime lord who had no connection to the Afghan war. Karim Lala’s primary business was contraband goods (gold, electronics, Rolexes,…, you name it), hiring Indian labor in the oil-rich Gulf countries and his real-estate assets in Mumbai. The Don only worked with close confidants. Many local taxi drivers in those days made a good income moving his contraband in the city. So, it is highly unlikely that the Don would take a personal interest in a fringe criminal-addict and bring him into his inner circle. There were plenty of stories about the Don and other mafia bosses on the streets that were often talked over chai. Gregory must have picked on some of the stories to weave his tale. Unfortunately, the educated media has never dealt with anyone like the Don, so they have unwittingly and willingly taken the ride with Gregory’s imagination.

Gregory, meanwhile still lives in Mumbai, elevating himself to a long-term residence of a luxury hotel. Every now and then he shows up in our slum with celebrities – Oprah, Madonna, Johnny Depp while his “slum guards” keep the slum dwellers from protesting his presence and his lies.

We are a respectable bunch, us Khares and treat others the same. We are a large family unit living in a small one-room home in the slums. My brother Prabhakar died in 1988 from an accident while driving an old taxi with bad wiper blades on a stormy monsoon night, just the way the novel describes it on 22nd July 1988. Prabhakar’s son, Pravin was born just before the fatal accident and is 25 years of age today. Prabhaker’s son, Pravin (described on the last page of the novel as the image of Prabhaker) is now an unemployed adult, still waiting on the promises of Gregory Roberts. You can meet Pravin during my tour if he is in Mumbai. Prabhaker’s widow Parvati works as a temporary maid. She lives with us. We are her caretakers.

Since out teens, Prabhakar and I, started as informal guides/fixers and facilitators of “foreigners” who visited India in the 80′s. Mumbai and India were very different then. In the days before liberalization of our economy, before the internet and cell phone era, few opportunities to make an income, especially for the uneducated poor in the low-caste segment like us. Prabhakar taught me the work and I followed in his footsteps, taking tour groups, documentary makers (e.g. BBC at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad), helping find missing individuals and driving taxi-cabs. Navigating through India was difficult then for foreigners and we acted as their hands-on guides. We received respect for our work from the foreigners, and that meant a lot. I also drove the Caravan buses throughout India taking German families on long journeys in the comfort of their home on wheels.

Come meet the real essence of Shantaram through his family that still lives in the Navy Nagar slum. If you have read the book, it is easy to see that the depth of the story is incomprehensible without the real-life family that shaped it. I have lived an exciting life for a cab-driver in Mumbai making friends with people from across the world. Now in my 50s, there is much I can share with you on your tour about the novel and beyond. Please do spend some time reviewing the videos and pictures on the site.

Kishore Kisan Khare (from coversations in Marathi with Kishore)