He calls himself ‘the most incompetent criminal in the world’.
Also known as ‘the gentleman bandit’, Gregory David Roberts admits he was so polite that often people didn’t realise they were being robbed. In fact, after he targeted a bank, a woman teller was quoted as saying, “He was so polite we wouldn’t mind if he comes back again.” And he did.
Born in Australia, Gregory, a former heroin addict and an armed robber was sentenced to 10-year imprisonment. In 1980, he escaped the maximum security Pentridge Prison and landed in India, where he made a home in Dharavi, Mumbai. He was recruited for counterfeiting and forging passports, and then jailed in an Indian prison.
In 1990, he was captured in Germany and sent back to Australia, where he was put in solitary confinement. It was during this isolation that Shantaram was born. The book, which chronicles his days in Mumbai, sold more than six million copies worldwide, and was published in 41 languages including Marathi.
Hailing from a family of musicians, Gregory gave vent to his feelings through rich lyrical content during his imprisonment, but never recorded those songs. In 2018, however, he started writing new songs. His first album, Love&Faith , co-produced with Dale Virgo, releases on December 4.
- Seven years ago, after years of instruction from my spiritual teacher, I decided to walk on the spiritual path. At the beginning of the third year of devotion, I put the tika on my forehead every morning. I don’t know why. I think I may have done it in a former life. At the beginning of the fourth year of devotion, I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of a shirt on my back. Everything I wore felt like a uniform of some kind.
- At the beginning of the fifth year, I stopped wearing shoes. Once again, I don’t know why, but I simply can’t feel comfortable in shoes of any kind. The malas that I wear are gifts from my spiritual teacher, and that’s all I like to wear on my upper body. When I go to an airport or to a public place I wear a shawl, out of respect for others, but it comes off as soon as I leave.
- I’ve gone through many changes in my life, and have worn many different uniforms, but this is the last change for me, and it’s probably a return to something I once knew and did
Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview via e-mail from Jamaica:
Isolation is a new experience for the world because of this pandemic. You had your time in isolation. How do you compare?
I spent three and a half years of my life in solitary confinement — 1,320 days and nights.
I was fortunate to have had that time in isolation. It brought me to a much more honest appraisal and understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, and acceptance of my own responsibility for the suffering I’d inflicted and endured, and allowed me to become comfortable in my own skin.
One of the main causes of anxiety and depression is an inability to be serene in the isolation of our own company. This is why isolation is used as a punishment. However, as the world is learning now, finding empowerment, resilience and fulfilment within the Self is a critical survival skill.
Solitary confinement triggered the creative bug in you. Would it have happened under different circumstances as well?
I’ve always had the creative bug. In prison, on a battlefield, in a slum ghetto, in the company of gangsters or saints, I’ve always written something every day, and I always have at least three creative projects on the go at the same time, such as music, writing and collage art. I’ve never experienced writer’s block: it must be terrifying, but I’ve never known the feeling. I’ve always got more projects than time in which to do them.
The album ‘Love&Faith’ projects love, hope, faith and positivity, with no bitterness, despite your experiences. What made it possible?
Born that way. I’ve always found it easier to forgive others than myself, and I’ve never hated anyone, even the men who were torturing me for information in prison. Almost seven years ago, I stepped back from public life, went off the grid, and took the leap of faith. After taking the necessary steps to clean my heart and mind, I acknowledged the Divine Perfection, surrendered the unrequired elements in my ego, and became sincerely devoted, blowing a conch shell seven times in a row, twice a day.
This has consolidated my spiritual inclinations, and given me a direction on the spiritual path. A little non-fiction book about those years, called The Spiritual Path , will be released in eBook soon, and in book form next year.
Is creating music (this album) a way of redemption for you?
Music is in no way an act of redemption for me: on the contrary, it’s a reflection of redemption: the redemption of the honour and integrity I threw away. For me, art shouldn’t be about anything. Art is a communication that involves work, skill, coherence and love. It comes from the heart of the artist: it’s a personal, emotional time-capsule to be opened by others.
The extent to which the art connects with our common humanity, heart to human heart, is the entirety of its purpose for me.
From the album ‘Love&Faith’, which song is special to you and particularly close to your heart?
All of them, of course. But the song that gave me the most thrilling satisfaction is ‘Mother’, which I wrote for my mother and recorded while she was battling terminal cancer. Mum heard the rough vocal dubs I made while I was writing the song (often telling me to do the vocals again … Me: Mum, it’s just a rough vocal dub for the singers … Mum: do it again, better.) And when we recorded, mixed and mastered the song, mum listened to over and over. It was a joy of life, to play the song for mum, and to have her like it enough to shed tears. Those tears are the jewels of my life.
There are ballads, House and also Gospel -esque music in the album. Was it planned to be that way?
Yes. I wanted to cover a wide range of genres, as I was writing about many different kinds of love and faith. I listen to and buy music from several genres at the same time. Currently, I’m working on a hard&fast Dance album, a Western Cowboy album and a Chillout Deep House album. When I complete one vocal dub in Dance, I’ll move to record a dub in Country on the same day. I don’t think I’ll ever be confined to one genre, but there are elements of my songwriting style that are evident in all the genres.
Have you ever wished you had arrived in Mumbai and experienced the city differently than through Dharavi and the underworld?
I wouldn’t change anything, although I would try to live so as to avoid harming any living thing. Mumbai is a city with the biggest heart I’ve ever known, and I’ve been graced by fortune in having lived as a pavement dweller, in a jhopadpatti (slum) and a five-star hotel, and knowing many of the glorious hearts in the immense Indian family.
When writing ‘Shantaram’, did you expect it to be received the way it did?
I think there’s a project, in the life of every artiste, that we know is the best thing we’ve done, and maybe the best thing we’ll ever do. I felt that way when I was writing Shantaram . I felt that my life experience was rich and diverse enough to offer readers a well-informed and gently guided journey.
But I should add, I spent three years ‘on the road’ promoting the novel in 15 countries on TV, radio, online and in print. It was all that constant travelling and hard work that made the book successful.
Mira Nair was supposed to direct Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan for the celluloid version of ‘Shantaram’. Were you disappointed when it did not happen?
People did expect me to be sad or upset, but I don’t regret signing with Warner Brothers and the film not being made. First, this happens a lot in Hollywood. Second, I got to meet outstanding directors, such as Peter Weir and Mira Nair, and the brilliant producer and wonderfully kind, supportive man, Graham King. Third, I had the unforgettable honour of meeting Amitabh ji several times and spending time with him. And fourth, I got to know and befriend Johnny Depp, who is one of the kindest, sweetest and most generous people I’ve ever known. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t signed with Warner Brothers.
The fact that the film was never made has opened up a new dimension for the project in the television series, which stars Charlie Hunnam, who came to visit with me in Jamaica. Charlie is a terrific actor, a lovely young man, and a deeply spiritual traveller on the path. I think that with Steve Lightfoot writing, Charlie acting the lead, and the inimitable Nicole Clemmens producing, there is a superb team involved in bringing the pages to life. It promises to be an exciting new experience for those who’ve read Shantaram , and a pretty wild journey for those who haven’t.
From being a fugitive on the run to the author-musician-motivational speaker, What are your lessons from life?
Know yourself, rule yourself, be yourself. Find a way to be devoted to something bigger than yourself. Be worthy of any challenge or success, and fill your intention with giving. Seek ways to strengthen your self-empowerment and resilience, and surround yourself with fair, honest, positive and creative people.
Gregory David Roberts’ ‘Love&Faith’ can be streamed at https://ampl.ink/yP9nP .