I wanted to write about two series I binged the last few months and the personal and epochal transformation that has happened between the two of them. The first is Apple TV+’s Shantaram, and the second is Bluey, which we watch on Disney+.
Shantaram is an adaptation of the 2003 novel by the same name of Gregory David Roberts. It famously blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction, fictionalizing the author’s escape from prison and subsequent flight and existence in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. I read the book in 2006.
Bluey is a cartoon series, currently in its third season, about a family of dogs that spend most of their time playing make-believe games. The Guardian called it the Bible for modern parenting, making me want to read the Bible. (I’ve only read some of the highlights, mostly in summary.) I’m watching it with the kids.
When I read Shantaram, I had just returned from living in Lima. It was easy to transplant the narrative. Leopold’s, where the Shantaram cast hangs out, quickly became one of the bars in Miraflores. In the book’s slums, I recognized the slums of Ventanilla, where I had worked.
Shantaram is decidedly a backpackers’ story. In the early 00s, low-cost flying took off, and the climate crisis was far away. Thrills were available in abundance if you cared to buy a Lonely Planet. Shantaram is not a carefree story, but it was released in a carefree time to a carefree audience. Another thrill you could buy.
The series is released in another time to another public. Consequently, as Daniel Fienberg writes:
“Breathlessly awaited for nearly two decades by countless people who bought Gregory David Roberts’ epic tome to read on an airplane but never quite finished it, Shantaram has the insufferable trappings of yet another white savior story about a damaged guy whose quest for self-actualization leads him to an exotic place where superficial lessons about a previously unknown spiritual system help him and basically nobody else around him. OK, it doesn’t just have the trappings of one of those stories. It is one of those stories.”
In the early 20s, while Netflix rendered the Lonely Planet superfluous, Shantaram has become historical fiction from a time before climate change.
One link between Shantaram and Bluey is that Bluey’s parents also went backpacking in India. But that’s all in the past now. A framed photo in their home reminds Bandit (named Buster in the Dutch edition) and Chilli of when they were younger and carefree. “This is all my stuff from when I used to be cool,” Bandit says when he opens a box to look for his old camera, no doubt from his backpacking days. I cringe.
I’ve come late to Bluey, only succumbing this Christmas and being hooked immediately. Thirty minutes of Bluey (four episodes) is a whirlwind of emotions. Mostly laughter, the occasional tear, or all-out crying in episodes such as Camping (s01e43). We haven’t made it to Sleepytime (s02e26), but I’m counting the days.
I love Bluey because we’re also a family now, albeit with two boys (humans). Also, I can relate to Bandit, unlike other fathers in other cartoons. (I do not claim to come close to his patience and enthusiasm.) Bluey is as complex a character as Severus Snape. Bingo will grow up to be a canine, Natasha Rostova. Chilli may be the most believable talking dog in history.
Shantaram is a highly polished story of deeply troubled people. Bluey is a supremely relatable story of everyday flawed dogs. In Shantaram, the slums look neat. In Bluey, the backseat of the car is a dirty mess. Shantaram takes itself profoundly seriously. Bluey is fun.
But this is not a review. I promised a transformation. One is personal. From my backpacking days to being a tired dad and from taking everything much too seriously to well… maybe that didn’t change. The other is epochal. Shantaram is premised on traveling the globe to explore one’s self. Bluey acknowledges that our inner lives and creativity are the most incredible destination to explore.
Shantaram markets the idea that you have to do awesome stuff (and burn lots of carbon) to be remarkable. Bluey acknowledges that you are most spectacular when you are yourself.
That’s it. I spent a weekend comparing a 2000s travelogue with a 2020s cartoon about talking dogs. Thank you for reading, and sorry. I promise I’ll dive into the building sustainably theme or another grownup topic next time.
Have a wonderful week,