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Roberts' life took a turn for the worse in the mid-seventies, closely mirroring that of his protagonist in his bestseller Shantaram. In 1976, Roberts' marriage fell apart and he lost custody of his daughter. Around this time, he began using heroin and took up armed robbery in order to support his habit. He committed these robberies using a fake plastic gun, and he earned a reputation in Australia as ""the Gentleman Bandit"" due to his polite demeanor during his crimes. In 1978, Roberts was captured and imprisoned. Two years later, Roberts escaped from the ""escape proof"" HM Prison Pentridge in Australia.
Roberts fled to Maharashtra, where he lived in a remote village for six months and learned the Hindu and Marathi languages. He established a free clinic in a Bombay slum. Roberts was recruited by the Bombay mafia and worked in illegal passports and currency. He went to Afghanistan on a gunrunning operation and was wounded.
After a short return to Bombay, Roberts moved to Germany, where he began to work as a singer in a rock band. He had previously worked as an entertainer in Bombay's Bollywood movie industry and appeared in several movies. In time, the European police learned of his true identity and arrested him. He escaped from custody twice more, in Italy and Switzerland, before returning to Bombay.
While smuggling drugs in Europe, Roberts was captured by Frankfurt authorities and imprisoned. He served two years in Europe before being shipped to Australia, where he served two years in solitary confinement, during which time he began work on Shantaram. Following several more years serving out his term, Roberts finished his novel, which became a major success. He has since sold the film rights to the book to Warner Brothers and plans on writing the screenplay himself.
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