Dominique Lapierre and his undying bond with India and the 'City of Joy'

‘City of Joy’ and ‘Freedom at Midnight’ author, journalist and humanitarian worker Dominique Lapierre passed away on December 4, at the age of 91

DW Photo
DW Photo

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

Dominique Lapierre, the man whose book coined the phrase that the city of Kolkata is now synonymous to, passed away at the age of 91 on Monday.

His wife, Conchon Lapierre, reported his death to Var Matin, a local newspaper in southern France. She told the newspaper that Lapierre died of ailments that come with “old age” and that she was “at peace because he is no longer suffering”.

Born on July 30, 1931, in Chatelaillon, France to a diplomat father and journalist mother, Lapierre became a writer at the age of eighteen with his first book A Dollar for a Thousand Kilometres which became a best-seller in France.

He wrote several best-selling books such as City of Joy, Freedom at Midnight, Is Paris Burning among others. His work ranged from historical to biographical; from a crude depiction of poverty in Kolkata’s slums to the World War II struggle and the Paris liberation.

City of Joy became a solidifying link between him and the city of Kolkata. Set in the slums of Anand Nagar, Howrah, the novel chronicles the trials and tribulations of a young Polish priest, an American doctor and a Bengali rickshaw puller in the city. It was also turned into a feature film in 1992, directed by Roland Joffe and starring Patrick Swayze and Om Puri.

When it was released, the film received massive critical acclaim in the global film community but many residents of Kolkata saw it as “violating the integrity of the poor people'' and criticism stemmed from how it “romanticised” the hardships faced by the inhabitants of the slum.

“I find the criticism around the novel to be baseless, Lapierre did not try to “sell” poverty; instead he reflected the realities of a slum area in Howrah that is hardly ever visited by the people of Kolkata themselves. There was a pressing need for this book and the realities of the slum-dwellers of Kolkata reached the world through him” says O’Henry and Sahitya Akademi award-winning author Amar Mitra. 

City of Joy is grounded in Lapierre’s involvement with Kolkata. It is based in a lepers’ colony in Pilkhana and Lapierre himself spent many years living there; he worked toward uplifting the neglected poor of the region despite being an outsider. The people of Kolkata are grateful to Lapierre. We mourn his loss and we exalt him as a lover of Kolkata and of India,” Mitra told National Herald

Lapierre shared a profound connection with Kolkata himself – he was known to have become a “friend of the masses” in the city and many referred to him endearingly as Dominic ‘Da’.

Living in Howrah for many years, he founded the City of Joy Foundation – a rescue, rehabilitation, and development focused NGO for the underprivileged in Kolkata. Half of the proceeds from his book went to the foundation. In 2005, the French author thanked his readers as the proceeds and donations through the book also helped in the treatment of patients of tuberculosis as well as leprosy in the slums.

“Through royalties generated from Lapierre’s international bestsellers, through lecture fees, and donations from readers, the organisation has rescued 9,000 children suffering from leprosy and other diseases due to malnutrition and poverty; suppressed tuberculosis in 1,200 villages; dug 541 tube wells for drinking water and taught the women of a thousand villages to read and write,” says the City of Joy foundation.

Apart from being a devoted humanitarian worker, Lapierre was also a revered journalist. “We have heard an anecdote where Lapierre was once approached by the then editor M J Akbar to write a piece for The Telegraph, and he had asked for a lump sum amount as his commission. Initially stunned by this expectation, Akbar later found out that Lapierre had planned to donate his pay from the piece to the City of Joy foundation,” says Mehwash Hussain, a journalist at The Telegraph

Two of his other novels, Freedom at Midnight (1975) and Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster (1997), also focused on the various socio-economic and political issues that India grappled with. The former, written in collaboration with Larry Collins, revolved around the Indian freedom struggle and the humanitarian tragedy of partition. The latter, written alongside Javier Moro, was an investigative account of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. Lapierre also spent a great amount of time at Bhopal and acquainted himself with the residents of the city.

He later wrote a memoir called India Mon Amour about his journey and relationship with the country. In 2008, Lapierre was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award  for his service to the nation, through literature and community outreach.

“Lapierre was an author and journalist whose travels around the world – from Mexico to India, New York City to Jerusalem – made him an eyewitness of the 20th century and enriched his novels with facts. We have lost a great writer, who was generous in his texts and was generous in his life,” said French Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak in a statement.

“The work that Lapierre did for Kolkata will echo long after his death and his undying love for India is what we will remember him by,” says Mitra. In a 2013 interview with the Press Trust of India, Lapierre had described India as “the place where I have been coming very regularly since the last 50 years. It has been an emotional journey for me where I have got a lot of love and support from the people.”

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