Essay: Dominique Lapierre and the writer as saint

ByFarzana Versey
Dec 07, 2022 08:38 PM IST

While City of Joy had a lurid focus on slums, lepers, prostitution, and child exploitation, eventually the author’s humanism overrode the writer in him

Some years ago, there was a photograph of a young boy, a pre-teen, being bathed in the open by a white woman who was a “follower of Mother”. The boy’s identity was not mentioned; he was just a torso and limbs attended to by fair hands. The public act of washing by one considered better – and the cleansing further imbuing her with moral superiority – makes even the young and agile among the destitute appear helpless. This is perhaps the do-gooder’s “ticket to heaven”.

Author Dominique Lapierre died on 4 December 2022. (Prabhas Roy)
Author Dominique Lapierre died on 4 December 2022. (Prabhas Roy)

Every time a westerner is referred to as a “lover of India”, what strikes me is the love for a life completely different from the one they lead. If they aren’t enamoured by exotica, then they are entranced by deprivation.

Danny Boyle immortalised and celebrated Indian poverty without irony as “Jai Ho” in Slumdog Millionaire (based on Vikas Swarup’s novel); Katherine Boo Captured “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Preceding them both by two decades was Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy about a Calcutta where “there was not even one tree for three thousand inhabitants, without a single flower, a butterfly, or a bird, apart from vultures and crows.”

Lapierre died on December 4 leaving behind a legacy of works such as O Jerusalem, The Fifth Horseman, Is New York Burning?, co-written with Larry Collins. It was their Indian connection, though, that became a calling card with Freedom at Midnight and Lapierre’s solo venture City of Joy.

I read the latter after watching its film adaptation. While there was more nuance in the written word, it had missionary zeal all over it. Naturally, the story is about a Polish missionary Stephan Kovalski and Hasari Pal, an Indian peasant-turned-rickshaw puller (one among the many “human horses”). Every little hope-rope trick – slums, lepers, the underworld, gang tussles, prostitution, child exploitation, touts, rags-to-riches — was milked.

A Kolkata slum (Subhendu Ghosh / Hindustan Times)
A Kolkata slum (Subhendu Ghosh / Hindustan Times)

This was not the first time a book had tackled the “underbelly” — or, Arvind Adiga’s world of “Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies”. To smirk at stereotypes would be wrong, for neat stratifications are a part of every strata of society. But hope and struggle are invariably seen through purely a westernised prism, an assumption that the poor need to be saved not just from their poverty but their fate too.

The zeal to deal with such fatalism is amplified as a spiritual need in the best “Saint of the Gutter” tradition. In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1979, Mother Teresa had said, “I never forget when I brought a man from the street. He was covered with maggots; his face was the only place that was clean. And yet that man, when we brought him to our home for the dying, he said just one sentence: I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, love and care, and he died beautifully.” In City of Joy, the saviours watch over a dead Hasari Pal “enveloped in a white khadi shroud and adorned with a garland of marigolds”.

A jeans-and-kurta-wearing priest visits and decides to stay in the slums to save the poor. A young American doctor unhappy with his posh and steady life in Houston tries to find himself among the diseased.

I am not suggesting a woke sort of politically-correct sanitisation of reality, but why did Lapierre call Philkana, a slum housing 75,000 people, Anand Nagar — City of Joy — if they were indeed without any? Why is salvation only about those who can afford it? Why is death the only salvation for the rickshaw driver?

It almost seems that such a need, if it were to exist, should be made invisible and get replaced by the outsider’s view of their spunkiness. Recently, when controversial industrialist Gautam Adani won a bid to develop Dharavi, Pritish Nandy tweeted, “Dharavi is not actually a slum. It is a tribute to the great entrepreneurial spirit.” Most businesses are not owned by those living there; the poor, including children, toil for hours in the tanneries and other “factories”, mostly unsupervised for any safety and security.

In Adiga’s The White Tiger the chauffeur-protagonist, Balram Halwai, has been described as “Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer”. It is the last that makes him a hero. The belief is that only if you kill or harm a privileged person will you be noticed. Hasari is cheated of the little money he has when he moves to the city, but his life does not matter.

The congested lanes of Dharavi, Mumbai. (Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)
The congested lanes of Dharavi, Mumbai. (Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)

City of Joy and The White Tiger are removed by over two decades and economic liberalisation in India. But the struggles and aspirations have always been there. Gurcharan Das in Unbinding India had used a similar character of Raju who worked in a roadside eatery in a Tamil Nadu village. I had interviewed Das and asked him if this was his idea of heroism. He said, “What I marvelled at is that it was his summertime job, an urban and rather western concept. He earned Rs450 a month, which he spent on computer lessons. His dream was to run a computer company. I asked him where he got the idea from and he said he saw it on TV, about someone who he called Bill Gay.”

Is Raju the dreamer here, or is it the writer, and are the former’s dreams limited to what the writer will grant him by forcing upon him a Bill Gates as inspiration? To give him or Balram or Hasari an epic role to show India as a mainstream reality amounts to disowning that reality.

To his credit, Lapierre did not. His humanism overrode the writer. Almost half of the amount he made in royalties were put into trusts and charities started by him to help the sick, the illiterate. This is certainly much more than high society throwing bashes to alleviate poverty.

We have overthrown the imperial yoke, but we still allow ourselves to be numbed by social colonialism refereed and guided by our superior Samaritans and the vanity of consciences.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey

The views expressed are personal

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