News Briefs | In Memoriam
Dominique Lapierre (1931-2022): Kolkata’s Adopted Son
The French author’s book on the city’s poverty also showed the resilience of its people
09 Dec, 2022
Dominique Lapierre (1931-2022) (Photo: Getty Images)
POPULAR HISTORIAN DOMINIQUE Lapierre is best known for his highly researched recreations of history. Along with American writer Larry Collins, he wrote historical works on a range of topics spanning countries and timespans, from the liberation of Paris at the end of World War II in Is Paris Burning? (1965), to the creation of Israel in O Jerusalem! (1972) and Indian independence Freedom at Midnight (1975). These books went on to sell millions of copies and were translated into numerous languages.
But in India, the French author has altogether a different claim to fame. His book City of Joy (1985), set in the slums of Calcutta, brought out the cycle of poverty that countless Indians are stuck in. It tells the story of 32-year-old Hasari Pal (“with the appearance of a Moghul warrior”) and his wife Aloka (with “the look of an angel”) who are forced to leave their village in West Bengal as their crops fail, and eke out a living in Calcutta. Pal becomes a rickshaw-puller to support his family. Just as the Pal family arrives in the city, a 32-year-old Polish Catholic priest Stephan Kovalski also makes his way into the city. City of Joy chronicles the coming together of Pal and the priest as they both try to survive the hardships of the slum. Lapierre spent three years researching the book and doing hundreds of interviews. It is a story about a hostile environment, extreme distress, but ultimately survival. It brings out the bareness of the villages, which they are forced to leave, and the ruthlessness of the city, which they now inhabit.
City of Joy was adapted into a film in 1992, with a cast of Patrick Swayze, Om Puri, and Shabana Azmi. The adaptation was not without controversy. The then Culture Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharya called the book an “insult to every Indian”. The West Bengal government opposed plans to film the novel as they felt it would make the city look bad. In an interview with the New York Times, dated February 1991, Lapierre chuckled at the fact that even with all the opposition, there was a sign outside the Calcutta airport welcoming travellers to the ‘City of Joy’.
The book went on to sell millions of copies, and the money from the sales was channeled into the City of Joy Foundation, which works for the underprivileged of Calcutta and rural Bengal. Lapierre invested in his adopted country by bringing tubewells to villages and raising money for tuberculosis drugs. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award, in 2008.
In a 2004 Walk the Talk episode with Shekhar Gupta, shot at Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, Lapierre said that when he died, he would ask his wife to put on his tombstone, his name, his date of birth, date of death and “Citizen of Honour of the city of Calcutta”. Few authors are as synonymous with a city as French author Dominique Lapierre is with Kolkata.
Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight, for which he spent many hours talking to Indira Gandhi, came out during the Emergency. The irony was lost on neither him nor reviewers that a book on India’s freedom had been released when India’s freedom was at stake. Reviews in 1975 lamented, “Freedom at Midnight has vanished indeed.”
Lapierre was born in 1931 to a diplomat father and a mother who had worked as a journalist. He, too, worked as a journalist and a foreign correspondent for Paris-Match. He lived most of his life in the French Riviera town of Ramatuelle with his wife of 56 years, who is also named Dominique.
The trailer of Roland Joffe’s City of Joy ends with the voiceover of Om Puri saying, “Gods haven’t made it easy to be a human being.” To which Swayze replies, “I guess that is why it feels so wonderful to beat the odds.”
Lapierre will always be remembered as the French author who by writing about poverty in India, showed the resilience and dignity of its people.
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