A city of joy, an ocean of human misery

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The Independent Online
THE STOCKY man with the beefy arms and the frank, smiling face of a neighbourhood charcutier leans forward across the podium in a muddy village 50 miles from anywhere in West Bengal.

The stage has been built specially. The space is strung with garlands and signs of welcome. A hundred or so Bengali women sit mutely with their quiet children at the foot of the podium. All eyes are fixed on the Frenchman's face. Dominique Lapierre, the bestselling author whose account of a Calcutta slum, The City of Joy, has given the world its most harrowing images of modern India, has come to call.

Lapierre recites the list of countries from which the people accompanying him have flown in: Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Andorra and Canada. "Maybe you don't know the meaning of those words," he suggests. "They are the countries of the world who bring you their love." He weighs those grave words - countries, world, love - and drops them like friendly bombs on the mute, gazing faces.

"Last year," he says, "I promised I would come back; we have held our promise. During the whole of the past year we have been working to see how we could help you better. And today we are proud to give you our new gift: A second boat dispensary."

Dominique Lapierre is a man transformed: A man with a mission. When he first came to India 25 years ago, it was in a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, which he had bought from a friend of his friend Lord Mountbatten with his latest advance cheque. With his long-term collaborator, the American, Larry Collins, he was a phenomenally successful writer.

Their books, such as O Jerusalem and Is Paris Burning? straddled journalism, history and the blockbuster novel, and sold by the ton. In India they researched the latest of the series, which became Freedom at Midnight, a typically racy, dramatic, page-turning account of the months before and after India's independence.

But something about India snagged Lapierre and his wife, also called Dominique. Something made it impossible for him to walk away. Partly it was the misery, partly the endlessly undermining contrast between his own prosperity and the bottomless poverty he encountered. Perhaps it was also the first stirring of an itch to be, as he puts it, "not merely a witness but an actor".

The impulse led him, as it has led many before and since, to the portals of the Mother House, the Calcutta headquarters of Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity. "I decided to give part of my royalties to an Indian institution working for leper children," he says. But Dominique Lapierre was about to receive a lesson in how difficult it is to give. Sixteen years later, he is still learning.

Mother Teresa received the two Dominiques with the gentle, quizzical amusement that was her trade mark. "Mother," Lapierre said, "I know that what we have brought is only a drop in an ocean of need ..."

"But if the drop were not in the ocean, the ocean would miss it," Mother Teresa interrupted. "And it is God who has sent you."

With Mother Teresa's introduction the Lapierres began to help an English Anglican priest, James Stevens, who had opened a pioneering rehabilitation centre for the children of leprosy victims. The children were trapped in some of the most desperate living conditions in the world, spurned and reviled by the rest of society and almost certain, unless removed from that environment, to become lepers in their turn.

The Lapierres' arrival with a bag full of dollar bills was wonderfully timed; the home was on the point of closure after its original French sponsors had changed their priorities. The Lapierres' donation enabled the work to continue.

It was James Stevens who led the Lapierres into the slum that was to make Calcutta a permanent part of their lives: Pil Khanna - renamed by Lapierre "the City of Joy", which became the subject of his next book. And after it became a book, it became his life's work.

The City of Joy has sold more than 6 million copies, and because Lapierre pledged to donate half of the $400,000 annual royalties to the suffering in and around Calcutta, his connection to the city has become permanent.

Every year, at least once a year, when Calcutta is not unbearably hot, he comes back - to inaugurate new projects, revisit old ones and give pep talks.

The itinerary this year takes in a home for physically and mentally handicapped children in the heart of Howrah, Calcutta's twin city on the far bank of the Hooghly; a housing project for widows and abandoned women 50 miles from Calcutta; a TB clinic that treats 150,000 patients every year; and the home for lepers' children that started the whole thing rolling all those years ago.

But the project that caught this journalist's eye was the launching of a second boat dispensary in the Ganges delta, south of Calcutta, in an area of mangrove swamps called the Sunderbans.

Split in half at Partition, the Sunderbans is shared between Bangladesh and India. In both countries it is wild, inaccessible and largely undeveloped. The main economic activity within it is the collecting of wild honey; about 300 honey collectors, The Independent was told, are carried away and eaten by tigers each year.

These facts are less beguiling for the honey collectors and their families, who, in the event of escaping alive from tigers (or crocodiles, the other main menace), are likely to bleed to death because the dirt-poor villages of the region lack facilities of every kind, including medical ones.

Enter Dominique Lapierre with large cheque book. Last year an old Hooghly River ferryboat was recommissioned as the first floating dispensary for the Sunderbans, where it putters about between the 57 islands within range, providing medical care.

The floating dispensary was such a success that soon the organisation that staffs and runs it was calling for a second boat. With his customary energy, Lapierre rustled up the money. In this case, Father Christmas was a businessman in Andorra whom Lapierre bumped into while he was doing a book signing. Pere and his wife Luisa, well-tanned and brimming with Andorran bonhomie, have come along to snip the ribbon.

On the day of the trip we gather in the lobby of Calcutta's Oberoi Grand. The party consists of nine or ten photographers (including two of the best in India), local reporters, a strong sprinkling of French and Italians and one Briton. The benefactors, Andorran and Canadian, stand out in their expensive-looking casuals.

Lapierre organises who is to go in which car, briefs the drivers about the route, commandeers a signboard in the lobby, draping it with a map of West Bengal, and gives us a discourse on the geography and misery of the Sunderbans.

When he has seen us all into the right cars, he and Dominique squeeze themselves into the uncomfortable bus in front and we all set off.

The misery turns out to be all too real. The route south to the Sunderbans runs alongside what on first sight is a sparkling river. Actually it is Calcutta's main sewer. Outside the city, India's collected blights are on display: Dense population, no development, no infrastructure, no sanitation, no electricity. Even where there is employment - fish farms have multiplied here, to the great benefit of their owners - it brings no corresponding benefit for the communities. The misery just goes on the same. And this is a region that the Communist Party has ruled for decades.

Dominique Lapierre's work in such a context may be criticised as applying a sticking plaster to a tumour. And there are those for whom Lapierre's appetite for self-publicity - all the projects he has funded are emblazoned with his name - sticks in the craw. Among such people, however, are not the thousands in places such as this, whom his initiatives have helped.

Charitable work on such a scale raises difficult questions about dependency, continuity, and how real change can be effected. Lapierre wrestles with these problems; in particular he is trying to raise $8m, which would allow the work he is funding to carry on after his royalties have dwindled away. He and his wife are in the grip of the octopus of permanent fund- raising. Inspiring them are the enigmatic words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, which are printed on the back of Lapierre's business card: "All that is not given is lost."