City Of Joy – Part II

Dominique Lapierre at the EXPRESS

Dominique Lapierre  has recently given an interview to Indian Express. Read it here

He’s talked about  about what went into the writing of this book. Rather than me writing the concluding remark about my opinion of the book, the  excerpt below should be a apt summarization. This interview is part of the an “Idea Exchange” series of interviews. I’m taking the liberty of including the excerpts here.

MANDAKINI GAHLOT: What kind of research went into the writing of The City of Joy?

DOMINIQUE LAPIERRE: What happened was that I’d done Freedom at Midnight, spending months, years in India, and I fell in love with India because of Gandhi, Indian history, all that. With my wife, I wanted to show my gratitude to the Indian people, big maharajas as well as coolies from Calcutta. I wanted to show them my gratitude by doing something that could help them.

And that’s how I went to Calcutta with the share of my royalties in my pocket and I wanted to see Mother Teresa. At 5 o’clock in the morning, I said, ‘Mother, I have brought some money. Do you know an institution working for leprous children?’ She said, ‘It’s God who has sent you.’ There was an English gentleman who had opened a home in Barrackpore for leprous children from the slums, to cure and educate them. And he had no more money and was on the verge of closing his home, called Udayan. So I met this gentleman. We were very impressed to see everything. I gave him the money that I had brought and said, ‘This is to help you pay your debts.’ And I made an extravagant promise: ‘You’ll never close your home.’ Then I went back to Paris and wrote an article about this centre. In the end I said if only 3,000 of us were to send Rs 1,000 every year, we could save 500 children from death. We were living near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and about a week later, our house keeper came up and said, ‘Mr Lapierre, I don’t know what’s happening, but there is a truck from the postal service downstairs with nine postal bags for you. What should we do?’ Fortunately, my wife comes from a family of nine children. She’s got six sisters. So we told the six sisters to come to our apartment, took the nine bags, and for three weeks we sorted out all the letters. There were messages of hope: ‘Please say to Mr Stevens in Calcutta he should never close his centre.’ In one envelope there were two wedding rings, and on a sheet of paper it said: “We have worn these rings for 40 years of happiness. Today this gold will be more important for your children in Calcutta. Do not thank us.’ I think we had tears in our eyes.

So we could send the most beautiful telegram to this gentleman in Calcutta, saying: ‘You will never close your home.’ And we went back to meet some of the members of the family that we had, in a sense, adopted. One day this gentleman took us to one of the slums where he had picked up his first leprous child. This (story) was to become The City of Joy.

I understood while meeting the people of that slum that I was a writer-journalist with the heroes of humanity. People who had nothing and yet seem to have everything. Because they were standing up, they were celebrating, they were sharing with those poorer than themselves. There’s this beautiful line by Tagore: ‘Adversity is great, but man is greater than adversity.’ And I said to Dominique my wife (she’s also called Dominique, but she’s Big Dominique, and I’m Small Dominique): ‘Let’s buy some writing pads, some pens, and tell the story of these people. Because this is the story about the soul of humanity, the heart of humanity.’

And we stayed for two years in that slum. They are very poor. They have brought into an urban environment the culture of their villages. Every day, there was some celebration happening. Later working in the Bronx, with poor people, I found those who were disconnected from their past. But these people were not.

One day I was woken up by an orchestra walking by in the alley. I said to my friend, ‘Which god are you celebrating today?’ And she said, ‘We are not celebrating any god, we are celebrating the birth of spring.’ In a place with no trees, no flowers, no butterflies, no birds, these people had the guts to celebrate an event they will never see the manifestations of! I thought these people are the heroes of humanity. And that’s how I wrote The City of Joy. I went to my publisher, who said, ‘Who’s gonna read this? Come on, write happy stories.’ I said, ‘I don’t care if two people read it. I have to deliver the story.’ The result was than nine million copies of the book were sold. It was made into a major movie. Today it’s a cult book. I still receive hundreds of letters from people around the world, some saying, ‘I’ve just read The City of Joy. I was desperate, I was about to commit suicide.’ One day I received from a woman in San Francisco a cheque of $ 1,500, and she said: ‘I’ve read The City of Joy and I decided to stop smoking. And this is the amount I spend for my cigarettes in one year. You’ll receive this amount every January 1.’ I’m happy now that the book is very well read in India, which is very important.