Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Eclectic crime fiction and informed, irreverent non-fiction from Asia and beyond

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Dominique LaPierre’s Calcutta

Far too many of you have read the ‘City of Joy’ by Dominique LaPierre. The book has sold more than eight million copies, put Calcutta on the map as both the world’s saddest and happiest place and got rave reviews by the pope. Yes, that dead POPE.
Dominique LaPierre continues to come to Calcutta regularly. Organizations under his supervision have cured more than a million TB sufferers and 1000s of lepers. Unlike the late, great Mother Teresa, LaPierre has no overt religious agenda and does raise awareness on family planning and the ramifications of overpopulation.
So has Calcutta been able to down live any of its awesome reputation since the book came out and Patrick Swayze starred in the movie of the same title? The 73-year old French writer is not sure, “The lives of pavement dwellers and people living in slums have improved somewhat, mostly because of other developments. Since the mid-80s, traffic has thinned out a bit. Pollution has been reduced significantly, not least because electricity supply is fairly reliable these days. Twenty years ago, everyone was using diesel generators, it was terrible.”

For the slum in LaPierre’s novel, there was to be no happy ending, “The City of Joy was a slum called Pilkhana, on the west side of the Hooghly River, across the road from Howrah Station. That slum is long gone. The area is like a mini-Manhattan now. In the 80’s a slum dweller paid 20 Rupees (0.50 $) a month rent, today the rent in the area runs into 1000s of Rupees.”
Faced with eviction, the slum dwellers were given few opportunities to improve their lives.
“They moved further away from the city center and started a new slum. It has no running water, little electricity and few schools. Circumstances for these people have hardly improved. They have lost contact with the city, being so far away from the center. In fact, they have fallen off the map.”

They are not the only ones. The heart and soul of this city lies with its most disadvantaged inhabitants.
When Papushek was ten years old, he traveled hundreds of miles from his village under his own steam, only to end up in Sealdah Station, sharing the platforms with hundreds of other children, running from the police and begging. He had never been to school and could neither read nor write. But he was a survival expert in a hostile world, poorly equipped, immensely resourceful, just like his 100.000 nameless companions who continue to fight for their lives in back alleys and on station platforms.

“I was always hungry. But I got together with other children and we bought glue. When we inhaled it, we could sleep for a long time and forget about the lack of food. Sometimes I would sleep for two days. Sometimes people gave me a few Rupees. But often we were beaten and kicked, not just by the police, but by the people passing through the station as well. Most of the food I got was from the rubbish.”

Kids like Papusheck are the true heroes of the world. To survive a week in a train station in India beats any GI out of his MacDonald’s sponsored sandpit in Iraq. It requires everything a human being can do to stay alive – creativity, ingenuity, learning abilities, the total suspension of morality and a will to succeed against unimaginable, totally hopeless odds.

The City of Joy may not be a tourist destination in the ordinary sense, but the assault on the senses, opinions and prejudices we carry about is so intense and sustained, that Calcutta leaves an impression on even the most insensitive clots. Some fall in love with the place and return again and again.

Dominique LaPierre, who spent his honeymoon in Calcutta in 1953, has a deep, longstanding affection for the city.

“Earlier this week, I gave an interview to a young local journalist. Since I lived in Calcutta, I have always carried what I call the ‘Calcutta cellular phone’ with me, the bell of a rickshaw puller. During the interview, it clicked in my pocket and the journalist asked me, ’What’s that?’ He couldn’t place the sound. This kind of ignorance encapsulates the problems of Calcutta today. The city is on the move but the poor have nowhere to go.”

My interview with Dominique LaPierre was originally published in Farang/Untamed Travel Magazine in 2003 as part of a longer story on Kolkata’s rickshaw pullers. Republished in my travel anthology Beyond The Pancake Trench (Orchid Press, 2004).

I am currently participating in the Indo-European Artist Residency Kolkata 2019, and was selected by the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata.

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