An author whose most celebrated book gave Kolkata its most clichéd name is no more.
Dominique Lapierre, the author of The City of Joy, has died “of old age”, his wife Dominique Conchon Lapierre told French newspaper Var-Matin on Sunday. He was 91.
The 1985 book, which interplays the stories of a rickshaw-puller and an American doctor in search of enlightenment, was turned into a film — starring Patrick Swayze and Om Puri — in 1992 by Roland Joffe.
The film, shot extensively in the city, is credited with capturing the soul of the poor of Kolkata.
The City of Joy is also a work for which many in Kolkata don’t like Lapierre, even after the book or the film based on it has faded from popular imagination.
The shooting of the film had run into trouble more than once. Many were said to be unhappy with the film’s projection of Kolkata’s poverty. But when it came out, the film won critical acclaim and love from the audience.
Lapierre founded a humanitarian association — called the City of Joy Foundation — with his wife, rescuing children suffering from leprosy from slums of Kolkata.
“Through royalties generated from Lapierre’s international bestsellers... through lecture fees, and donations from readers, the organisation has rescued 9,000 children suffering from leprosy and other diseases due to malnutrition and poverty; suppressed tuberculosis in 1,200 villages; dug 541 tube wells for drinking water... and taught the women of a thousand villages to read and write,” says the website of the foundation.
Lapierre’s trips to Kolkata had won him many admirers.
Mudar Patherya, a Kolkata-based communications consultant and social worker, has a gift from Lapierre adorning a wall of his office on Sarat Chatterjee Avenue, by Rabindra Sarobar.
“Lapierre came to Kolkata in February 2001. I contacted him... if he would write a page on the rickshaw-wallah (Hazari Pal, played by Om Puri) that would accompany the rickshaw we had hung from our top wall. He asked me to come over and get it written face-to-face. For some reason, I could not go and a colleague went instead. Lapierre wrote the page from the book that we desired and handed the sheet and marker pen back. Most fuss-lessly and smoothly,” said Patherya.
Abhijit Dasgupta, a former journalist who has interviewed Lapierre multiple times and accompanied him to the Sunderbans, talked of a special ability of the author. Lapierre was headed to a floating clinic in the Sunderbans.
“More than an author, he came across as a social worker. He had a special quality. He could become your friend within minutes. As you say in Bengali, nimeshe aapni theke tui hoye jawa (shifting from addressing with reverence to an informal tone in an instant),” said Dasgupta.
The author was known for his passion for travel. While researching in Kolkata, he became a close associate of Mother Teresa. A lepers’ colony in Pilkhana, Howrah, serves as a background in The City of Joy.
Lapierre was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award in 2008.
Born on July 30, 1931, in Chatelaillon, France, Lapierre is also known for books like Is Paris Burning?, Freedom at Midnight, O Jerusalem and The Fifth Horseman.
Most of his works are in collaboration with American writer Larry Collins, who Lapierre met while completing military service in 1954.