Dominique Lapierre carries a rickshaw puller's hand bell in his pocket at all times. It belonged to Hasari Pal, the protagonist of his best-selling 1985 book, City of Joy. For the French author and humanitarian, it is a potent reminder of what he calls "the voice" of India. For the last 26 years, Lapierre, a Padma Bhushan recipient, has been using his royalties to support 14 charities in rural Bengal. He is in India to celebrate a couple of milestones, including the 75,000th tuberculosis patient cured at his medical centre in the Sunderbans in West Bengal. On Monday, he will set sail for Gabberia island along with around 30 international donors and friends. The former journalist, now 79, has managed to keep up his prolific pace of writing and will also launch his latest literary output, an epic account of South Africa's tumultuous history called A Rainbow in the Night (Full Circle, India), while in the country. In Delhi, en route to the Sunderbans, Lapierre spoke to Mint about his early days as a journalist, his humanitarian work, and his frustrations with the tight-fisted millionaires of India. Edited excerpts: You've been coming to India twice a year for the last 26 years, but you've been quiet about those trips. What makes this trip special?
I would like to think that we're celebrating a small victory. When we started our medical centres in rural Bengal and wanted to install an X-ray machine, we couldn't because those areas had no electricity. It took a year and a hunger strike to get even the poles and cables installed. We've come a long way since then. You started off as a journalist at 17, covering North America, Russia, France, Spain and Israel both as a journalist and an author. What brought you to India and what makes it a place you keep coming back to? India's independence and the end of British colonial rule, all of it made for a brilliant story. Modern Indian history is speckled with such an interesting host of characters-Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Jinnah, Mountbatten. In 1975, my longtime friend and collaborator Larry Collins and I came together to write what we call ourmasterpiece, Freedom at Midnight. It was intended as a historical fresco of the end of the British Empire in India and turned out an unprecedented hit. Bookshops in France were burning incense and exhibiting pictures of Gandhi.
After all of this, I thought it wasn't enough to just be a writer. I wanted to do something more. You've poured in $60 million ('271 crore) from your own resources to fund your humanitarian work in India. How do you plan to make this sustainable? When my wife and I took over the Udayan home for children, founded by the Rev. James Stevens in Kolkata, in the 1980s, my royalties formed the seed money. Over the years, we've received a lot of aid from donors around the world. My goal, though, was to appeal to Indian donors and that hasn't materialized. A decade ago, we set up a tax-free trust in Delhi, which has mostly run dry. When I read about Indian millionaires building 27-storey houses in Mumbai, I wonder how this is possible. This is a rich country. But why isn't "shining India" collaborating a little more to help the unfortunate? We might have to close some of our schools and dispensaries, and cut down our fleet of hospital boats in the Sunderbans, because of dwindling resources. These will be heartbreaking decisions. Despite these frustrations, you're working on a book called India, My Love... Yes, indeed. Because my association with India really has been a love affair. The book will be out in 2011. It has anecdotes and memoirs, including the back histories of my books.
When I first went to publishers in France and said I wanted to write a book on the slums of Kolkata, they thought I was a mad man. But the book sold over nine million copies in over 40 languages. People wrote to me and continue to write to me, sending gold ingots and cash with their letters to help the people featured in City of Joy. I've included some of these letters in the book. Tell us about one of the chapters. When the conspirators of Gandhi's assassination were released after a 25-year imprisonment, I took them to Birla House to re-enact the assassination. While we were there, we saw a visitor reach for something in his pocket. I was with Gopal Vinayak Godse and Digambar Ramchandra Badge and we were afraid that the man would attack us. Instead, he came and asked Gopal Godse, Nathuram Godse's brother, for an autograph. It was a mind-numbing experience; a surprise, like India often throws up.
Mint sourced by HT Media Ltd