The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre - A book review
Author: Dominique Lapierre
No of Pages : 514
About the Author
Author: Dominique Lapierre
No of Pages : 514
About the Author
Dominique Lapierre is a French Author born in La Rochelle, France, studied and graduated from Lafayette College, Pennsylvania. He spent 14 years as an international reporter with the news magazine Paris Match.His wife Dominique Conchon-Lapierre ( they were married in 1980) is his partner in the City of Joy Foundation (registered in France under the official name of Action pour les enfants des lpreux de Calcutta), which is a purely volunteer-driven association.The couple lives in the south of France. The other books written by Lapierre include ‘Is Paris Burning?’ and ‘Is New York Burning’ They have one daughter, Alexandra, who also is a writer. (from wikipedia)
About the book ‘City of Joy‘
This book was written based on the experiences of the author during frequent stays in Calcutta. The author wrote the story based on three years of extensive research in Calcutta and various areas in Bengal, India. Taking help from personal dairies, correspondence, interviews that were conducted through interpreters in various languages including Hindi, Bengali ,Oriya and Urdu. The author translated them into English and French. The author goes on to add in his note right at the beginning of the book ‘This book though the fruit of extensive research does not pretend to speak for the whole of India readers should not extend to the country as a whole , impressions he gathers here of one small corner of it - a small area of Calcutta called The city of Joy. The book dwells on the lives of men and women and children who have been uprooted from their homes in rural villages of India, by implacable nature and hostile circumstances, and thrown into a city whose capacity for hospitality has been pushed beyond imagination.It is a story about how people learn despite incredibly difficult odds to survive, to share and to love.
It is basically the story of Stephan Kovalski , a polish Catholic priest who wants to make a home to care for the poorest of the poor among the slum dwellers of Calcutta.Much to the amusement of the Local Bishop who offers him better options , he begins his life in Anand Nagar ( City of Joy) , one of the many slums that have mushroomed across the mega city. In the beginning Stephan finds life hard in that seeming hell of one of the poorest and most crowded quarters of Calcutta, but, as he gets to know the slum dwellers he finds more heroism, more love and ultimately more happiness than in many a city of the West. Above all he discovers that the slum had the magical ability to fashion Saints. he lives in the slum, sharing the same life as the others living there, in a shack without proper ventilation and no electricity or light, infested with rats, Cockroaches, Spiders and surrounded by filth , with Eunuchs as his neighbors and the local mafia don befriending him and treating him like their God father and a Leper colony where the inmates needed his help..he helped them all and people of Anand nagar adored him and cherished him calling him a Saint, a precious gift sent to them by the almighty. he in turn found some exceptional human beings who made a great impact on his life and shared with him everything that they possibly could , inspite of their utter poverty , people who made the slum an unusual place with their spirits and outlook towards life
I remember a time when there were many protests in Calcutta , on the streets, in the newspapers, on the television against the contents of this book. People at that time felt that it was a degrading account of their city written with an intention of harming the image of Calcutta and India in general. I read this book specifically because of this and frankly i was curious too..having read it i must say that i do not see any such intent by the author In fact, it is a very realistic portrayal of facts by a great person who loved India and made the slum his home and helped all those needy people who in turn worshiped him. City of Joy is a fascinating book with fascinating account by the author.It takes the readers through Rural India in the opening pages , describing the village life and the hardships of a different kind faced by the farmers, paving the way for their immigration into the great, cruel, inhuman city, where probably an even worse fate was in store for them. Just to give a little background on the city of Calcutta, founded in 1690 by a handful of British Merchants- Calcutta remained the capital of British India Empire until 1947. It was then called ‘The Paris of the East’ and even after independence continued to remain a major city , a homeland of Poets, Philosophers, Musicians,and artistes - a city of culture and heritage, but for the millions of villagers who crowd into its slums Calcutta represents neither culture nor history, it only means the faint hope to survive until the next day. I personally have never ever seen a slum, or rather never had the opportunity of either visiting one or see one at close quarters.So i was shocked to know that such places and living conditions actually existed in my country as i read through the author’s descriptions of “Anand nagar” which literally translates City of Joy; the slum where Stephan got to live, learn and interact for a number of years.
I feel that for someone to go through life surrounded by what i consider inhuman conditions, while one had better choices takes a lot of courage, determination and a basic love for humanity. Stephan is one of those very rare people who are born once in a life time- truly a saint as the residents of Anandnagar addressed him. Stephan’s account about his life in Anandnagar are breathtaking. Initially when the slum dwellers discover that he was going to stay among them , they all begin organizing his household by donating a Bucket, a Mat, an Oil Lamp, a Bed sheet .The poorer they were the more eager they were to give and Stephan discovered the value of food as a gift of life in the slum, something a more fortunate person takes for granted. The various people he comes across - Hasari Pal , a Rickshaw puller who had migrated from a village in Bengal, the Muslims living in Anandnagar leading a life of harmony with the Hindus and the Christians, the dignified manner in which they faced calamities, even death and then life went on as before. Stephan often looks on with amazement wondering ‘How could so much beauty spring out of so wretched a place?’ I was totally moved by the descriptions about the dangerous and desperate lengths to which people were driven to make paltry sum of money to fulfill the needs of their families.The saddest tale was that of Selima, a Muslim lady ,mother of four , who wants to sell her 7 month old fetus to a trader for Rs. 1200 ( less than twenty pounds) , the trader in turn would sell it to an International Lab for twenty times that amount, to carry out Genetic Research. In a blotched operation by an ill equipped doctor, Selima bleeds to death, having got nothing as she never informs her family about her plans. But all the others make a pocketful and her body is handed over to an attender, who sells it to a place where unidentified corpse is cut up to obtain skeleton for export. Selina’s family mourn her for a few days and life is back to its wretched routine in the city of joy. There are some lighter moments as well, when Stephan is questioned by the local Police Officer while on a regular visit , suspects Stephan of helping the Naxalites asks him to go to the station for an interview.
The Police Officer is disbelieving and flabbergasted to know that Stephan is willingly living in the slum since quite some time. Addressing him as Shri Kovalski Stephan , he comes up with his own deductions ‘Afterall don’t your Jesus Christ and the Naxalites have a number of factors in common? Don’t they claim to be rebelling against the same thing ? Against the injustices that repress the poor and the weak?’ But when Stephan firmly tells him that he was neither a Naxalite nor a CIA agent nor a Maoist - the Police Inspector thinks for a minute and tells him triumphantly ‘ Then i am sure , you must be a Jesuit’ which makes Stephan both angry and at the same time with a desire to burst out laughing - But again here Stephan’s amicable nature and the way he handles the whole situation makes the Police Officer bend down and actually help him out. An amazing place like Anand nagar is full of life. There are celebrations, festivities of all religions . People sell blood, nearly kill themselves or do just about anything to earn a few rupees to pool in for these community celebrations and at the same time they also come together in times of need and suffering.
Everything that was available in the slum was for everybody. At some stage Stephan feels that ‘ A slum in Calcutta is not like one of those Western Dormitory cities where a man can disappear or die without his neighbor noticing’ ,whereas, in Anandnagar , the slightest deviation from the norm aroused curiosity and the whole community came to know the news and an investigation was made to find out the reason and everyone tried to help out if the need arose, as someone rightly remarks ‘ You cannot hide anything here, not even the color of your soul ‘ . In my opinion this novel is a spellbinding and a most unusual real life account that is revolting and yet the same time attractive, definitely a Masterpiece written by the author.
The ‘City of Joy’ leaves an impact on your mind as a hellish, Marvelous and an Unforgettable place.. A story and a novel not to be missed.