Is he the world’s best and highest paid ambulance chaser, or a deeply committed journalist with an ingrained ethic and finely tuned sense of outrage?

 

When he was 17, Dominique Lapierre set out to conquer the world with US$30 in his pocket. He covered 30,000 miles and made a killing with his first book, A Dollar for a Thousand Miles. It was the beginning of an extraordinary literary journey that would see him crisscrossing the globe for the next four decades, chronicling some of the biggest stories of our times—the liberation of Paris in Is Paris Burning, the birth of Israel in O Jerusalem, India’s freedom struggle in Freedom At Midnight, the discovery of the AIDS virus in Beyond Love. These along with other books like The Fifth Horseman, Freely on Russian Roads, Chessman Told Me, Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning, City of Joy and A Thousand Suns have collectively sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.

The books made millions for Lapierre, enough for him to retire to a chateau in the South of France if he chose. But the 71-year old author has continued to press on, not just writing exhaustive research-based books including his most recent three-year effort It was Five Minutes Past Midnight in Bhopal, but also overseeing the two NGOs that he has set up to help the poor in and around Kolkata. Lapierre’s work among the poor in India has its origins in the work he did on Freedom at Midnight. In the years they spent researching, he and Larry Collins interviewed more than 1200 people, travelled 250,000 miles, collected a ton of archives, 10,000 feet of film and 1000 photographs. But most of all, he discovered Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhi was a great politician, a saint, a prophet,” says Lapierre, “he practised what he said. If you read Gandhi you will find the answer to all problems of humanity, forever. He belongs to the world, not just to India. It is sad that he isn’t fashionable anymore.”

Gandhi’s life was the inspiration when he made the decision to spend two years in the slums of Kolkata in the early 1980s on a personal journey of discovery. Where fellow Frenchman Louis Malle saw only horrors in this Indian city, Dominique saw indestructible beauty in man’s struggle to survive. When he told his French and American publishers he wanted to write a book on his experiences, they were aghast. “What? You want to write a book on a bunch of lepers living in the Kolkata slums,” they asked incredulously, “You won’t sell five copies!” However Lapierre knew the story of the rickshaw puller Hansari Pal—whose broken bell he carries as a talisman to this day—would shake the world. He was right. City of Joy has sold over 8.5 million copies in 31 countries and touched so many hearts that he received over 2,00,000 letters with cheques and offers to work in the slums.

Where other authors go home after telling a good story, Lapierre puts his royalties where his mouth is. He has donated over US$5 million to set up The City of Joy Foundation in Kolkata through which he runs shelters for leprosy patients and handicapped children, dispensaries, schools, rehabilitation workshops and sanitation schemes. He has helped treat and educate  9,000 leprosy-affected children and dug over 500 tube wells in villages where young girls once spent the whole day scratching for a bucket of water.

That the rickshaw puller’s death should not be in vain, he set up the Southern Health Improvement Samiti for the eradication of tuberculosis, which has treated over four million patients and launched vaccination programmes in over a thousand villages in the Ganga delta. He runs three hospital boats to provide medicine to people who live in islands which are not found on any map. It reminds him of an incident when he was mad at the media. “When I had a press conference to launch these boats, journalists were simply not interested. I chartered a bus and took 50 of them to a new institute for the poor and when they arrived after a two-hour journey they grumbled, ‘Mr Lapierre, you did not put mineral water in our bus!’ I said, ‘You are complaining about mineral water when we are meeting people who survive on the polluted water of the Ganges?’ Your media is very choosy and it rarely goes into the slums. It’s one thing to report on scams, it’s another to portray the greatness of these people and why their condition should be changed. You have to spend time in the slums to understand what it is to be infested with roaches and rats, the noises, the smells, the disputes between families: only then can you understand that millions of people are faced every night with atrocious basic conditions of survival.”

Listening to his accounts, it is hard not to suggest that his books present an idealised version of India’s poor. That they are, in fact, more like disaster tourism which exercises a morbid fascination for some. It’s the old axiom that bad news sells better than good, disaster stories sell better than coffee table books on say, Indian art. He’s quick to retort: “I do not have a taste for disaster! On the contrary I am talking about hope, courage and resilience. Poverty is a curse to humanity but when within this framework you find so many positive values, it is very inspiring. It tells you man is indestructible. I did not care if City of Joy sold only five copies because to me these people are the real heroes of our times.”

As are the victims of Bhopal, a city still coming to grips with the worst industrial disaster in history, killing between 16,000 to 30,000 people and poisoning 50,000 others. When a social worker, Satinath Sarangi, approached Lapierre for help in opening a gynaecological clinic for women suffering the aftermath of the toxic gas emission, his interest was aroused. When he discovered victims could not be cured even 15 years later because Union Carbide had never revealed the true composition of the deadly gases that erupted from its factory that night, he decided to investigate further. With Spanish author Javier Moro, whose book The Mountains of Tibet is an eyewitness account of that country’s occupation by China, Lapierre spent three years tracking down the protagonists of the Bhopal tragedy across the world. “Imagine, when we finally tracked down one of the Indian engineers on duty that night in a remote village in Maharashtra, he said ‘I’ve spent 15 years waiting for you,’ as he opened a cupboard full of old records that told the inside story of Union Carbide in Bhopal.” Lapierre says he wrote It was Five Minutes Past Midnight in Bhopal for two reasons; first, so that people never forget Bhopal, which could have happened in any country and second, that it should serve as a warning to manufacturing companies everywhere that such a thing could easily happen again.

What were the high points of writing this book? “I went to Bhopal and fell in love with this beautiful city of the begums where the big festival every year is not cricket or football but poetry and mushaira. A city where I am told, a driver once kidnapped a poet and made him recite shairi at gun point for seven hours before releasing him. Wasn’t it in character that one of the engineers responsible for inserting a small plastic disc between a water pipe and a gas pipe, which could have broken the chain of disasters that fateful night, left early because he wanted to attend a special mushaira in Spices Square that night?” The book makes chilling reading because it documents the disintegration of a state-of-the-art industrial plant through poor maintenance, union politicking, bad planning and sheer disregard for international standards and safety procedures.

The book which was released in India last month recently won the prestigious Prix des Maisons de la Presse, the French publisher’s award for the best book of the year. It has already sold two million copies in France and Spain, half of the royalties of which will go to the victims of Bhopal. Yes, there were times when he had to battle strong emotions of anger and frustration when he researched the events but, he claims, his primary focus was the plight of the victims. “Even 15 years after Bhopal not a single person has been brought to trial. The way the wind was blowing that night, it killed the slum dwellers and spared the rich up in Shyamla hills. Even though Union Carbide announced a compensation of US$430 million none of it has reached the poor. It is a real problem to get compensation if you lost a family member that night. First, you have to pay baksheesh to the bureaucrat who will record your claim and it’s all the way up like that. Tell me, how can they ever turn the page?”

Co-author Moro says part of the Carbide money was diverted into a beautification project in Bhopal and that the BJP treated the victims in an extremely partisan manner: “They evicted the Muslim families in the area who were also the poorest, destroying their shacks as encroachment. So the Muslims were victimized both by Carbide and the BJP politicians.” He also goes on to say that “Dominique seldom allows his emotions to get the upper hand. It’s not as if he hasn’t come up against vested political interests in the years he has worked in the slums. There are always politicians who think it’s an easy way to campaign to criticize this Westerner who’s coming to popularize the poverty of India, yet they themselves have never spent a night in a slum.”

He can afford to adopt the moral high ground, it’s something he’s earned out of all the work he has done here. Lapierre visits Kolkata several times a year to spend time in the slums and in the Sunderbans. “These people have given me more warmth and vitamins of life than any rich tycoon can,” he says, “Of course I take precautions. I don’t drink water, only boiled tea; I don’t eat anything, just some rice. It is true I cannot live exactly like them but I have gone a long way towards sharing their situation and their lives. I have a very long love story with India.”

 

This story was first published in the October 2001 issue

Image courtesy: Ashima Narain