Dominique Lapierre. “The City of Joy”

The French author and well-known in India for his ode to the city of Kolkata titled ‘The City of Joy’, died aged 91 on Sunday 4th December 2022. 

For Irudhaya Jothi, an anti-poverty activist in West Bengal, the contribution of the best-selling French writer “to the slum dwellers in Pilkana and other areas, and in a special way to the lepers, was life-giving for hundreds of poor.”

The famous book was the outcome of a meeting between the journalist and some missionaries working among the lepers in the poorest neighbourhoods of Kolkata (then known as Calcutta). The book, was adapted by Roland Joffé into a 1992 film.

The people included, most namely, an Anglican clergyman, Rev James Stevens, and members of the Prado Institute, a Catholic institute of consecrated life, in particular Fr Gaston Grandjean (who took the Indian name of Dayanand) and Fr François Laborde, mentioned to Lapierre by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

The book was only the start of long philanthropic involvement promoted by the writer. Speaking about the people he met in the slums, Lapierre said: “Although living in inhuman conditions, they do so with a smile, a dignity, an ability to share and celebrate that I have never seen elsewhere.”

City of Joy was a publishing success with 10 million copies sold worldwide and translations in 31 languages, but it was also a great show of solidarity. Its proceeds funded 30 schools and rehabilitation centres, 540 water wells, a million vaccinations against tuberculosis, treatment for 15,000 leper children.

Lapierre and his wife continued the work from France with the association Action pour les enfants des lépreux de Calcutta. “The poor looked at him as their messiah.The book “CIty of Joy” highlighted the painful stories of slum dwellers,” anti-poverty activist Jothi said. “The slum dwellers in Kolkata will miss their friend and benefactor.”

Lapierre’s work will live on with the missionaries who inspired his novel and continue with groups like Udayan and Howrah South Point. 

In addition to his great journalistic passion for people, Dominique Lapierre’s work in India was inspired by Mother Teresa. “I always thought that the little nun was the greatest modern saint,” he said. “I pray to her every day, asking her to inspire me every morning in my small, tiny action, to protect me, to show me the way.”

Two of his other books – Freedom At Midnight and Five Past Midnight In Bhopal: The Epic Story Of The World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster, were also set in India. Lapierre was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award, in 2008.