Dominique Lapierre - On a high ground

Whizzing through Mumbai streets with author Dominique Lapierre can be a high-flying experience if you're prepared to talk about his favourite subject -- Calcutta


DOMINIQUE LAPIERRE is upstairs in his hotel room at the Oberoi but he will not, repeat will not, be disturbed because he's busy at a meeting. The author of 'City of Joy' is in the process of finalising arrangements for his visit to Calcutta coming up which will be like a joyous homecoming for him. Calcutta was where his beloved Mother Teresa lived till her death a year ago and though a vacuum may have enveloped him, it has not diminished his enthusiasm for the eastern frontier. Death, he says, is not the ultimate indignity, it is inevitable.

So we will meet, but we will meet according to certain rules. Not upstairs in his room or in the hotel lobby. Nor in our office. We will meet in the car that's to take him to Santacruz airport where he and his wife Dominique (yes, they share the name) are to board a late afternoon flight for Bangalore. Bangalore will be the third leg of his India tour that includes all four metro cities plus the city of Silicon Valley dreams. So much of India -- is he in love with the subcontinent or what?

"My love affair with India began in 1953," says the celebrated author, as he and his wife start to load their not inconsiderable baggage into a waiting Tata Sierra. "It's extraordinary," he says, a glint lighting up his face, "that whenever I come to India, there's always more love to go around: such exceptional people I encounter all the time. When I initially came, I was a young journalist who had covered the Korean war and I learnt how to be a Kamikaze out here. Mostly because of the bus drivers who drove so rashly and from whom I learnt how to survive on Indian roads!"

Survival. How does that figure as a theme for an international author who underwent a radical personal transformation in the slums of Calcutta? A place that Kipling called the City of Terrifying Night? "Everybody has their own perceptions," says Lapierre lightly. "What my wife and I saw in Calcutta were people with the capacity to confront adversity like no other, to smile, celebrate, hope like no place else. Today Dominique and I have come to a stage where if we haven't seen Calcutta for a period of over four months, we need to go and see a doctor. The city is our vitamin pill. And we return to France with a fresh perspective every time where finding parking space in Ramatuelle is no longer the hub of our existence."

The Sierra is cruising Marine Drive now and a young Indian associate in the front seat is being instructed by the husband-wife duo on the itinerary for later this month when the associate will join them in Bong city. "Be there on the 25th, 26th and 27th," instructs Lapierre, "you can leave after the ambulance has been donated to Belari." In the airconditioned comfort of the sleek car, Lapierre says that he is more than grateful to an industrial house which is donating the ambulance as well as a minibus to his scheme in Calcutta. He says it will help him transport what seems like irrevocably stuck villagers to school as well as to and from their vocational institutions. "The transport in Belari is medieval," he explains, "and for the villagers there, a distance of 15 km might as well be two days away." Of course his schemes have been financed from the royalties for 'City of Joy' which has officially sold eight million copies and is still going off the shelves. Drool-brool.

What about his latest book? 'A Thousand Suns', is a collection of epic stories of the most extraordinary people in his life, Lapierre says -- Gandhiji, Indira Gandhi, Gopal Godse, the Maharaja of Kapurthala and the Maharaja of Patiala, among others. Also included are the not-so-famous like Hansari Pal the rickshaw puller who formed the protagonist for COJ, James Stevens of 'Udayan' the resurrection home for leper children in Calcutta. "They are people who inspired me, nourished my dreams, my ambitions. We need to have dreams, role models especially today," Lapierre points out. Nothing according to the author indicates this more than the fact that two billion people watched Mother Teresa's funeral throughout the world or even Princess Diana's funeral both within the same week. Today, what is needed are lighthouse to show the way because many times one doesn't know what direction to take, he says.

The car is purring past Prabhadevi when unexpectedly Lapierre turns and asks one where one was born. "Allahabad?" he questions. "City of Jawaharlal Nehru -- page 268, Nehru's ashes are returned to the river." It takes one some time to figure out that he's talking about the epic 'Freedom at Midnight' which he co-wrote with Larry Collins. One skips turning to page 268 to confirm whether Nehru's ashes were indeed immersed in the confluence of the Ganges, but Lapierre's sense of Indian history is obviously momentous. "I interviewed 1,500 people for 'Freedom at Midnight' -- from Indira Gandhi, maharajas to coolies, fishermen, 'dhobis', everybody," he says with childish glee, "and it was the confirmation of my love affair with India in the 70s. The book took two years to research and afterwards I took off with $50,000 worth of royalties to Calcutta where James Stevens took me to Anand Nagar." It's been 17 years now that he's been going to Calcutta, he says.

A bit of verbal postulation here. Considering the social Darwinism that Hansari Pal undergoes, does Lapierre endorse the view that life is a struggle where only the fittest survive? "It's not the question of the fittest, it's the question of those who have the will -- the will to fight with ambition and survive," retorts Lapierre. "Sometimes, as in Hansari Pal's case, you don't always survive but there's dignity in the fight." But isn't death the ultimate humiliation? At which point Mrs Lapierre pipes in, "We're all God's children and God loves us all. The difficulty in life comes from other human beings." Okay, okay.

"But," says Mrs Lapierre, obviously no mean advocate of her husband's philosophy, "the solution lies in love." Which was the point she says her husband was making when he wrote 'Beyond Love', the thriller based on the hunt for the cure to the AIDS virus. Nobody knows how long they're going to live -- one could die in a car crash, a heart attack, or be blown up in a bomb. There may be no solution but one might find a respite in love, she says -- a fact that the poor know eminently."

Which is all well but isn't poverty a terrible thing? "The misery is unacceptable," concur the Lapierres, "but it has to be fought against. Ambition and a little luck may take one above the degradation." The sight they can never forget was at James Steven's home where an 18-year-old boy, who'd been rescued from the slums ten years previously, held a fluttering piece of white paper in his hand. That piece of paper was his diploma in mechanical engineering! If Mother Teresa's view that 'saving one child is saving the world' holds true, then having shown the way, even if it was just to that child, made a world of a difference.

DL Having dabbled in both the fiction and non-fiction genres, which does Lapierre enjoy more? Non-fiction undoubtedly since the only piece of fiction he's written is 'The Fifth Horseman' with Larry Collins, he says. "City of Joy is not fiction, it is a realistic document," he clarifies, "and it's not just the story of Hansari Pal -- it's the story of an entire ambience. It's a story of having lived things from the heart, a tribute to the resilience and courage of Calcuttans." At which point Lapierre mentions 'Into Thin Air', a non-fictional account of a disastrous Himalayan expedition, that he's currently thrilled by, which is the kind of story that's his bowl of 'moori'.

Before we've realised it, we're at Santacruz airport and as the car glides onto the tarmac, informed attendants from a local travel company prise open the door. Mr Lapierre is on his way to Bangalore and there's no stopping him as the luggage is piled onto trolleys. One last question -- why the split with Larry Collins after 'O Jerusalem, Is Paris Burning, Freedom at Midnight' and 'The Fifth Horseman'? "Because the 'City of Joy' could have only flown out of one pen," says Lapierre decisively.

As we wave 'au revoir' to the Lapierres from the foyer, we muse that it's going to be a long journey back into town without the utterly sensible duo to keep company. But the man must move on, you know, and a whole lot of Calcuttans will have joy restored to their countenances when the man behind the unforgettable title returns to their city. There's a distant rumble in the horizon -- what? Are they cheering already?