The year was 1981. Dominique Lapierre's Freedom At Midnight – based on the last year of India's freedom struggle – had come out just a few years ago.
Lapierre had gained widespread fame and royalties from the success of the book, which had been written after several interviews with Lord Mountbatten, the last Governor General of India, and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Instead of pocketing all the money, Lapierre, whose heart beat for the poor and oppressed in India, paid a visit to Kolkata's (then Calcutta) most revered saint, Mother Teresa, with a cheque of $50,000. He was certain that she would know best how to utilise the royalties received from the book.
Mother Teresa introduced him to Englishman James Stevens, who had opened a shelter for leprosy-afflicted children in the the slums of Kolkata.
When Stevens met Lapierre in 1981, the former was in deep financial crisis, as the shelter had depleted its funds, and there was no other source of financial support. Circumstances were so dire that it seemed that all the children would be forced to return to the slums.
However, Lapierre pledged to help Stevens, and assured him that the shelter home would not have to close its doors to the downtrodden no matter what.
That marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Lapierre and Mother Teresa, as the latter was particularly sympathetic for leprosy patients and spent most of her life caring for them. She also gave Lapierre the rights to write a film on her life and the work of her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, called Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor.
The 'Adopted Son' of India, No More
Lapierre, the French author known around the world as the "adopted son of India" breathed his last on 4 December at the age of 91.
His wife, Dominique Conchon-Lapierre, confirmed the news to French newspaper Var-Martin, saying that he had died of "old age" and that she was "at peace and serene" since he was "no longer suffering."
Born in July 1931 in Chatelaillon, France, Lapierre sold around 100 million copies of his books, the most popular being the ones he co-wrote with American author Larry Collins.
One common theme which stands out in all his books, whether it's Is Paris Burning? (which speaks of the liberation of Paris during the Second World War) or Oh Jerusalem! (which is based on the struggle for the creation of Israel), is his empathy for the oppressed.
However, the books for which he received much acclaim in India, and which in fact earned him the title of an "adopted son" and the Padma Bhushan in 2008 were City of Joy, Freedom at Midnight, and Five Past Midnight In Bhopal.
A Crusader of Justice for Victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy
"Dominique Lapierre’s foundation provided funds for the gynecology department of the Sambhavna Trust clinic. An annual amount of Rs 10 to 20 lakh was sent from 1999 to 2017," Lapierre's longtime associate Satinath Sarangi told The Quint.
Sarangi is one of the founders of the Sambhavna clinic, which was set up in 1994 to provide free healthcare services to survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy – which is said to have killed more than 15,000 people and impacted lakhs more.
Sarangi continues to work at the clinic, which combines modern medicine, Ayurveda, and yoga to treat victims of the tragedy.
Sarangi and Lapierre met when the latter was conducting research for his book, Five Past Midnight In Bhopal, based on the tragedy.
Lapierre co-authored the book with his nephew Javier Moro, and the two interviewed hundreds of people while conducting their research, including victims of the tragedy themselves.
With the help of the donations provided by Lapierre over a span of 18 years, the clinic managed to provide medical treatment to over 65,000 people.
"I was amazed with his (Lapierre's) intimate knowledge of Indian society and his love and respect for the underprivileged Indian," Sarangi said.
In addition to his monthly donations, Lapierre also contributed around Rs 56 lakh towards the construction of a new building for the clinic, and used his contacts to inspire gynecologists and pathologists from France to visit and train doctors and technicians working there, Sarangi added.
Apart from this, Lapierre contributed towards the building of an informal school in the Odiya Basti and a community clinic in the Nawab colony, which is located near the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.
A Deep Bond With Kolkata
India, and specifically the city of Kolkata, was close to Lapierre's heart, as he said repeatedly over the years.
Expressing his deep love for the city, he had said in an interview with NDTV in 2004, "I told my wife that when I die, I want my tombstone to read 'Citizen of Honour of the City of Calcutta.'"
The title was conferred upon him in 1985, owing to the philanthropic ventures he had undertaken in Kolkata and across the state of West Bengal.
Kolkata even became the setting for his seminal book, City of Joy, which portrays the struggles of a rickshaw puller in the city and highlights the agony of poverty-stricken and ailing people, including slum dwellers and leprosy patients.
The book is based on the Pilkhana slum in Kolkata's twin city of Howrah – that houses tens of thousands of people, living in abysmal conditions.
While many hailed the book for drawing focus towards the oppressed sections in Kolkata, and in extension India, others expressed their dislike towards him for exactly the same reason.
The book was subsequently turned into a 1992 movie by the same name, starring Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, and Patrick Swayze, and was widely acclaimed by audiences and critics alike.
The book also served as a gateway to Lapierre's philanthropy in India, as he spent half of the royalties he got from the book – approximately $8 million – to fund his City of Joy Foundation in Kolkata.
The money was used to cure one million tuberculosis patients across 1,200 villages and treat 9,000 children with leprosy. A portion of the royalties was also spent on digging up more than 500 tube wells to provide clean drinking water and spreading literacy among women in hundreds of villages.
Speaking on why the rickshaw pullers of Kolkata held such a special place in Lapierre's heart, he had said during a TV interview, "I feel that at some point of time, in one of my incarnations, I used to be a rickshaw-wallah."
Lapierre's life was dedicated to the service of those who had no means to sustain themselves, and belonged to the lowest rungs of Indian society. His efforts towards the empowerment of the downtrodden gives true meaning to Mother Teresa's quote, "All that is not given is lost" – which adorns the leading banner of the website of Lapierre's City of Joy Foundation.
(With inputs from Var-Martin and NDTV.)
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