New Delhi: French author Dominique Lapierre (91), who had a special bond with India and was known for his iconic book on Kolkata, ‘City of Joy’, has died due to age-related ailments.
Lapierre’s wife, Dominique Conchon-Lapierre, confirmed the news to the French newspaper Var-matin on Monday.
Lapierre received the country’s third highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, was fluent in Bengali and wrote the iconic “City of Joy,” the inspiring story of an American doctor who experienced a spiritual renaissance in an impoverished section of Calcutta, plus of collaborating with American writer Larry Collins on such seminal works as “Freedom At Midnight” and “Is Paris Burning.”
Adapted for film by Roland Joffe and starring Patrick Swayze, “City of Joy” is about the unsung heroes of Kolkata’s Pilkhana slum. Lapierre donated half of the royalties he earned from this book to support various humanitarian projects in Kolkata, including shelters for children with leprosy and polio, clinics, schools, rehabilitation workshops, educational programmes, health actions and hospital ships.
Calcutta, now Kolkata, has been nicknamed ‘City of Joy’ after the novel.
To process and channel the charity funds, Lapierre founded an association called Action Aid for Calcutta Lepers’ Children (registered in France under the official name Action pour les enfants des l preux de Calcutta). Aware of the corruption in India, he arranged all of his fund transfers to India in such a way as to ensure that the money reached the right person for the right purpose. His wife since 1980, Dominique Conchon-Lapierre was his partner in the City of Joy Foundation.
His other Indian classic (with Larry Collins), “Freedom At Midnight,” is a detailed account of the final year of the British Raj, the princely states’ reactions to independence, including descriptions of the extravagant lifestyles of Indian princes. , the partition of the subcontinent and the bloodshed that followed.
The events leading up to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the lives of the motives of Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah are also described in detail.
There is a third book on India, “Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster” which Lapierre wrote in collaboration with Javier Moro based on the 1984 Bhopal disaster which the authors investigated by living in the city for three years.
Royalties from the book go to the Sambhava clinic in Bhopal, which provides free medical treatment to victims of the disaster. Lapierre also financed a primary school in Oriya Basti, one of the settlements described in the book.
Born on July 30, 1931, in Chatelaillon, Charte-Maritime in France, Lapierre was 18 years old when he received a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. A car fanatic from the start, he bought a 1937 Chrysler convertible and fell in love with a fashion editor.
They were married in New York City Hall on her 21st birthday and flew to Mexico in the old Chrysler for their honeymoon. With just $300 in their pockets, they had enough to buy gas, sandwiches, and cheap motel rooms for truckers. In Los Angeles, they won another $300 on a radio game show for Campbell Soup. The prize included a box of soup, which was her only food for three weeks.
Lapierre sold the Chrysler for $400 in San Francisco and bought two tickets on the SS President Cleveland to Japan. The honeymoon lasted a year. They made their way through Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Iran, Turkey, and Lebanon. When they returned to France, Lapierre wrote his second book, “Honeymoon around the Earth.”
On his return to Paris after his honeymoon, he was conscripted into the French army. After a year in a tank regiment, he was transferred to SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) headquarters to serve as an interpreter. One day in the cafeteria he met a young American corporal, Larry Collins, a Yale graduate and recruit and they became instant friends.
When Collins was discharged, he was offered a job at Procter & Gamble. Two days before he reported for the new job, United Press offered him a job as a subheading editor in their Paris office, for much less money than Procter & Gamble offered. Collins accepted the United Press offer, and Newsweek soon tapped him to be its Middle East correspondent.
When Lapierre was discharged, he found a job as a reporter for Paris Match magazine. Collins became godfather to the Lapierres’ first daughter, Alexandra. On several occasions, Collins and Lapierre met while on assignment. Despite their friendship, they had to compete with each other for stories. But they decided to join forces to tell a great story that would appeal to both French and Anglophone audiences.
His first best-seller “Is Paris Burning?” it sold close to 10 million copies in 30 languages by mixing the modern technique of investigative journalism with the classical methods of historical investigation. It was also made into a movie.
After that, they spent four years in Jerusalem to reconstruct the birth of Israel for the book “Oh Jerusalem!” Lapierre was proud that, after spending so much time in Jerusalem, he was intimately familiar with every alley, square, street, and building in the Holy City.
Lapierre and Collins wrote several other books together, notably “The Fifth Horseman”, the last being “Is New York Burning” before Collins’ death in 2005.
RIP true friend from India Dominique Lapierre. You will be greatly missed.