Book Review: The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre

After years of living on the Calcutta sidewalks as a rickshaw puller, Hasari Pal finally found a room for himself and his family in the slums, near the lodgings of Stephan Kovalski, a Polish priest. Racked with the “red fever” of tuberculosis, Hasari spent entire nights telling Kovalski about his life and his dreams. His whole tragic passage – from proud farmer to starving refugee to human horse – was chronicled.

Then, knowing the sickness was about to kill him, Hasari “pre- sold” his bones to a medical research supplier in order to provide a dowry for his daughter. He celebrated at her wedding festival for only a few hours before slipping away to die. Before dawn of the next day, the bone collectors knocked on his door.

The City of Joy touches on life in one of the poorest slums of Calcutta. It highlights people facing almost unbelievable adversities day to day, who still find ways to be happy. Based on true stories as told by Dominique Lapierre, who lived in this Calcutta ghetto for two years, the book covers a wide range of events and emotions, mingled with graphic portrayals of both heartbreak and jubilation. Lapierre relates his own experience and reports on “man’s capacity to … survive every possible tragedy.”

During this long, difficult, and sometimes painful research, I had to adjust to all sorts of situations. I learned how to live with rats, scorpions, and insects; to survive on a few spoons of rice and two or three bananas a day; to queue up for hours for the latrines; to wash with less than a pint of water; to light a match in the monsoon; to share my living quarters with a group of eunuchs.

Before being adopted by the inhabitants of the slum, I had to learn their customs, experience their fears and plights, share their struggles and hopes. This certainly was one of the most extraordinary experiences that a writer could live. It changed my life. Living with the heroic inhabitants of the City of Joy completely transformed my sense of priorities and my assessment of the true values of life.

After this confrontation with the real issues of existence – hunger, disease, total absence of work … I no longer fight for things like a parking place when I return to Europe or America.

Sharing for all these months the lives of a population who has less than ten cents each per day to survive on also taught me the real value of things … [and] the beauty of sharing with others. For two years nothing was asked of me but always given. The generosity of my friends in the City of Joy showed me that “everything that is not given is lost.”

Lapierre shares his stories through two main characters. The first is Hasari Pal, the eldest son of a Hindu farming family struck down by drought with the charge to feed his wife and children, as well as his parents, brothers and sisters.

Hasari abandons his rice farm in Bengal, with hopes of locating work in Calcutta. The Pal family lives on the streets, without even enough money to feed themselves, let alone pay for shelter. To survive, Hasari’s children are forced to search through rubbish for scraps of leftover food.

At first, the only income Hasari earns is from selling his blood; but the money he receives from each transaction is only enough to buy a bag of rice and some bananas – and, of course, he only has so much blood to sell.

With the help of a friend, Hasari finally finds employment pulling a rickshaw through the narrow streets of the city. However, because of “street politics,” he is actually able to keep only a small portion of the receipts from his hard work. Even in these pathetic circumstances, Hasari still shows great love and compassion for his fellow men.

Stephan Kovalski, the book’s second protagonist, is a Polish-Catholic priest who withdraws from mainstream society to live with Calcutta’s lepers and other untouchables. He packs up his few belongings and migrates to the City of Joy, committed to “seek out the poorest of the poor and the disinherited in the places where they are, to share their life, and to die with them.” Because Kovalski is so committed to sharing, his meager food rations are generally given away to the children who constantly follow him.

On one occasion, a shoeshine boy shyly approached the smiling priest. “… But a smile does not fill an empty stomach,” Kovalski noted. He foraged in his knapsack and offered the boy the banana he had earlier promised himself. “At that rate I was condemned to die of starvation very rapidly,” he observes wryly to LaPierre.

Kovalski considers his Listening Committee for Mutual Aid as his most “beneficial” gift to the City of Joy; a place where the poor can go to be heard: “The idea was so revolutionary. … ” The poor and outcasts now “take charge of themselves.”

One day Kovalski paid a visit to a leper compound at the invitation of one of its residents, Anouar, a disfigured cripple with “a smile that was difficult to understand in the light of his suffering.”

“Well, Stephan Daddah (“Big Brother”), are you well today?” Anouar asked in greeting.

“Coming from a human wreck groveling in the mud, the question seemed so incongruous. … ” recalls Kovalski. “I had formed the habit of stooping down to him and grasping the stump of his right hand with my hands. The first time I did it the gesture took him so much by surprise that he surveyed the people around him with an expression of triumph, as if to say, ‘You see, I’m a man just like you. The Daddah is shaking my hand.’”

As Anouar guided Father Kovalski to administer aid to his friends in need, the priest was appalled by the utterly foul stench, by the “breathing corpses whose crackled skin oozed out a yellowish liquid,” and by the children playing marbles among the rubbish and excreta. Eating with the lepers made him gag. “I thought I had come to terms with everything about poverty, yet I felt revolted by the idea of sharing food with the most bruised of all my brothers,” he admitted. “What a failure! What lack of love! What a long way I still had to go!” That day he made a decision: he would set up a leprosy dispensary in the City of Joy, staffed by specialists who knew how to treat the disease.

One 12-year-old Assamese girl, Bandona (which means “praise God”), has made “all suffering her suffering.” As her family’s only means of support, she had worked at a factory from 5:00 in the morning to sometimes as late as 10:00 pm But on Sundays and feast days, Bandona would prowl the slum, looking for distressed people. Donations now allow her to work full time with the Listening Committee.

She knows “how to listen to the confessions of the dying, how to pray with the families of the dead, wash the corpses, accompany the deceased on the last journey to the cemetery. … No one … ever taught her, yet she [knows] through intuition, friendship, love.” The selfless girl came to be known as Anand Nagar ka Swarga Dug – ”Angel of the City of Joy.”

Dedicated doctors, nurses, missionaries, and others have also given up or put on hold prestigious careers to come and serve in this squalid inner-city village. The stories of these many fascinating and devoted workers soon give LaPierre’s readers to realize that Mother Teresa and her followers were not alone in their labors to help India’s poor.

The City of Joy (“Anand Nagar” in Hindu) was named by a jute-factory owner at the turn of the century. Originally the community was set up as a lodging place for this man’s factory workers; but after the factory closed down, the workers’ tract expanded to become a veritable city within a city. “By now more than seventy thousand inhabitants had congregated on an expanse of ground hardly three times the size of a football field.”

Lapierre paints a graphic portrait of the slum.

[It is] a place where children did not even know what a bush, a forest, or a pond was; where the air was so bad with carbon dioxide and sulphur that pollution killed at least one member in every family; a place where men and beasts baked in a furnace for the eight months of summer until the monsoon transformed their alleyways and shacks into swamps of mud and excrement; a place where leprosy, tuberculosis, dysentery and all the malnutrition diseases … reduced the average life expectancy to one of the lowest in the world; a place where eighty- five hundred cows and buffalo, tied up to dung heaps, provided milk infected with germs.

Above all, however, the City of Joy was a place where the most extreme economic poverty ran rife. Nine out of ten of its inhabitants did not have a single rupee per day with which to buy half a pound of rice. Furthermore, like all … slums, the City of Joy was generally ignored by other citizens of Calcutta, except in case of crime or strike. Considered a dangerous neighborhood with a terrible reputation, the haunt of untouchables, pariahs, social rejects, it was a world apart, living apart from the world.

But it is just through the existence of these appalling conditions that great gifts of love and sacrifice have been made possible. And now, thankfully, many inroads have been made to reduce the community’s entrenched scourges – disease, unemployment, pollution, poverty, crime and filth. “Bless you, Calcutta,” Kovalski says, “for in your wretchedness you have given birth to saints.”

But the book’s greatest message is that, despite the brutal squalor, despite the everyday human tragedies, the City of Joy is redeemed by the sublime desire among its inhabitants to share, to give something to the next person even when there isn’t enough for oneself. In the midst of disease, hunger and poverty, these uneducated citizens of Calcutta are indeed enlightened and ennobled. 

They give of themselves – even up to imparting their own bodies – when there is nothing else to give; and they still somehow manage to comply with their religious customs and beliefs. Their stoic, cheerful outlook remains constant. They truly know what it is to experience joy.

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