If complex, vocabulary-heavy, layered narratives are what you think makes a successful writer, think again. Dominique Lapierre, who sauntered in with the heart-rending City of Joy in 1985, proves to us why “simplicity” really is not overrated.
Thenovel, for its part, doesn’t have much to boast in terms of literary techniques and genres. Yet, it is a book no one is forgetting anytime soon. With a simple story depicting the lives of different people in a slum named “Anand Nagar” (the eponymous “City of Joy”), the book is based on real-life anecdotes and incidents that Lapierre recorded while living in the slum. He chronicles lives of utter poverty, destitution, ostracization and and neglect, while highlighting the communal segregation prevalent within the slum itself. He also traces the isolated communities of the eunuchs and lepers, who everyone else, including their fellow slum-dwellers, cringe to come in contact with. So in a nutshell, the book depicts the poerty-stricken life in a slum in Kolkata in over a staggering five hundred pages. Doesn’t sound too promising, does it?
Yet it could well be one of the most insightful, profound narratives ever penned, despite the glaring lack of many literary accolades to its credit. It is the power of Lapierre’s expression, how he treats his characters and how simply and honestly he documents their seemingly trivial acts that make this one a must-read. The frank, matter-of-fact tone he employs while describing the incidents in the book is incredibly impactful and shows a conscious effort to stay true to the stories of the characters he is depicting as all of them are, by Lapierre’s own admission, based on actual slum residents. There are three predominant characters that the reader is made to follow; Stephen Kovalski, a Polish priest who takes up residence in the slum in order to serve and live with the poorest people in Calcutta, Hasari Pal, a rickshaw puller who migrates to the slum from a drought-inflicted farming village in search of employment and Max Lowe, an American doctor who comes in looking for a larger purpose of his practice. The three protagonists (and alternating narrators) are all outsiders who eventually get emotionally embroiled in the lives of the slum-dwellers. The objective perspective that they bring to the narrative serves to highlight the poignancy and suffering of the aspects of the slum society the three of them come in contact with. Stephen Kovalski endeavours throughout the book to become one of the slum-people, eventually succeeding in the end. He connects to them emotionally, and the character helps bring psychological insights into the lives of the people he encounters. Hasari Pal, wading through the entire city of Kolkata as a rickshaw-puller suffering from Red Fever, brings forth the hypocrisy of the cities and the painful schisms of the rich and the poor. Max Lowe eventually makes the transition from despondence to hope, setting up an efficient clinic and medical facilities in the slum.
Lapierre’s interpretation of the world of the City of Joy, though hard-hitting for the most part, culminates in a sense of community within the slum-dwellers, who find uniformity in their common cultural and traditional practices. Dominique Lapierre and his wife (also named Dominique), subsequently set up the City of Joy Foundation, one of the most popular international humanitarian ventures, to cater to the needs of the slum-residents in Kolkata. Literature for a cause, do we hear someone say?