By Wendy Salisbury
Calcutta! What sensuous imagery does this name evoke? Be-turbanned Maharajas defending stately forts? Ex-pats taking tiffin on colonial club lawns? Dark exotic beauties with jasmine in their hair. . .
Forget all that. It’s called Kolkata now and it’s a drab, decaying bag lady of a place behind whose misty eyes still glow the dying embers of an old-remembered flame.
At first glance, everything seems hopeless – broken down, bashed up and busted. Great mountains of garbage litter the streets, picked over by dogs, cats, vermin and, pitifully, children. Amidst this detritus, the pavement dwellers live, not ‘homeless’ as we know it, for the street is their home.
And yet they live with dignity, rising at dawn from their concrete mattresses to perform the holy ritual of cleanliness. At any nearby standpipe, gushing with tainted waters from the annual monsoon rains, they wash themselves with diligence, brush their teeth and scrub their rags before settling back in residence on their plot of hell on earth.
When it was first suggested I visit Kolkata, I politely declined. I’d always longed to travel to India but saw myself atop a painted elephant swaying towards a palace in romantic Rajasthan.
The purpose of this particular trip, however, proved irresistible: to meet again a man I’d worked with when I was just 19, the prolific author Dominique Lapierre whose epic masterpiece The City of Joy documenting life in the slums of Calcutta has been translated into 31 languages and made into a film starring Patrick Swayze.
I’d first worked with Dominique and his co-author Larry Collins in Spain in the 1960s. Whilst researching and interpreting the biography of the iconic bullfighter, El Cordobés, I was flung headlong into my first love affair with the charismatic matador. The resulting book …or I’ll Dress You in Mourning went on to become a global bestseller, but now, 46 years later, here was my ex-boss offering to take me on yet another adventure.
And so I agreed. As an advisor to women never to turn down any opportunity over the age of 50, how could I refuse? My mood as I set off was flap-prehensive. I knew the term ‘city of joy’ was probably an irony, and as I locked my front door and left my London home, I was already looking forward to unlocking it on my return.
My reunion with Dominique was as effusive as it was emotional. He’d been 34 when I’d last set eyes on him. Now 80, he seemed as fit and enthusiastic as ever as he introduced me to my co-Kolkatans, journalists and humanitarians from all over the world: an economist from Italian newspaper La Repubblica, a features writer from Vanity Fair, a fiscal lawyer from Milan, an philanthropic entrepreneur from Amsterdam, a news reporter from Switzerland, charity workers from the Napa Valley, a French documentary maker, a Spanish film crew – fine and motley one and all.
On Day One, we breakfast early and leave the hotel in a convoy of bone-rattling mini-buses. The scenery has not improved since yesterday and just beyond the city centre, the road runs out of tarmac. The bus bumps in and out of potholes big enough to bath in, shaking our diverse group into a cultured cocktail. In the absence of seatbelts, we hang on for dear life. The aircon vents in the roof begin to leak, dripping water onto those seated below. We accommodate as best we can. Soon the actual road runs out leaving only dirt track.
We weave on for miles through villages and shanty towns . . . om shanti, shanti, shanty. Industry in the form of headboard-carvers, palm-frond choppers and cauliflower vendors line the dusty way. Water buffalo amble along en route to who knows where.
As we approach our first stop, ICOD: The Interreligious Centre of Development deep in the heart of West Bengal, posters tacked to tree trunks and telegraph pole welcome Dominique Dada and his wife, Dominique Didi – Big Brother and Big Sister.
In the 1980s, the Lapierres journeyed to Calcutta to meet and research the life and work of Mother Teresa. The experience moved them so profoundly, they felt compelled to get involved and since then, through tireless fund-raising and the donation millions of dollars of his personal royalties, Dominique has build up a network of schools, clinics, hospital ships and rehabilitation centres to cure, care for and educate those children who would otherwise have perished from poverty, malnutrition and diseases long since eradicated in the West.
Our buses pull up and out we spill into the blinding sunlight. We are immediately surrounded and swept along to the beat of a band of drums. A troupe of young male stilt-walkers dressed in red dhotis dance around us. Firecrackers explode in the air; jets of crazy foam rain down on our coiffures. Brightly-clad women and children shower us with flower petals. Others rush forward and bedeck our necks with garlands of sunny marigolds.
The welcome is overwhelming. Mr & Mrs Dominique Lapierre are regarded as Saints. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2008, the highest civilian accolade in India. Their arrival, and ours it seems, is viewed as a great honour.
Babes in arms sporting charcoal bindis on their temples to ward off the evil eye stare at us with curiosity. Little girls in traditional dress blink shyly with their kohl-encircled eyes. Some reach out to touch our pallid Western skin. Ashamedly, I pull away, wiggling a wave instead. I’m ignorant, uncertain, unsure how to behave. If I’m honest, I’m afraid of catching something…
The local women hold their hands together in prayer position and bow their heads, greeting us with ‘Namaste’ and ‘Namaskar’. I know Namaste from my yoga class but Namaskar?
I bow to God in you; I love you and respect you as there is no one like you.
Wow! I feel totally unworthy. I have donated nothing except my presence to this trip. I live a gilded life of luxury and excess. I know nothing of their hardship, nothing of their plight. So I too lower my head in humility and guilt. Maybe I shouldn’t have flown Business Class after all. Some of the ladies in our group dab tears from their eyes.
Local film crews jostle for position to document our arrival. Dominique lectures anyone who’ll listen to encourage the Indian Government and wealthy nationals to help their own which they do not seem to do. Through the crowd, we spot Brother Gaston Dayanand, a Swiss turned Holy Man who has lived and worked amongst the poorest of Kolkata’s poor these past forty years. He leads our procession to an open-sided tent where we are seated on a dais like a royal entourage. The whole community, decked out in their finery, sit cross-legged on the ground staring up at us.
The sweet-faced children then perform a 3-hour song, dance and acrobatic show. They all look clean and healthy yet some have shaven heads, presumably to ward off lice. Their parents were all lepers, unable to care for themselves let alone their offspring: infant girls abandoned for simply being female; toddlers left alone when their young mothers died, reduced to scavenging on scrap heaps with the rats; eight-year olds without a rag to clothe themselves forced into prostitution for a few grains of rice.
All those who entertain us have been saved from certain death by Brother Gaston and the selfless, noble, unflinching dedication of Dominique Lapierre, his wife and their fellow humanitarians.
Bouquets and gifts are presented; speeches are made; cakes are cut; photos are taken; the website goes live. Bottled water is handed out much to our relief. From the four corners of the globe, we thirty Western strangers bond through the sheer intensity of this shared experience.
The next day, we set off for Barrackpore to visit a home called Udayan: The Resurrection. This inspirational centre was founded in 1970 by an ex-gentleman’s outfitter from Gloucester, Rev. James Stevens O.B.E. He went out to India in 1968, borrowed a truck from Mother Teresa and began gathering up children from the slums. He has since created a paradise on earth, financially supported by Dominique Lapierre since 1981, where 300 mentally and physically-challenged children aged 4 to 18, all rescued from leper colonies, live, learn and learn to live.
Costly antiobiotics, physical therapy and high protein diets restore their health. They are educated in all academic subjects, as well as yoga, music, arts and crafts and sports. They learn the skills to earn a living and will go on to become tailors, carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, leather workers. When they leave the centre, Udayan will help them buy materials to open their own shops.
Wherever possible, they still see their parents who reap comfort and joy from seeing their now-healthy children growing up to fulfil the dreams they never dared to even dream.
As the week progresses, the schools and health centres become bigger and better: The Dominique Lapierre School of Excellence for Children with Special Need, The Dominique Lapierre Centre of Excellence for the Disabled. We watch a football match played by two teams of polio sufferers, little boys with callipers on their legs and some on crutches, including one who ‘runs’ across the field on his hands and bottom.
As the patients grow up, they too become care givers, physiotherapists, manufacturers of aids and appliances, receivers and providers of physical and mental therapy for the next influx of rescued children.
We sail up the Ganges Delta on a hospital ship to visit the Sundarbans, a vast area of mangrove forest mudflats, straddling the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh. Designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the seven wonders of the natural world, 4.4 million people inhabit 54 of the hundreds of small islands which do not feature on any map.
Xander van Meerwijk, a Dutch philanthropist and heroic friend of the Lapierres, has donated, amongst much else, the funds to build a floating ambulance which provides a whole range of equipment including an on-board lab and X-ray machine capable of detecting tuberculosis in its early stages. This ship is a world first which has already saved thousands of lives.
Xander tells me a wonderful story about the little black dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“The designer Givenchy gave it to me to auction at Christie’s, the proceeds to go to my good causes,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “The price was going up and up to ten times over the $100,000 reserve. Hubert (de Givenchy) suddenly objected to the nationality of the highest bidder – a wealthy Russian – and slammed in a final bid just before the hammer went down. He effectively bought his own dress back but he still donated the money: close to $1,000,000 for that famous little piece of cloth!”
The Sundarban region, as well as harbouring snakes and crocodiles, is famous for the Royal Bengal tiger, the only animal that drinks seawater. This fearsome creature is a merciless man-eater with a penchant for the cadavers that float along the Ganges, bodies only partially cremated for the simple reason that their families couldn’t afford enough wood for a decent funeral pyre.
Local farmers wear masks on the backs of their heads because the tigers supposedly won’t attack if you’re looking at them, but this is poor protection when you take into account the annual number of deaths.
The remote islanders are in dire need of all types of medical assistance. Cataract removal, cervical screening, malaria control, leprosy treatment – you name it, they need help for it.
One young woman I spoke to explained she was trying to raise enough money to build a house (one room mud hut) and start a stationery business to provide pens and paper for the islands’ schoolchildren.
“How much would that cost?” I enquire. “About $300. . .” she replies. The price of a good lunch.
From having been afraid to touch anyone or eat anything, we have learned to tuck into the local produce laid out for us and clutch the outstretched hands that greet us. We hug the smiling women and pat the straight-faced babies. We stroke the children’s silky hair then surreptitiously pass round anti-bacterial hand wipes in our inbuilt Western paranoia.
On our final day, we visit the slum immortalised in Dominique Lapierre’s best-selling book The City of Joy where his hero, a rickshaw puller/human horse died of TB aged 32. On an area the size of three football pitches, thousands of people live, love, give birth and die alongside open sewers, stinking latrines and polluted wells.
One enduring memory however is of a photograph of a filthy, crippled baby in a crib covered with flies followed by another of that same child aged 18, upright and well, graduating from University. Without the charity, the 2nd photo would not have existed.
Dominique Lapierre is one of life’s heroes instrumental in opening 102 schools, digging 650 wells, bringing literacy to the women of 3000 villages, launching 4 hospital ships and distributing millions to those in need.
“When I see a wealthy Indian driving a brand new Bentley or Ferrari through the streets of Mumbai” he muses, “I see enough money to lift 50,000 tuberculosis-ridden children off the streets, to cure them and to educate them.”
Tragically, this year, there is a terrible deficit in funds. Due to the recession, benefactors are knocking noughts off the end of their previous donations. Some of the schools and centres may have to close.
On returning home, I scoop the last spoonful from a jar of coffee then have a terrible dilemma about throwing the empty jar away. What use the Kolkatans could make of it: as a storage container, a water vessel, a grain pounder, a rolling pin . . .
I’ve heard it said that India changes you.
I never believed it.
I do now.
To make a tax-deductible donation to The City of Joy Aid Organisation:
To view some of the centres:
To read the story of Audrey Hepburn’s dress: