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Guardian Unlimited   The London Guardian
Reprinted from The London Guardian

Words Were Not Enough

April 15, 2000

The Lapierres stand with some of their their friends, the residents of the leper colony Titagarh. Many children treated at the Resurrection Home come from that slum.

A hazard of the writer's trade is that writing is sometimes not enough. Great writers know there is nothing else to do, and most lesser writers would probably be incapable of any other way of life, however sketchy their literary satisfactions and paltry their rewards. Whether novelists, historians or general-purpose hacks, we know our limitations, and usually find that these do not extend beyond the filling, one way or another, of the unwritten page. But there are exceptions. An engulfing aura of pointlessness is capable of sinking the author whose two-year labours produce sales of a couple of thousand copies. Might it not be better, for heaven's sake, to do something, to act, rather than spend more years in futile toil at the word-processor screen?

The writer who wants to change the world could be particularly vulnerable to this temptation. But succumbing to it seems a kind of betrayal. One writes one's piece, perhaps one's several pieces, filled with sincere outrage and all the literary power one can muster - and then passes on to the next subject. The writer has to write. The reporter has merely to report. In journalism especially, the line between writing and acting should be guarded with professional severity. Crossing over, in the short term or the long, is an offence against the canons of the trade. The battlefield reporter doesn't stop to pick up corpses.


More stories about the City of Joy:
Portraits of Generosity

More about Dominique Lapierre:
Writer Turns Philanthropist

Saving Sunil


Anyone Here Been Raped And Speak English? - the title of Edward Behr's memoir sums up the code of the disaster correspondent hurtling to meet his deadline. Dominique Lapierre spent plenty of time as such a writer. A senior reporter on Paris Match for 20 years, he covered the Algerian war and many other catastrophe zones on the front line. He has also been a staggeringly successful author. From the 60s, his mega-works of popular history, several written with his American confrère, Larry Collins, piled the shop-shelves high for months and years. The two men developed a uniquely accessible line in documentary reporting, with a strong human interest. They were early practitioners of total research. Is Paris Burning?, their first effort, reconstructed the liberation of the city from the Germans, based on interviews with no fewer than 1,200 witnesses. They wrote the life of a Spanish matador, El Cordobes, and, among other things, a celebratory history of the military operations behind the foundation of the Jewish state - O Jerusalem.

Garlanded according to Indian custom at the gate of the TB medical center they help support, the Lapierres are welcomed by the center’s Hindu president, Sabitri, and Muslim director Wohab. The Lapierres have been made honorary citizens of Calcutta in recognition of their humanitarian efforts.

The subjects, it is apparent, were picked for their commercial possibilities, as well as thematic grandeur. The Paris book, without the apparatus of scholarship, was revelatory as well as humanly gripping, and eventually had sales of five million, which at the time was just about unprecedented for a work of non-fiction. It was a classic of reconstructive history, personal and graphic, before television developed the genre and seized it, however fitfully, for itself. What counted most, though, were the numbers. These were in a league that almost any other author would consider justification enough of his life. Lapierre is a writer with no reason to feel frustrated that his passions and concerns are not exposed to a substantial part of the reading universe. When he branched out on his own, he became an even bigger name for publishers to boast of. City Of Joy, a book built around the poor children of Calcutta, which later became a Roland Joffe film, has sold eight million copies worldwide.

Photo: lightmotive
In 1992, director Roland Joffe adapted Lapierre's bestselling book, The City of Joy, to the screen with American star Patrick Swayze and British actor Pauline Collins.

Lapierre's books are the work of a reporter, but they always had an intensely emotional undertow. He plunges into his subject with a degree of sympathy that is sometimes disorienting if one approaches the books expecting dispassionate narrative. Though public events are his subject matter, the human stories come out more strongly than the political and diplomatic complexities. Perhaps he always was a candidate for going over to the other side. His style of hot-blooded engagement was halfway to expressing the need he later felt: to be quite extravagantly much more than that distanced, all-seeing but nothing-doing creature, the professional writer.

His start was orthodox enough. There was no conflict between the quest for evidence and any distracting compulsion to react to it as a human being. He was no different from any other reporter, and was very good at it. "In Algeria," he told me recently, "I did some very tough reporting on people dying. They were wounded and I did not pick them up. My first loyalty was to my paper, and my first problem if I had a camera was to do the photos and make sure they got back to my office." Did he feel nothing beyond that? "My compassion for the victims may have been total," he now reflects, "but I just had no time. I couldn't stop to pick up a child who was bleeding and bring it to hospital. I discovered on the battlefield that one cannot at the same time be Hemingway and Mother Teresa."

Forty years ago, I guess the Mother Teresa aspect of things featured hardly at all. As for the laconic Hemingway, any comparison with Lapierre's voluble excitement seems somewhat inapt. But it's clear enough what the macho newsman's priorities were. The facts, lady, just give me the facts. Those were wars in which reporters, with rare exceptions such as James Cameron, felt no more need to carry a stretcher than they did to propagandise - even between the lines, let alone as openly as happened in Bosnia in the mid-90s - about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. By the time he was 50, however, Lapierre began to think he had had enough of that life. This wasn't a case of the kind of physical fatigue that might overtake a reporter who had been 30 years in the field, so much as a certain kind of inconvenient moral enlightenment that had come from writing certain kinds of book. "I experienced, suddenly, remorses," Lapierre said, in an arresting departure from his fluent English. "I had seen so many things, and done nothing about them. It was a great moment to make retribution for all the things I had left undone."

The retribution he made - if that's the right word for someone whose books, while perhaps over-effusive, hardly deserved punishment - was more spectacular than any writer has ever, to my knowledge, performed. Dominique Lapierre's leap from writer into actor has so far involved him in the sacrifice from his own earnings of around five million dollars. The catalyst was direct and personal: a benign reversal, one might call it, of the biblical law that approves an eye for an eye. Lapierre decided to repay, hugely, the very sources of his own prosperity - the subjects who made his latest books pruriently fascinating, the victims out of whom he might have made another fortune. He couldn't escape the emotional logic that said writing did not suffice. He may not have saved a single child from dying in Algeria, but, in the 70s, the producer of best-sellers, which had by now acquired an almost routine inevitability, found the new gold-mine from which, as he thought of it, to make amends: India.

The place caught him at the time when he already suspected he had to change, and was looking for a way to shift the focus. "India lends itself particularly well to that kind of psychological process," Lapierre told me. "It is a very touching, very warm country. Maybe if the same thing had happened in Germany, I would not have been as touched by the sufferings of the Germans as I was by the hard lot of some of those Indians I met during my research." Freedom at Midnight, an account of the run-up to Indian independence, led fast to City Of Joy, his Calcutta epic that has nothing but common humanity as its theme and finally excludes all trace of the reporter's conventionally sceptical mind-set. It scrutinises deeply - in a way, almost celebrates - the human consequences of Indian poverty. The writer's life was not the only one this book changed for ever. Giving the money, however, turned out to be only the start. Lapierre's journalistic instinct, rather than being discarded, was put to service in a different way. He began as a disgorger of his gains, but soon became a ferocious polemicist. Examining what he has done with his five million dollars, one finds roughly equal portions of pity and fury.

Let the fury come later. Not long ago, I was in Calcutta and went to see some of the fruits of his pity. He has been giving half his royalties to projects around the Ganges delta for 20 years, and has collected through the publicity he can generate - virtually unheard in this country, but loud in France, Italy, Spain and the US - another $200,000 a year over the past five years. Topped up by his own giving, the projects take around half-a-million dollars a year. In the bottomless ocean of human need in West Bengal - one of the poorest, most densely populated, disease-ridden, flood-prone, weather-beaten places in the world - it seems a tiny contribution. But it certainly rates against, say, a leader in the Guardian about third world debt.

He began with lepers. India has a quarter of the world's sufferers, and their children, mostly living in slums and filthy, secluded compounds, have little chance. Contrary to most people's impression, once leprosy is diagnosed, it is quite easily treated and cured. But finding the victims and hoisting them out of the filth is another matter. Lapierre kept seeing them while researching the Calcutta life of Mahatma Gandhi, the key character, of course, in Freedom at Midnight. Mother Teresa herself told him that if he had money to spare, they should be his target. It was the beginning of an odyssey that has taken him into alliance with characters that would fit as well into a Joseph Conrad fiction as the most florid reporter's notebook.

On the edge of the city, an hour's honking, heaving perilous bus-ride from the centre, sits the Resurrection Home - Udayan - for children of the victims of leprosy. Its founder, major domo, podgy and eagle-eyed superior is a former British businessman by the name of James Stevens. Between them, these two benevolent western autocrats - one who now says he never calls England home, the other who makes sorties to India three times a year from his house in St Tropez, to watch over his social investments - have made quite an impact on leprosy.

Stevens got to Calcutta in 1968, intending to stay for a couple of years. But he couldn't get the leprous children out of his head. When he met Lapierre, who was fresh from Mother Teresa, he told him Udayan was about to shut down because he'd run out of cash. The Frenchman and his wife were electrified. They were ready for the transformation. "My wife took out of her bag the bundle of dollars we had brought with us," Lapierre recounts in his recent autobiography, A Thousand Suns. "'This initial donation will enable you to pay off your debts.' I said, and before really thinking, I added: 'We will fight to see that you never have to close the Resurrection home.'"

It is now a paradise of calm, which has seen 6,000 boys pass through it, cleansed of leprosy and fitted up with a basic education. Married to an Indian, Stevens has left Bristol far behind, though he did become an Anglican priest somewhere along the way. Collecting me from the city centre, he sits up front in the bus, the patriarch of a six- acre spread, chanting hymns to himself, gesturing almost regally to the throngs who see him approaching.

Udayan began with 11 boys, and now houses 300 at a time, along with a handful of girls. The atmosphere and buildings come straight from a modest English public school. There can't be a more orderly, obedient, pacific collection of children east or west of the playing-fields of Eton, all of them seemingly grateful for their temporary rescue from the compounds and roofless hovels of those who are literally untouchable.

Indian officialdom isn't sure it likes this kind of independent enterprise. It seems, after all, very European, even while being wholly Indian. There's been talk of infiltrating some party overseers, and Stevens spends a fair bit of the day hooked to his mobile telephone, grappling with Bengali bureaucrats. But the facts are there, that nobody else made. Some of these boys, going back a few years, have become teachers and civil engineers. At Udayan now, they live in clean, well-lit pavilions, eat regular meals, have regular lessons - and sleep on 300 beds and mattresses that suddenly turned up one day at the dockside, a gift from the Australian cricket captain, Steve Waugh. The name of Dominique Lapierre is splashed lavishly around the property, which would collapse without his money. It seems, in the circumstances, a modest replacement for the ego-trip of writing.

So are the Dominique Lapierre dispensary boats that ply the remoter tributaries of the Ganges delta. A day on one of these takes you back to the simplicities of medicine. The door marked Pathology, below decks, covers a room no more than six feet by six, in which the equipment consists of a single microscope. The room marked X-ray, on this particular boat, still awaited its apparatus. Here is a health service, carried from the little mainland port of Raidighi to places that may take three days to reach and do not even appear on the maps, yet contain thousands of people who otherwise would see no doctor and get no medicine.

After the former British businessman, enter the former Naxalite terrorist, who has become another Lapierre protégé. Wohab is the leader of SHIS, the Southern Health Improvement Samity, who shows that writers aren't the only ones in need of some form of displacement activity. At one time, Wohab ran among killers, but in 1980, under the influence of a Swiss priest, he changed sides. "He persuaded me to change from taking life to giving life," Wohab told me as we eased down a mercifully quiescent Ganges towards the village of Lakshmi Janardhanpur.

"I was from the extremist group of the Marxist-Leninist party," he said quite solemnly. His extraordinary health work he sees as a kind of socialism in action, Marxism with a human face. Wohab is still intensely political, fired up by the myriad injustices you can never get away from in West Bengal and least of all here in the Sunderbans, which have changed little from the description given by one of the early Victorian mapmakers who first came across them: "a sort of drowned land, broken up by swamps, intersected by a thousand river channels and maritime backwaters".

An embryonic system of floating dispensaries was underway before Lapierre came along. But he has made it grow hugely, on the back of Wohab's zeal. This time the enemy is not leprosy, but tuberculosis. Arriving at the village, we climb the mud-bank into a throng of scores of women and children, for whom this day has been long awaited. The doctor sounds and probes, the nurse - Sabitri, whose pioneering work with these people was the beginning of SHIS, of which she is now president - dispenses, Wohab himself supplies his own confident inexpert diagnoses to women who may have walked five hours barefoot to get here. More than 150 people were queuing up. "I lost so many friends from TB," Wohab told me. "I declared a holy war against it."

Not without some victories. These SHIS dispensaries and clinics now serve some 400 riverine villages, and 1,600 on the mainland - the largest non-governmental TB control project in India. In 1998-99, more than 40,000 people were treated for it, all the poorest of the poor. What Lapierre's money bought, as well as a couple more boats, was technology and power-supplies, especially for X-rays.

"I went myself to negotiate the purchase of radiology equipment from the Siemens representative in Calcutta," writes Lapierre. Its arrival in the remote countryside "provoked the sort of stupor a UFO falling out of the sky might have occasioned". But in 10 years, he reckons, TB disappeared from more than 1,000 villages, and 100,000 sick people were cured.

All this is good work. Far better than you or I could do, or probably would do, even with five million to spare. It's not, however, the work of an idealist who is starry-eyed, or unfailingly nice. Alongside the pity, we have the fury, which includes a certain vanity, directed at what the author-amateur sees as the excesses of professional aid organisations by comparison with his own. He, indeed, has no organisation. That is his point. As well as giving, he has the donor's interest in ensuring that the money doesn't go astray. "I find it an absolute scandal that so many welfare organisations spend so much money on running their activities," he said. "My readers, our supporters, know that when they send us a hundred dollars, it is a hundred dollars which will go to Calcutta."

I have no way of verifying that. A Canadian donor, with experience inspecting such projects all over the world, told me as we chugged back up the Ganges that this was nothing special. Indeed, the 600 workers employed - inefficiently, as he thought - by SHIS made it sound like an aid-recipient itself, perhaps a Lapierre-financed exercise in outdoor relief in a social context where one job is commonly reckoned to keep a dozen family members alive. Nothing wrong with that, said my Canadian friend, but why didn't they spend more money fitting out the boat with better equipment for, say, minor surgery?

What nobody could dispute, though, is that this kind of individual effort stays close to the people. There are no layers of offices, stretching back from Calcutta through Delhi to Geneva. Nobody flies first-class, checking into the local Oberoi. "When I read that Ted Turner gives a billion dollars to the United Nations for the poor of the world, I think it's fantastic," Lapierre said. "But I could tell you down to the last dollar what's going to happen to this billion dollars. These big organisations are not equipped to determine the real needs of the people. They don't know what a Bengal farmer really needs. How could they? Unless you have lived as a Bengal farmer, slept in his house, gone through the monsoon with him?"

Here, by contrast, the donor-in-chief is the scourge of all suppliers. "There's no other way than to be extraordinarily attentive," he said. "That begins with the banks in Paris, reducing the commission when you transfer $100,000. Then getting the banks in India to get a decent rate of exchange. Then making sure the contractor who is building your school is really doing what he says in his estimate. One brick in India can be four rupees if it's a good brick, three-and-a-half rupees if one corner is cut, three rupees if two corners are cut, and only two rupees if it is broken in two. Which brick is he going to put in your school and charge you for?"

Equally, he has few illusions about his own people. "You give an ambulance to a centre, you create a problem. Who is going to be the driver? Is he going to steal half the diesel fuel? Is he going to put air in the tyres? When you come next year, is the ambulance going to be running?" As the ambitions expand, so do the problems. "You still have to monitor these extraordinary people very closely. This Wohab is a fabulous person. But he is now asking me for a scanner. A scanner! Many French cities don't have a scanner, and we're in the middle of Bengal!"

To this kind of end, nonetheless, Lapierre is now planning to sell his house outside St Tropez, and provide still further for people who will be depending on him when the literary stream dries up. The action man is approaching 70, and A Thousand Suns sets down a life from which all cynicism has departed. The "pornography of poverty", a phrase sometimes used to classify works, usually TV films, that exploit the poor for little more than voyeuristic ends, cannot conceivably apply to a man with five million dollars in the virtual Bank of Recompense. He doesn't dismiss the ongoing value of the profession he used to follow. "Reporters must tell the world about Rwanda, Kosovo, Chechnya, Venezuela," he said. "It's their duty to make the world aware of those tragedies, to move opinions, to force political leaders to take action. For a battlefield reporter suddenly to drop his camera and become a nurse would be a beautiful individual gesture. But I think, ultimately, his photos would be more important than holding an IV bottle."

He himself just moved on. He discovered that, by becoming an actor, he could change things. To him, it is just another way of dealing with reality. "I still faced reality, like a reporter. But this time with the idea of changing that reality." Anchored defiantly in the world he left, one can't escape the trace of feeling humbled.