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The New York Times
    Reprinted from The New York Times

In Calcutta, Writer's Joy Is in Deeds, Not Words

August 22, 1999

For two decades, Dominique Lapierre, and his wife, also named Dominique, have helped poor residents of the Ganges delta.

Dominique Lapierre has ranged over several continents in his best-selling books on modern history, but only one place has never let go of him. More than two decades ago, after the publication of Freedom at Midnight, the story of Indian independence, Mr. Lapierre went back to India to try to share his success with the people who had inspired his work.

"It was the beginning of an adventure that never stopped," he said in an interview during a recent stopover in New York. He was on his way home to France with his wife, also named Dominique, after talking to business executives in Aspen, Colo., about the private aid projects the couple finance.

The projects assist the lepers of Calcutta and the poor fishing communities on islands in the Ganges delta, where old ferry boats have been converted into floating clinics.


More stories about the City of Joy:
Portraits of Generosity

More about Dominique Lapierre:
Writer Turns Philanthropist

Saving Sunil


"The boats serve 900,000 inhabitants of 54 islands not on the map of the world," he said. "These people do not exist." They are so poor they cannot eat the fish they catch, he added. They are without transistor radios to warn them about cyclones; they fall prey to tigers, snakes and, overwhelmingly, to tuberculosis.

Mr. Lapierre, 68, calculates that he has spent $5 million on his small and largely unpublicized projects, drawn from royalties on his books and those, like Freedom at Midnight, that he wrote with the American writer Larry Collins. Along the way he has learned some hard lessons, he said. He has come to distrust official foreign aid -- from governments, the United Nations and big international agencies. He says his misgivings were borne out in his now-abandoned efforts to get help from the European Union.

"One of their requisites is that 60 percent of the amount they will give you will have to be in fixed assets," he said. "That is, they'll force you to build an institution. To buy ambulances -- things that they can see. What we need is to buy drugs, to hire doctors, to hire teachers.

"The result of this thinking is that the third world today is absolutely full of empty, useless, unoccupied, lavish installations where there are no longer any doors, any beds, any windows, any patients, any doctors, any drugs. Because after the glorious inauguration of an institution, with all the media and the politicians, one year later it's a vacuum."

Without local involvement, he says, the projects turn derelict.

The Lapierres -- she works with women on basic literacy, education and health programs that complement his projects -- have also had their share of problems with India. In the 1980's, the state government of West Bengal opposed plans to film his novel of slum life in Calcutta, "City of Joy," in that city. They thought it would make the city look bad.

Mr. Lapierre, who is impatient and dismissive of bureaucracy and something of a street fighter when challenged -- a lot of people find his intensity and his big personality overwhelming -- overcame those obstacles. He is triumphantly amused that a sign outside Calcutta's airport now welcomes travelers to the City of Joy.

He has been less successful in dealing with India's pervasive corruption. His clinics, all run by Indians, are entitled to free medicine from the Government for 300,000 tuberculosis patients. "We never -- never -- get more than 10 percent," he said. "The rest is stolen on the way. So we are forced to buy drugs on the open market, which is a drain on our budget."

The Lapierres operate their private aid project on a minimal budget, they say. "We have no office," he said. "We have no staff. When we travel to India, Dominique and I, we pay our own tickets, economy class." Three years ago, they sold a large house in St. Tropez and moved to a smaller one. "Royalties are not eternal," he said.

The Lapierres, who also give poor village women small dowries to allow them to marry a bit above the lowest rungs of life, say they have been changed forever by their experiences in India, especially by their life in Calcutta while he wrote "City of Joy."

"One morning I was awakened by a procession passing by in the alley with drums and songs and people chanting," he recalled. "I said, 'What happens here today?' Do you know what they answered? 'We are celebrating the birth of spring.' In a place where there is not a tree, not a flower, not a leaf, not a bird, not a butterfly, they celebrated an event they would never see."

When they left India soon after, the Lapierres had 30 pounds of excess baggage "in gifts from people whose average resource for survival is, I would say, about three U.S. cents a day," he said. The generosity of the poor has never waned, he said, although 350 million Indians go to bed hungry at night. "These people are the real heroes of the planet."

"When we come back to Paris," he said, "finding a parking space on the Champs-Elysees is no longer a priority."