The Lapierres Meet Gaston
« ... James led us through the teeming alleyways to the far end of a compound. There, in a hovel six and a half feet by five, with no water and no electricity, no windows and no furniture, not even a camp bed, lived a forty-four year old Swiss. His extreme pallor, his thinness and his long Indian shirt made him look like some dropout on the road to Kathmandu. His name was Gaston Grandjean.
"Sorry friends, tourists aren't welcome here!" he called out on seeing us.
Poor Gaston! How was he to know that the arrival of this foreign couple was to dramatically alter his life?
For twelve years, the nurse Gaston Grandjean and the Indian social workers he had trained to serve the poorest of the poor, had been working tirelessly in that overpopulated neighborhood. Unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, superstition and lack of hygiene gave this other white "big brother" no respite. It had taken several months, however, before he had been accepted. At first, people had wondered what could ever motivate someone from a country as rich as Switzerland to come and share their extreme poverty. The word went round that he was working for the police, that he was at the same time a CIA spy, a Maoist mole and a militant missionary out to convert people to Jesus Christ.
No one really knew how this son of a factory workers family of Valais, near Geneva, had ended up in that Indian slum. As an adolescent he had wanted to be a missionary but the White Fathers in Freiburg had discouraged him because of his precarious health. He had thus gone to work in the coal mines of northern France with the Algerian, Turkish and Yugoslav immigrants, and subsequently in a steel works in the Paris area. A discovery he made then enabled him to channel his will to devote his life to the poor.
Founded at the end of the last century by a priest from Lyon named of Antoine Chevrier, the Prado Fraternity brings together religious and consecrated lay people who have taken a vow to "join the poorest of the poor and the most disinherited where they are, live the same life as they do and die with them". Fired by this ideal, the young Swiss joined the ranks of the Prado. He studied Spanish and Portuguese in the hope of being sent out to the slums or the favellas of South America. But it was to India that he was asked to go after he had done his medical training.
With a haversack containing only a copy of the Scriptures, a razor and a tooth brush, he landed in India in the winter of 1972. Several days later, he settled in a hovel in his slum of Calcutta. The successful treatment he gave to the almost blind girl next door, his indefatigable generosity without proselytising in any way, gradually overcame the slum-dwellers' distrust. Gaston's reserve towards us promised to be more difficult to overcome. Fortunately, an incident came to our aid. The Swiss had just started a consultation at his makeshift dispensary when a little girl came running in ... »