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Abertura logo > The Story > Biographies > Dominique Lapierre > Saving Sunil

Saving Sunil

A Thousand Suns
This page is an excerpt from Chapter 15 of A Thousand Suns. Half of the royalties of this book go directly to the children of Calcutta.

« The Swiss nurse Gaston Grandjean seemed reserved when my wife and I first approached him about performing research for my upcoming book. 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.

"Dadah, come at once!" she cried, out of breath. "Sunil's dying."

The nurse handed the baby he had been examining back to his mother, grabbed his first aid case, sprang out into the alleyway, and seeing us, asked: "Have you got a car?"

It took us over an hour to get to the slum where the dying youth lived. A robust young man of twenty, used to pulling heavy loads on his cycle rickshaw, was now no more than a fleshless spectre. His eyes had rolled back and were showing only the whites. His dignified mother was crying quietly as she mopped his forehead and cheeks. The poor boy had septicemia, blood poisoning. He was breathing erratically. A trickle of saliva came from his mouth. He seemed very near the end. His family was grief-stricken. Gaston filled a syringe with Coramine to stimulate his heart, but he had difficulty administering the injection because there was nothing but skin and bone left on his body.

"We know a dispensary where a German doctor has just arrived," I said. "Perhaps he ..."

The Swiss interrupted me:

"Take him! Who knows! I'll take care of the parents."

My wife, Dominique, sat on the back seat and I placed the dying young man in her arms. For miles traffic jams in a city in a permanent state of congestion reduced us to a walking pace just when every minute, every second counted. Sunil's breathing became more and more irregular. Dominique stroked his motionless face as if to inject some of her own life into him. "Hang on, hang on, little brother", she murmured.

Our driver attempted acrobatic manoeuvres to make up a few dozen yards. The small temple that was our landmark appeared at last and, immediately afterwards, the passageway leading to the dispensary. I leapt out of the car and went through the assembly of lame and sick besieging the consultation room. A young fair-haired European was in the process of sounding a child with a swollen stomach.

"Doctor there's a dying man in our car. I beg you, come quickly!"

The German doctor stood up without asking any questions. He took Sunil from my wife's arms, then said calmly:

"Thank you, I'll see to him.

* * *

Dominique Lapierre, right, meets with the two inspirational guides of his humanitarian crusade, Swiss nurse Gaston Grandjean, left, and British reverend James Stevens, center.

That simple act of solidarity earned us the regard of Gaston Grandjean. In his eyes, we were no longer tourists who had come to dip our toes into exotic poverty before returning to our comfortable security. He welcomed us with a friendly smile when we went back to see him.

It was only several months later, on the occasion of another visit to Bengal, that we learned the epilogue to our rescue attempt. Suddenly, on a small dike running between two rice fields, we saw a cycle-rickshaw appear pedaled by a big athletic looking fellow. Someone said to us: "That's Sunil!" The boy jumped off his machine and rushed over to us. His father and mother came running shortly afterwards. We were overwhelmed. For the first time in my life, I had the feeling I had contributed directly to saving a human life. »