In 2007, on a visit to New Delhi ahead of the release of the English translation of his Once Upon A Time In The Soviet Union, his account of travelling through the USSR in 1956, the then 76-year-old French author Dominique Lapierre spoke of travelling through Minsk, Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, and other cities with his first wife Aliette and French photographer Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini.
As he recalled the tumultuous time in the post-Stalin USSR, it was not merely the political changes wrought under Nikita Khrushchev’s regime that came to life. Lapierre painted an absorbing picture of the everyday life of Russians at a time when most of the country’s roads were still dirt tracks, and when the strong antiseptic smell of disinfectants in public toilets marked the 13,000 km trip.
The “best part of the trip”, the French raconteur reminisced, was when an old Soviet lady asked him to deflate one of the tires of their car, a French Marly, “…because she wanted to feel the gust of air from Paris,” he said, during the course of an interview to The Indian Express.
Be it stories of the former Soviet Union or his observations of the lives of the most disadvantaged in Calcutta in the Eighties that formed the crux of his 1985 novel, City of Joy, it was the minutiae of the beating heart of cities and the lives of those often overlooked that informed both the fiction and non-fiction works of one of France’s highest selling authors.
Dominique Lapierre, the acclaimed French author and Padma Bhushan awardee, passed away on Sunday (December 4). He was 91. His wife Dominique Conchon-Lapierre confirmed the news to French publication Var-matin.
The man, his books and partnership with Larry Collins
Lapierre was born on July 30, 1931, at Chatelaillon in France. His father’s job as a diplomat led to a peripatetic childhood for Lapierre, who spent a considerable part of his youth hitchhiking and travelling across the United States and doing odd jobs to fund his travels. It was around this time that Lapierre developed a flair for writing. His travelogues would often be published in papers in the US.
At 18, Lapierre received a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Afterwards, he began his career as a reporter for the weekly news magazine, Paris-Match. Here he honed his journalistic instinct for a good story and his nose for deep-diving into what lay at the heart of events that would shape and inform his later work as a writer, too.
In 1954, when he was 23 and serving in the French army, Lapierre met a young American named Larry Collins, a Yale graduate who later became a journalist with Newsweek. The two went on to forge a deep friendship that later also translated into a successful literary partnership.
Together, Lapierre and Collins wrote six bestselling books, including O Jerusalem! (1972) on the creation of the state of Israel; Freedom at Midnight (1975); Is Paris Burning? (1965), on the liberation of Paris during World War II, which sold close to 10 million copies in 30 languages; The Fifth Horseman (1980); Is New York Burning? (2005); and Or I’ll Dress You In Mourning (1968).
Is Paris Burning? and City of Joy were later made into films by René Clément in 1966 and Roland Joffé in 1992 respectively.
Dominique Lapierre’s deep India connection
Lapierre had a special bond with India, travelling through the country and spending a lot of time in the city that was then called Calcutta, as well as in Bhopal. Lapierre was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, in 2008.
* City of Joy, the novel that made him a household name in the country, was set in the slums near Howrah in West Bengal and traced the experiences of an impoverished rickshaw puller, Hasari Pal, as well as the work of missionaries in ameliorating the living conditions of the city’s countless poor. Despite the account of debilitating poverty and caste biases, Lapierre’s novel, which won the 1986 Christopher Prize, also highlighted the spirit of the city to persevere and to celebrate life.
In the aftermath of the success of the novel, Lapierre set up the City of Joy Foundation and donated a large share of his royalties to it to support humanitarian projects in West Bengal, which included the setting up of dispensaries, care centres for those suffering from leprosy and tuberculosis, hospital boats, schools and rehabilitation centres. Lapierre spoke Bengali fluently and would often travel in rickshaws on his visits to the city.
* His investigative account, Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster (1997; English translation in 2001), written in collaboration with Javier Moro, traced the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and the role of Union Carbide in it. It was based on extensive research and interviews with survivors and those associated with the disaster over the course of three years that the authors lived and worked in the city.
The royalties from the sale of the book were directed to a NGO clinic in Bhopal, which provides free medical treatment to the victims of the tragedy. The author also set up a primary school in the Oriya Basti colony in Bhopal, a neighbourhood that features prominently in the book.
However, the book also became controversial. In July 2009, a defamation suit was filed against Lapierre and Moro by the former Director General of Madhya Pradesh Police, Swaraj Puri, and a restraining order was imposed on the sale of the book. It was later lifted by the Madhya Pradesh High Court in October 2009.
* Perhaps the best known of Lapierre’s works centred on India is Freedom at Midnight, (with Collins) which told the story of India’s struggle for independence and the great humanitarian tragedy of the Partition. The authors interviewed a large number of people with first-hand knowledge of the events of those years, and was stylistically similar to their earlier works on Jerusalem and Paris.