A story about Dominique Lapierre in Kolkata goes thus: After the success of his 1985 novel, The City of Joy, that chronicles the lives of the city’s poor and those working towards their rehabilitation, when the French writer visited Calcutta and presented Mother Teresa with a cheque of $50,000, he confessed that it was but “a drop in the ocean of need”. The nun, guardian angel of the poor and needy, reportedly responded, “If this drop did not exist, even the ocean would not.” For Lapierre, known in this country for his deeply-felt, rigorously researched works such as The City of Joy, Freedom at Midnight (1975, with friend and literary collaborator Larry Collins) and Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (1997, with Javier Moro), it was an affirmation of his life’s purpose: That it was not enough to record injustices in his narratives. He needed to work towards remedying them, too. The writer, who passed away on Sunday at 91, was known equally well for his philanthropic work in India.
Son of a diplomat father and a journalist mother, Lapierre’s writing career began with travelogues before he turned reporter for Paris Match in the 1950s. His desire to see the world took him across North America, the Middle East, Asia and to the former USSR, each visit producing bestselling works of fiction and non-fiction, but more importantly, opening up to the pre-internet world a view of and from the grassroots, where, beneath the ebb and flow of political regimes, men and women lived, loved, struggled and survived.
The demise of any intellectual is marked by tributes to the cultural heft of the body of work they leave behind. By that metric alone, Lapierre was a success, having sold tens of millions of copies of his work. But more than commercial success, the legacy that the French writer leaves behind is of an adventurer’s pluck and generosity of spirit, born of the knowledge that circumstances and futures can and do change, and the only thing worth holding on to is compassion and respect for life.