- He had a special bond with the country, and spent several years there, researching books and doing humanitarian work.
Eminent French author Dominique Lapierre, who had a special bond with India, died on Dec, 2, in a nursing home in Sainte-Maxime in France. He was 91. He lived most of his life on the French Riviera with Dominique Conchon-Lapierre, his wife of 56 years, according to The Washington Post. The French author, who was fluent in Bengali, was awarded the Padma Bhushan — India’s third-highest civilian award — in 2008.
The Washington Post, in its obituary, noted that Lapierre “considered himself a historian with a flair for vivid journalistic storytelling.” It added an interview with India Today, where Lapierre wondered if “history a piece of cold cake that no one can digest, or is history a reenactment of what actually happened with all the emotions, smells, colors, impressions of events?”
Lapierre’s first book on India was the 1975 “Freedom at Midnight,” on India’s struggle for independence, written with American journalist Larry Collin, whom he met in 1954 when he was 23 and serving in the French army. For the book, “the authors interviewed a large number of people with first-hand knowledge of the events of those years,” The Indian Express reported. While traveling extensively through the country, Lapierre met Mother Teresa which had a profound impact on his life and made him think about “what he wanted to do with the material profits from his literary success,” The New York Times reported in its obituary.
For many Indians of the Baby-Boomer generation, “Freedom at Midnight” became a seminal treatise on India’s independence at a time when there were few well-researched historical works of that tumultuous period. Suffused with eye-catching anecdotes and fleshed-out profiles and predilections of principal actors in the Partition of India — Lord Mountbatten, Cyril Radcliffe, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and scores of the secondary cast members — “Freedom” remains the most engrossing narrative on the birth of modern India.
Along with “Freedom at Midnight,” Lapierre and Collins have written five other bestselling books, including “Is Paris Burning?” (1965); “The Fifth Horseman” (1980); “Is New York Burning?” (2005); and “Or I’ll Dress You In Mourning” (1968).
Lapierre and his second wife re-visited India in 1981 as humanitarians. “They lived for two years in a slum in Kolkata, once known as Calcutta, “in a four-by-six room without running water,” The Times report said. During that time, he wrote frequent dispatches from Kolkata, which was the basis of “City of Joy,” a 1985 novel set in the slums near Howrah in West Bengal and traced the experiences of an impoverished rickshaw puller, Hasari Pal. It also shed a light on the work of missionaries in ameliorating the living conditions of the city’s countless poor. More than eight million copies were sold, The Times reported. The novel won the 1986 Christopher Prize. A film based on it was released in 1992, starring Patrick Swayze and directed by Roland Joffe.
According to The Times, the novel not only resulted in the Indian government committing “billions to bring running water and other services to Kolkata’s slums,” but it also “attracted thousands of international tourists to see the poverty for themselves.”
After the success of the novel, Lapierre established several charitable initiatives like The City of Joy Foundation in Kolkata and an Action Aid Association for Calcutta lepers’ children. He donated a large share of his royalties to it to support humanitarian projects in West Bengal.
Lapierre reportedly stayed at the Elgin Fairlawn in Kolkata while writing “City of Joy.” In a 2014 interview with Outlook Traveller, he talked about his “long love story” with Kolkata and the people of Bengal. “There are just so many facets to this city — and more than anything else it’s the people of the city who’ve fascinated me,” he said. “They smile through every adversity, and even the poorest of the poor finds something to laugh about.”
He also spoke about his love for Indian food. “Some of the best meals I have had in India have been in the bastis of Kolkata, in the houses of those who barely had enough to feed themselves.” He told the publication that he spends a lot of time in the city and is involved in 14 projects which work with slum dwellers in Kolkata and people in rural Bengal.
His investigative account, “Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story,” written in collaboration with Spanish author Javier Moro, traced the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and the role of Union Carbide in it. The authors, who lived and worked in the city, conducted extensive research and interviews with survivors and those associated with the disaster, The Indian Express reported. Like “The City of Joy,” “royalties from the sale of the book were directed to an NGO clinic in Bhopal, which provides free medical treatment to the victims of the tragedy,” the report added. A primary school was also set up.
The book, however, was met with some controversy, the Indian Express reported. A defamation suit was filed in July 2009, 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.
His last book on the country he adored was “India — My Beloved,” written in 2018 to mark 50 years of his association with the nation. “It is like my song of love for India, the place where I have been coming very regularly since the last 50 years,” he told the Press Trust of India at the time. “It has been an emotional journey for me where I have got a lot of love and support from the people. The book is my way of expressing gratitude to them.”
Lapierre was born on July 30, 1931, at Chatelaillon in France. His mother, Luce (Andreota) Lapierre, was a journalist, and his father, Jean Lapierre, was a diplomat. He first visited America at age 13, when his father was appointed French consul general in New Orleans. There, he attended a local Catholic school and even had a paper route. He spent several months touring North America,” covering 30,000 miles and keeping copious notes along the way, according to The Times. Those notes became the basis for his first book, “Un Dollar les Mille Kilomètres” (“A Dollar for A Thousand Kilometers”), published in 1950.
He studied at the Sorbonne and then returned once more to the United States, this time on a Fulbright grant to study political science at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. After graduation, he worked as a correspondent for the magazine Paris-Match, where he covered Eastern Europe, Asia and the Algerian War for Independence.
He and his first wife, Aliette Spitzer, spent their honeymoon circumnavigating the globe, an experience he recounted in his book “A Honeymoon Round the World” (1953), The Times said. Three years later, he and his wife, along with a photographer from Paris-Match, spent weeks driving around the Soviet Union, which resulted in the travelogue, “Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union” (2005). His other solo books include “Beyond Love” (1990), a semi-fictionalized account of AIDS doctors in New York; and “A Thousand Suns,” a memoir (1999).