Dominique Lapierre talks to ANJANA RAJAN on a quarter century of social work and his perspective on the world today
His sprightly manner belies the nearly eight decades he has notched up on this earth. But Dominique Lapierre has statistics other than age to occupy him. The renowned French author “in love with India” is back in the country he adopted 26 years ago as his karmabhumi, the altar upon which he has been pouring oblations of service — and funds — to humankind. And on this visit, he is in celebratory mood. This Monday, the renowned writer is in Kolkata, to meet the 75,000th patient cured at the tuberculosis treatment centre in Bhangar that runs with his financial support and guidance.
There are plenty of other statistics reeled out by the bestselling author of “City of Joy”, “Or I'll Dress You in Mourning”, “O Jerusalem” and other books chronicling the history of the world over the past half century. Lapierre, perennially armed with quotable quotes, is also armed with a short message in Bengali for his beloved “heroes” — the poorest of the poor. Never mind that it sounds like French as he reads it out, that beaming smile needs no translation. In this interview, he speaks with paternal affection of Kolkata which he refers to as “my city of joy”, and of the residents of the slum who fondly call him Dada.
With friendly proprietorship he calls Rehana Khatun “the 10,000th student I taught to read and write in my school,” explaining, when asked about the extent of his personal interaction, “I created it, I supported it!” He also talks of his frustrations with wealthy Indians' inertia when it comes to donating towards charitable causes, and a government whose support is at best ambivalent. Excerpts:
On the purpose of this visit
I'm very happy to be back in India to celebrate a victory against ignorance and poverty. On Monday I shall be back in one of the 14 humanitarian projects I have been sponsoring with the royalties of my books. That's 65 million dollars I gave. This is a very important centre for tuberculosis in Bhangar in 24 Parganas. They came to me, they said, “Dada, do something for us…” and this Monday we celebrate the 75,000th patient cured there. It is so fantastic! Also we will celebrate the 10,000th girl student I taught to read and write.
Also, I will be presenting my new book, “A Rainbow in the Night” about South Africa. For me Mandela is a personality of the dimensions of Mahatma Gandhi, who is a hero for me. My first pilgrimage in India is to Birla House. I cry every day that there is no Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi…(in conflict torn West Asia).
On India's reluctant donors
My whole involvement comes to three million dollars a year over 14 years. I need Indian collaboration. I created a special foundation, hoping that Indian money will come. It is government approved with tax deduction. I set it up 10 years ago. If we get two lakh rupees a year, one lakh is from my Indian royalties. It think it's a pity that not many people came forward. I am concerned that more and more there are two Indias. We read in the news that shining India has more billionaires than China. I always tell my ‘India shining' friends, please don't let this gap get bigger. If one day a new Mahatma Gandhi comes, whom people respect for his honesty, but a violent Gandhi, there will be a revolution in this country.
Avoiding waste of NGO funds
I am so careful that every single rupee is used for priority. I travel economy class with my wife, using my money. You have to be very, very attentive, otherwise you open many doors. Many organisations have a huge amount in their budget reserved for the president's salary!
We have 1200 people. They are all paid, but nominally. But also they are highly trained in giving themselves to the cause of the poorest of the poor. When I come to India after working hard many months, I pick up my vitamins from them and I return to France full of pep. Thinking about them I forget about Mr Raja (referring to corruption charges against the former telecom minister and other news of misuse of huge funds).
How people can help
If retiring doctors specialised in fields like leprosy and tuberculosis want to come for six months and work, they can help. The doctors on my four hospital boats (providing medical services in the Sunderbans) are all paid, but it is nominal, not as much as they might earn in private practice. I say six months because we don't want to ask too much.
Also gynaecologists. With the royalties from my book “Five Minutes Past Midnight” (about the BhopaI gas disaster) I set up a gynaecological clinic for the poorest of the poor women, who, 25 years after the disaster, still give birth to deformed babies. Gynaecology in India is more (geared) to bring children into the world, and not to treat pathologically. So I brought a few gynaecologists from France and Italy. They came on vacation, at their own expense, and taught young gynaecologists in India.
Ambivalent government support
I'm running all the time against problems. If you have a recognised, bonafide tuberculosis centre, you are entitled to receive free TB medicine. I never get more than 10 per cent. It gets stolen. We tried every way (including couriering) but it doesn't work. The medicine is not sent directly to us, it comes through various agencies. So we have to spend an enormous amount of money to buy drugs to which we are entitled free.
Padma Bhushan — the irony and honour
Yes, it is an irony. (Honoured by a government that cannot ensure he gets medicines made available by the government.) But what is extraordinary about this Padma Bhushan is that it was requested by the children, who said please give this to our Dada!
I am always charged the money for my visas. That is also an irony. That I'm considered just another tourist. But I was very honoured by this Padma Bhushan (conferred in 2008). Because it is the highest civilian honour and official recognition of my work. Though the Indian government doesn't share in the work, it at least is recognised.