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The WRITE way

ZIYA US SALAM speaks to Dominique Lapierre, on his new book, `Is New York Burning'. But there is more to Lapierre than just books.

HE HAS been instrumental in curing one million tuberculosis patients in India. He has helped 9000 leper children from slums. He has helped dig 540 drinking water tube wells, which means eradicating intestinal diseases, cholera, etc. He has been instrumental in building four hospitals in Sunderbans for 10 lakh people on 54 islands. These are the islands, which do not exist on the map of India and are seldom the priority of any political party.

Just recently, some 50 kilometres off Kolkata he came up with Asha Bhavan where children suffering from polio and mental retardation stay. Talk of this Uluberia centre and his face lights up as he confesses, "I find my vitamins in these people." Impressive resume for a health worker? Or a social activist, one would say. He himself differs, "I don't like the word activist." By the way he has also written some of the bestsellers like "Is Paris Burning", "City of Joy", "A Thousand Suns", "Five Past Midnight", and has now pieced together "Is New York Burning" (a Full Circle publication) with dear friend Larry Collins. He is Dominique Lapierre.

"I wrote `City of Joy' for the have-nots. For 22 years in India I have been involved with many projects helping fight poverty. Through my earnings I want to make this part of India a shining part. It is a huge country. The gap between the affluent and the deprived is vast. Do not let this gap widen. Today, so many things have changed. I have witnessed these changes in Bengal where you will find a TV in every village. Thanks to TV people get conversant with fridge, washing machine and the like. But they also get frustrated at their inability to possess them. Their biggest wealth remains the ballot. Slogans of India shining do not concern them or reach them. I hope the new Government brings in more work for more people.

"I do not think of myself as an activist. I don't like the term. It has some belligerent connotations. I am an author who, at the age of 50, has heard the voice that told me you can be a successful author but you can also be a social worker. I want to change the destiny of my characters. I share everything with the less affluent in a direct way. I do it directly on the battlefield. I make sure that a part of every rupee that I receive from my readers goes to the poorest of the poor. I have no collaborators. I maintain no office. There are so many NGOs who have equipment they do not need, too many welfare organisations like to have too many buildings and vehicles. All that money can be better utilised for the benefit of the needy. My work begins in Paris with banks that do not overcharge in transactions because when one changes a lakh dollars into rupees, every rupee matters."

He is quite disappointed at the appalling red tapism and exhibitionism, which greets an Indian at every step. Says Lapierre, "I have seen empty hospital inaugurated a year earlier by local MLAs. They have no doors, no windows, no lights, no doctors," adding, "the entire world shut its eyes to a catastrophe 10 times worse that the New York tragedy. It was in India in Bhopal. Many, many more people were affected by the Bhopal gas leakage than the New York Twin Tower tragedy. Nobody is interested because it concerns the poor. Thousands of women still suffer from the gas leak, there are mal-formed children. What have they got in compensation? Nothing. Forget Rwanda. Forget Afghanistan. Here in India an industrial tragedy killed 30,000, poisoned five lakh. Strangely my book based on the Bhopal tragedy was more successful abroad than here."

What about "New York Burning"? "I wrote this book because it provided me with an opportunity to get back together with Larry Collins. We have written a novel, which denounces the evil and shows the real danger of terrorism. Through fiction we have painted a possible scenario of tomorrow. We are in a more dangerous world. The possibility of a terrorist attack is as real for New York as Paris or New Delhi." Through this book, he is drawing attention to what needs to be done to stop terrorism. Even as he talks passionately about his latest book, he cannot help revealing: "my greatest joy does not come from the fact that the book has been well received all over the world but from the face of Ashu, a 19-year-old boy from Udayan who was rescued from the slums at the age of seven. Now, he is a mechanical engineer." Even as he takes out a bell he always carries with himself to remember about the rickshaw pullers of Kolkata he wrote so poignantly about in "City of Joy", one knows here is a man who is openly seeking Indian generosity in helping the have-nots, and leading by example.

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