By Parveen Chopra
An unwritten edict for journalists warns them against getting personally involved with their subjects. One man the world would laud for having violated this edict is author-philanthropist-Indophile Dominique Lapierre. The Frenchman’s love affair with India that started during his research for Freedom at Midnight (co-authored with Larry Collins) has progressively deepened. In India, too, he has chosen Calcutta, more precisely a particular slum he christened ‘City of Joy’, for his affections. In the last 18 years he has ploughed in $6 million into his humanitarian projects in and around Calcutta. All the royalties from his book, A Thousand Suns, also fund these projects. On a trip to India to promote A Thousand Suns, Lapierre spoke to Parveen Chopra in New Delhi on what the country means to him
What inspired you to write A Thousand Suns?
It was important for me to share the most exceptional and extraordinary encounters that I have had. The 57,000 letters I have received so far from my readers in Italy, Spain and France, where the book has been published already, show that I was right. I wanted to say thank you through these accounts to all those who have fed my beliefs and my ambitions throughout my life, such as Mahatma Gandhi, the Nazi general who was ordered to destroy Paris in 1944 and did not, the young man who gave up his life to protect the elephants of Africa, Lord Mountbatten who gave freedom to one-fifth of humanity. I wanted to write about them because I believe today we all need role models, to give us a motive to achieve some ideal.
Aren’t these role models scarce these days, except may be an occasional Mother Teresa?
No, we can all be ourselves, and yet in our everyday lives play Mother Teresa. We can all share and act in such a way that we respect the ideals of these great people. You can’t be a Mother Teresa all the time. It is too difficult. But you can be a small Mother Teresa. We can all bring a little bit of justice, love and compassion to make this world a little bit better. For example, by helping an old lady cross the street, you are acting like a small Mother Teresa and you have in your own way given something. In the slums of Calcutta I have learnt a beautiful proverb: all that is not given is lost.
Have you met any great people, besides Mother Teresa, in recent years?
My pride has been, and this I owe to India, to meet many anonymous people who are as big as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi. My pride was to spend two years in a place I called the City of Joy, in Calcutta, where I met more heroes, more apostles, more saints than you would normally meet in an entire life.
Are there more such people in India than in the rest of the world?
The extreme conditions in India lend themselves well for developing heroes. I have discovered such heroes in little townships of South Africa also. Everyday I receive letters from people, especially from India, who do extraordinary things for their neighbors and ask for my help. There are many small organizations in a city like Calcutta—clubs, social organizations, fraternities—which try to help people.
Have you ever explored spirituality?
I am an action person. I am more concerned with trying to do something everyday than with meditation. I should do both but maybe a little later. When physical strength leaves me, I will do with meditation and prayers what I can no more do with my muscles. Many people ask me: ‘You who love India and its poor people so much, why don’t you go and take care of lepers in Calcutta?’ My reply is I will not know how to do it. But I can do more important things for them than nursing their wounds. I can lecture, write and collect money to give them rehabilitation centers.
Yes, you can only use your ability, your talents…
Exactly. I don’t feel forced to do things I am not geared for.
Do you feel satisfied with what you are doing?
You never feel satisfied. Once a journalist asked Mother Teresa: ‘What would you like to do now?’ She replied: ‘More.’ I used that line in the film script I wrote on her. I’ll give one example. Recently I was in Calcutta, in Udayan, a home for rescued leper children. For the last 18 years, my wife and I have financially supported it and have rescued 9,000 children, cured them, educated them, taught them a trade. The other day one of them came to me and said: ‘Dada (brother), look!’ It was his diploma in mechanical engineering. I said to myself, if I had done only that one thing in my life—turn him into a mechanical engineer—it would already have been great.
You have children?
Yes. I have a daughter (Alexandra, also a writer), a biological one, and 2,000 Indian children.
Do you get accused of having a bleeding heart?
Your heart bleeds for India, for Calcutta… On the contrary, India has given me the great privilege to meet extraordinary heroes, whose dignity and courage was a message for me, and the world. To be given the opportunity to help these people who help themselves is more a gift to me. But India should try to reduce the increasing gap between the richest and the poorest.
But now there is also a large middle class…
True, but it has not been used to reduce the extreme poverty of a large portion of the population of India. In this context, I must say that India should fight corruption. Mind you, corruption is not unique to India-it is in France, in the whole world. But because of India’s extreme circumstances, it is important to tackle corruption, which has become a sort of culture here.
How do you see India’s future?
A great future, because it’s a great nation, with extraordinarily imaginative, inventive and hardworking people. It’s a rich country spiritually as well as economically and that is what is so beautiful. It can create satellites, and at the same time produce great saints, thinkers, philosophers, artists and writers.
So, where do you belong: India or France?
I was probably an Indian rickshaw-puller in my previous incarnation because I always carry a rickshaw bell from Calcutta in my pocket. But India is such a big country that you need several incarnations to know it completely.
Western culture is seen to be depraved, more so today with pornography on the Internet and all. Do you see it going more in the same direction?
I don’t think you can talk about culture. Every epoch has its depravations, of the local culture and situation. I think the western world has as many apostles, saints and great men today as it had earlier. The trouble is that today the media is more interested in describing depravations, pornography and giving the world hundreds of hours of Monica Lewinsky, than the message and life of truly authentic apostles and saints who do exist. The media does not reflect the situation on the ground. Thank God!
It is said that there already exist resources and technology to improve the plight of the entire mankind, but they are not utilized well.
They are diverted. You spend $ 40 million to prove that the US President had oral sex with one of his junior assistants—this is total misappropriation. The same money could have been utilized in the research for cancer, in sponsoring some great spiritual institution. I wait for the time when the western world shares its abundance with the poor—and it would. The problem is corruption. Of generosity getting diverted from reaching its real destination by middlemen. I’ve been fighting the same problem in my philanthropic work.
Are you familiar with the New Age scene in the West?
All these movements are positive. They address people who are searching. There are a lot of people dissatisfied with what is being offered to them by today’s civilization. I don’t always agree and I myself don’t always need such literature. I may find answers to my quest within myself, but for those who do not, it is useful.
Will the New Consciousness grow and change the world?
I think it will grow. The only danger is that this kind of movement should not sink into fundamentalism and extremism.
You seem to be a very happy kind of person…
Yes, when I’m in India. When I land here, I find my vitamins.
We can always beat adversity—this is your refrain. But there is so much suffering, misery, and turmoil in the world…
You can always bring one drop of positive water and another and make an ocean. The boy with the mechanical engineering diploma is a microscopic result. But you can take another child who can become a mechanical engineer, plus another one. And you can change the world. Always a thousand suns beyond the clouds.
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