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`India changed my life'

He does so many things it's difficult to figure out what Dominique Lapierre is

— Photo: S. Thanthoni

Dominique Lapierre: `I think my strength is asking questions and coaxing memories.' — Photo: S. Thanthoni

IT ISN'T easy to figure out Dominique Lapierre. When he reels out lists like: "I've sunk 540 tube wells of drinking water. I've rescued 9,000 leper children." Is it braggadocio or honest pride in a deserving achievement? When he gives you a killer quote — "After I return to France from India, I'm no longer worried about finding parking on the Champs Elysees," — and you realise you've read it in an earlier interview, is it a carefully constructed epigram or a heartfelt observation? When he points to photos of a rally in his honour and says: "No politician has ever been acclaimed in this way." Is it a dig at an inefficient polity or an acknowledgement of public's affection? Is Lapierre, as some critics have suggested, a philanthropist who loves to play God, or is he the too-transparently well-meaning naοf of our jaundiced age?

Cynicism doesn't help

Viewing him through a journalist's most prized possession — cynicism — doesn't help either, but Lapierre himself unexpectedly provides a clue. During a discussion of an American journalist's vehement criticism of Mother Teresa, Lapierre says: "You can always condemn those who do good for others. Anybody can say something wrong about someone trying to change the injustices of this world."

He has just come from Kolkata, where 40,000 residents of the Sunderbans honoured him with the Sunderbans Award. "Because, for six years now, I have had four hospital boats navigating the Sunderbans, bringing medical help to people of 54 islands who have absolutely nothing," he says. Before that, he was in Bhopal for the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide disaster, where he and his friends first celebrated and then despaired as the BBC erroneously announced a settlement of $12 billion. "That was a tragedy within a tragedy".

It's the sort of schedule that Lapierre has become extremely familiar with, ever since he wrote City of Joy in 1985 and swapped the traditionally hands-off approach of a journalist for the infinitely more hands-on role of a benefactor for the poor. Even as a reporter for Paris Match, covering events like the Korean War, Lapierre once famously said that he "discovered on the battlefield that one cannot be Hemingway and Mother Teresa at the same time". Lapierre quit his reporting job to become a full-time writer, and his collaborations with Larry Collins such as O, Jerusalem, Freedom at Midnight and Is Paris Burning? have become as known for their spare, workmanlike prose as for their objectivity and depth of research. Is New York Burning? their latest book, has already sold five million copies in 25 languages, Lapierre points out.

Thank-you letters

"It is essentially a study on whether a particular scenario — smuggling an atomic weapon into America is feasible," he says. "The immediate entourage of President Bush wrote us thank-you letters for opening their eyes to that threat."

He still considers himself a journalist, but one who takes two years over a story rather than two weeks. "I think my strength is asking questions and coaxing memories." He has harsh words for today's media, though. "International correspondents here just don't get out of Delhi. There's so little about India in the French press. It's a scandal... It's true even of Indian journalists. When I was writing my book on Bhopal, one young reporter asked me: `Bhopal? Why Bhopal?' And I wanted to say: `Miss, if I could move your big fat butt out of that armchair and take you there, you'll understand.'"

Love for people

Lapierre understands. "Because of `City of Joy,' half of my life is taken with this desire to show my love for the people I have spoken and lived with," he says. "It is easy to send a cheque with some money from an apartment in Paris, but it is more important to see what happens to this cheque. This is why I come four times a year to India, spending lots of time with the people. This has changed my life. India has given me much more than I can ever give her."

On a recent visit to Kolkata, Lapierre visited Udayan, where 19-year-old Ashu, on seeing him, shouted, "Dada! Dada!" and ran over to him, waving a piece of paper. "It was a diploma in mechanical engineering," he recalls. "I had rescued this boy from a leper colony 12 years ago. I had tears in my eyes. I thought: `If I'd done only this in this world before appearing in front of the Lord, it would be enough.'" It's a lovely story, and he's told it before. Unwanted cynicism rears its head again: has he remembered this incident to tell interviewers and friends? We don't know; Ashu, 40,000 residents of the Sunderbans, and thousands of others elsewhere don't care.

To Lapierre, the latter fact matters most.

SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN

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