by Dominique Lapierre
translated by Kathryn Spink
My older sister is a nurse. Her favorite country to visit is India, and she's there right now, traveling around and volunteering with charities that help the poor. Some of her work has been in homes for the dying originally set up by Mother Theresa in Kolkata (spelled Calcutta in my book). I felt it was only fitting that at this time I read a book she gave me a few years ago, about the poor in that very same city. After reading it I have even greater respect and admiration for the volunteer work my sister does.
Lapierre is a journalist who spent two years in India, mostly Calcutta, learning about life in one of its most destitute slums, called Anand Nagar- the City of Joy. The story is built around two main threads: the experiences of a young Catholic priest who decided that in order to really understand the needs of the poor and serve them best, he must live right amongst them in the slum; and the struggles of a refugee family from the country, who find themselves starving in the middle of the city until their father finds work as a rickshaw puller- a job that provides for his family, but also destroys his health. I knew the two stories would meet in the end, but did not forsee the drastic circumstances. The last words of the narrative struck my heart and mind mute with astonishment. If any of you have also read this book, please let me know that you thought of that last phrase! But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The City of Joy has such a wealth of material. Many side stories of friends and acquaintances are described, giving the reader a broader sense of circumstances in the city. Two of the more interesting parts described a group of eunuchs who lived next to the priest- they had a very specific role in society- and the leper colony he visited (no one else dared). I liked reading about the kite-flying escapades, very similar to those portrayed in The Kite Runner, except these kite battles were held by grown men! There is no end to the deprivation, squalor and disease the poor suffer. Yet even living in such poverty and suffering, the people had so much joy and compassion in their hearts. Every day some kind of religious festival or cultural ritual seemed to be taking place- and the people poured themselves into the celebrations. There were always those willing to help their fellow men, even when they had next to nothing to give. The City of Joy is a moving tribute to the greatness of the human spirit, shining here though the darkest of shadows.
Rating: 4/5 ........ 464 pages, 1985