Prominent French writer Dominique Lapierre, who had a special connection with India, died on December 2 at a nursing home in Sainte-Maxime, France. He was 91 years old. He spent most of his life on the French Riviera with Conchon-Lapierre, his wife of 56 years, writes The Washington Post. The French writer, who spoke fluent Bengali, was awarded the Padma Bhushan — India’s third highest civilian award — in 2008.
The Washington Post noted in its obituary that Lapierre “considered himself a historian with a flair for vivid journalistic storytelling.” Added an interview with India Today, where Lapierre asked whether “history is a piece of cold cake that no one can digest, or is history a reconstruction of what really happened with all the emotions, smells, colors, impressions of the event?”
His first book on India was “Freedom at Midnight” in 1975, about India’s struggle for independence, which he wrote with American journalist Larry Collin, whom he met in 1954 when he was 23 and serving in the French army. For the book, “the authors interviewed a large number of people who had first-hand knowledge of the events of those years,” reported The Indian Express. While traveling the country extensively, Lapierre met Mother Teresa, who had a profound influence on his life and made him think about “what he wanted to do with the material profits from his literary success,” The New York Times reported in its obituary.
For many Indians of the Baby-Boomer generation, “Freedom at Midnight” became a seminal discussion of Indian independence at a time when there were few well-researched historical works of that tumultuous period. Filled with engaging anecdotes and elaborate profiles and proclivities of the main actors in the Partition of India – Lord Mountbatten, Cyril Radcliffe, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and a host of supporting actors – “Freedom” remains the most engaging narrative of the birth of modern India.
In addition to “Freedom at Midnight,” Lapierre and Collins wrote five other bestsellers, including “Is Paris Burning?” (1965); “The Fifth Rider” (1980); “Is New York burning?” (2005); and “Or I’ll Dress You In Mourning” (1968).
Lapierre and his second wife visited India again in 1981 as humanitarians. “They lived for two years in a slum in Kolkata, once known as Calcutta, in a four-by-six room with no running water, The Times reports. During this time he wrote frequent correspondence from Kolkata, which was the basis of City of Joy, a 1985 novel set in the slums near Howrah in West Bengal and following the experiences of a poor rickshaw puller, Hasari Pal. He also shed light on the work of missionaries in improving the living conditions of countless urban poor. More than eight million copies have been sold, The Times reported. The novel won the Christopher Award in 1986. A film based on it was released in 1992, starring Patrick Swayze and directed by Roland Joffe.
According to The New York Times, the novel not only resulted in the Indian government devoting “billions to bring running water and other services to the slums of Calcutta,” but also “attracted thousands of international tourists to see poverty for themselves.”
After the success of the novel, Lapierre started several charitable initiatives such as The City of Joy Foundation in Kolkata and Action Aid Association for the children of lepers in Calcutta. He donated a large portion of his royalties to her to support humanitarian projects in West Bengal.
Lapierre reportedly stayed at Elgin Fairlawn in Kolkata while writing “City of Joy”. In a 2014 interview with Outlook Traveller, he spoke about his “long love story” with Kolkata and the people of Bengal. “There are so many aspects to this city – and more than anything, I was fascinated by the people in the city,” he said. “They smile in every trouble, and even the poorest of the poor finds something to smile about.”
He also talked about his love for Indian food. “Some of the best meals I ate in India were in the bastis of Kolkata, in the homes of those who barely had enough to eat.” He told the publication that he spends a lot of time in the city and is involved in 14 projects working with slum dwellers in Kolkata and people in rural Bengal.
His investigative report, “Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story,” written in collaboration with Spanish author Javier Mora, followed the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and Union Carbide’s role in it. The authors, who lived and worked in the city, conducted extensive research and interviews with survivors and those associated with the disaster, The Indian Express reported. Like “City of Joy,” “royalties from sales of the book are directed to an NGO clinic in Bhopal, which provides free treatment to victims of the tragedy,” the report added. An elementary school was also established.
The book, however, ran into some controversy, reported the Indian Express. A defamation suit was filed against Lapierre and Moro in July 2009 by the former Director General of Police of Madhya Pradesh, Swaraj Puri, and a restraining order was imposed on the sale of the book. It was later struck down by the Madhya Pradesh High Court in October 2009.
His last book about the country he adored was “India — My Beloved”, written in 2018 on the occasion of 50 years of association with the nation. “It is like my love song to India, a place where I have been coming very regularly since the last 50 years,” he told the Press Trust of India to the Times. “It was an emotional journey for me where I received a lot of love and support from people. The book is my way of expressing my gratitude to them.”
Lapierre was born on July 30, 1931 in Chatelaillon, France. His mother, Luce (Andreota) Lapierre, was a journalist, and his father, Jean Lapierre, a diplomat. He visited America for the first time at the age of 13, when his father was appointed French consul general in New Orleans. He attended the local Catholic school there and even had a paper route. He spent several months touring North America,” covering 30,000 miles and taking extensive notes along the way, The Times reported. These notes became the basis for his first book, “Un Dollar les Mille Kilomètres” (“A Dollar for a Thousand Kilometers”), published in 1950.
He studied at the Sorbonne and then returned to the United States again, this time on a Fulbright scholarship to study political science at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. After graduation, he worked as a correspondent for Paris-Match magazine, covering Eastern Europe, Asia and the Algerian War of Independence.
He and his first wife, Aliette Spitzer, spent their honeymoon traveling the world, an experience he recounted in his book “A Honeymoon Round the World” (1953), The Times reports. Three years later, he and his wife, along with a Paris-Match photographer, spent weeks driving around the Soviet Union, resulting in the travelogue Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union (2005). His other solo books include “Beyond Love” (1990), a semi-fictionalized account of an AIDS doctor in New York; and “A Thousand Suns”, a memoir (1999).