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The City of Joy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The section of Calcutta which gives this book its title is one of the poorest areas of that blighted city, where five million people live out their lives on the teeming sidewalks and streets. The setting of this gripping narrative is the district called Anand Nagar—the City of Joy—in which more than two hundred thousand human beings exist together per square mile. It is by far the most dense community in the world.

The author builds a vivid context for this powerful book, an unsparing portrait of poverty, disease, vermin, and filth. Nevertheless, the volume is fundamentally a story of courage and hope. At the heart of this downtrodden mass of humanity, the author discovered more heroism, more happiness, and ultimately more sharing than in many cities of the affluent West. Above all, he clearly demonstrates that this seemingly inhuman place has spawned heroes and heroines of all ages from all walks of life. For Calcutta is the home not only of saints such as Mother Teresa but also of countless other inspiring people who do their good works completely unknown.

The story concerns men, women, and children, who have been uprooted from their placid rural homes by implacable natural and economic forces and driven into a city whose capacity for both cruelty and hospitality exceed Western norms. The volume is filled with examples of how people learn, despite incredibly difficult odds, to survive, to share, and to love.

The City of Joy (published in France in 1985 as La Cité de la joie) was based on two years of extensive research in Calcutta and various areas of Bengal. The author was given access to some personal diaries and correspondence, but the bulk of the research consisted of more than two hundred lengthy interviews conducted through interpreters in various languages, including Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu. These interviews provided the basis for most of the dialogues and testimonies in the book. Therefore, this brilliant undertaking is not conventional history. It is festooned with neither a bibliography nor footnotes; instead, Lapierre uses his raw data to construct a novelistic portrait of setting, characters, and events, which captures the ethos and pathos of the City of Joy far better than a clinical historical analysis possibly could.

To tell the story of this terrible yet noble place, Lapierre immersed himself in its awesome and complex reality. He slept in a filthy hovel; studied the exotic cultures that intermingle within the City of Joy; came to know at firsthand the unfeigned love of Mother Teresa and her acolytes; and even befriended the godfather of the local Mafia, a character worthy of India’s former emperors. Lapierre witnessed births, marriages, funerals, and festivals of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians—a vast mosaic of races and religions. Furthermore, he experienced what it was like to pull a rickshaw, to light a crude stove during the worst of the monsoon, to bathe daily with a half liter of water, and to survive on less than six cents a day.

The book opens with the trials of a Bengali peasant family forced off their land by bad harvests and mounting debts that rob them of the means to survive. Crops fail when the monsoon does not come, and the family must sell their buffalo and two cows. The loss of the animals means not only the loss of the precious daily milk but also the loss of the indispensable dung, which, mixed with chopped straw and fashioned into cakes, is dried in the sun and used as fuel for cooking. With this one tragic case, Lapierre captures the cycle of poverty that has entrapped ten or twelve million Bengali peasants during the second half of the twentieth century. The process involves an unrelenting descent along the social ladder by which a farmer becomes a sharecropper, then a peasant without land, then an agricultural laborer, then, eventually, an exile seeking hope in the hopelessness of Calcutta.

The city offered to Hasari Pal, the peasant hero of the book, a mirage of opportunity....

(The entire section is 1,644 words.)