Calcutta! What sensuous energy does this name evoke? Maharajas riding painted elephants. Tiffin wallahs serving British Officers on colonial club lawns. Dark exotic beauties with jasmine in their hair. . .
Forget all that. It’s called Kolkata now and it’s a drab, decaying bag lady of a place behind whose tragic eyes – if you look hard enough - still burn the dying embers of an old remembered flame.
And yet this savage city is still able to seduce, to draw you in and clutch you against her pounding breast.
At first glance, everything seems hopeless – broken down, bashed up and busted. Great mountains of garbage litter the streets, picked over by dogs, cats, vermin and, pitifully, children. Amidst this detritus, the street people live, families of pavement dwellers who gather beneath flyovers and on sidewalks with nowhere else to go. They’re not ‘homeless’ as we know it – the street is their home.
And yet they live with dignity, rising at dawn from their concrete mattresses to perform the holy ritual of cleanliness. There, at any nearby standpipe, they wash themselves with diligence, brushing their teeth and scrubbing their clothes in the abundant waters from the annual monsoon rains.
When it was first suggested I visit Kolkata, I politely declined. I’d always longed to travel through India but saw myself more suited to the marble palaces of romantic Rajasthan. The purpose of the trip proved irresistible however - to meet a man I’d worked with when I was just 19, the prolific author Dominique Lapierre whose epic masterpiece The City of Joy documenting life in the slums of Calcutta was translated into 31 languages and made into a film starring Patrick Swayze.
I’d first met Dominique and his co-author Larry Collins in Spain in the 1960s. Whilst researching and interpreting …or I’ll Dress You in Mourning, the biography of the iconic bullfighter Manuel Benítez ‘El Cordobés’, I was flung into a relationship with the charismatic matador. Now, 46 years later, here was my ex-boss offering to introduce me to yet another world.
In the early 1980s, Dominique Lapierre and his wife journeyed to Calcutta to meet Mother Teresa. The experience moved them so profoundly, they felt compelled to help the under-privileged children of West Bengal. These tiny scraps of humanity perished by the thousand, victims of malnutrition, poverty and diseases almost eradicated in the Western world.
The City of Joy Aid Organisation was founded as a non-profit making humanitarian project dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, educating and ameliorating all those little lives. By donating millions of dollars of his personal royalties, Dominique’s altruism and that of his supporters has created a network of clinics, schools, hospital boats and rehabilitation centres so that children who would otherwise have died of leprosy, tuberculosis and malaria, or grown up blind or crippled by polio could learn to read, write, walk, talk, play football and best of all, smile.
My mood as I packed for the trip was ‘flapprehensive’. Travelling alone, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that the term ‘city of joy’ was probably an irony, and as I locked my front door and left the luxury of my home, I was already looking forward to unlocking it on my return.