My reunion with Dominique was as effusive as it was emotional. He’d been 34 when I’d last set eyes on him. Now 80 he seemed as fit and enthusiastic as ever as he introduced me to my co-Kolkatans, journalists and humanitarians from all over the world: an economist from Italian newspaper La Repubblica, a features writer from Vanity Fair, a fiscal lawyer from Milan, an philanthropic entrepreneur from Amsterdam, a news reporter from Switzerland, charity workers from the Napa Valley, a French documentary maker, a Spanish film crew – fine and motley one and all.
On Day One, we breakfast early and leave the hotel in a convoy of bone-rattling mini-buses. The scenery has not improved since yesterday and just beyond the city centre, the road runs out of tarmac. The bus bumps in and out of potholes big enough to bath in, shaking our diverse group into a cultured cocktail. In the absence of seatbelts, we hang on for dear life. The aircon vents in the roof begin to leak, dripping water onto those seated below. We accommodate as best we can. Soon the actual road runs out leaving only dirt track.
We weave on for miles through villages and shanty towns . . . om shanti, shanti, shanty. Industry in the form of headboard-carvers, palm-frond choppers and cauliflower vendors line the dusty way. Water buffalo amble along en route to who knows where.
As we approach our first stop, ICOD: The Interreligious Centre of Development deep in the heart of West Bengal, posters tacked to tree trunks and telegraph pole welcome Dominique Dada and his wife, Dominique Didi - Big Brother and Big Sister.
In the 1980s, the Lapierres journeyed to Calcutta to meet and research the life and work of Mother Teresa. The experience moved them so profoundly, they felt compelled to get involved and since then, through tireless fund-raising and the donation millions of dollars of his personal royalties, Dominique has build up a network of schools, clinics, hospital ships and rehabilitation centres to cure, care for and educate those children who would otherwise have perished from poverty, malnutrition and diseases long since eradicated in the West.
Our buses pull up and out we spill into the blinding sunlight. We are immediately surrounded and swept along to the beat of a band of drums. A troupe of young male stilt-walkers dressed in red dhotis dance around us. Firecrackers explode in the air; jets of crazy foam rain down on our coiffures. Brightly-clad women and children shower us with flower petals. Others rush forward and bedeck our necks with garlands of sunny marigolds.
The welcome is overwhelming. Mr & Mrs Dominique Lapierre are regarded as Saints. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2008, the highest civilian accolade in India. Their arrival, and ours it seems, is viewed as a great honour.
Babes in arms sporting charcoal bindis on their temples to ward off the evil eye stare at us with curiosity. Little girls in traditional dress blink shyly with their kohl-encircled eyes. Some reach out to touch our pallid Western skin. Ashamedly, I pull away, wiggling a wave instead. I’m ignorant, uncertain, unsure how to behave. If I’m honest, I’m afraid of catching something...
The local women hold their hands together in prayer position and bow their heads, greeting us with ‘Namaste’ and ‘Namaskar’. I know Namaste from my yoga class but Namaskar?
I bow to God in you; I love you and respect you as there is no one like you.
Wow! I feel totally unworthy. I have donated nothing except my presence to this trip. I live a gilded life of luxury and excess. I know nothing of their hardship, nothing of their plight. So I too lower my head in humility and guilt. Maybe I shouldn’t have flown Business Class after all. Some of the ladies in our group dab tears from their eyes.