My last blog left you with some of the ladies dabbing tears from their eyes. Here's what happened next:
Local film crews jostle for position to document our arrival. Dominique lectures anyone who’ll listen to encourage the Indian Government and wealthy nationals to help their own which they do not seem to do. Through the crowd, we spot Brother Gaston Dayanand, a Swiss turned Holy Man who has lived and worked amongst the poorest of Kolkata’s poor these past forty years. He leads our procession to an open-sided tent where we are seated on a dais like a royal entourage. The whole community, decked out in their finery, sit cross-legged on the ground staring up at us.
The sweet-faced children then perform a 3-hour song, dance and acrobatic show. They all look clean and healthy yet some have shaven heads, presumably to ward off lice. Their parents were all lepers, unable to care for themselves let alone their offspring: infant girls abandoned for simply being female; toddlers left alone when their young mothers died, reduced to scavenging on scrap heaps with the rats; eight-year olds without a rag to clothe themselves forced into prostitution for a few grains of rice.
All those who entertain us have been saved from certain death by Brother Gaston and the selfless, noble, unflinching dedication of Dominique Lapierre, his wife and their fellow humanitarians.
Bouquets and gifts are presented; speeches are made; cakes are cut; photos are taken; the website goes live. Bottled water is handed out much to our relief. From the four corners of the globe, we thirty Western strangers bond through the sheer intensity of this shared experience.
The next day, we set off for Barrackpore to visit a home called Udayan: The Resurrection. This inspirational centre was founded in 1970 by an ex-gentleman’s outfitter from Gloucester, Rev. James Stevens O.B.E. He went out to India in 1968, borrowed a truck from Mother Teresa and began gathering up children from the slums. He has since created a paradise on earth, financially supported by Dominique Lapierre since 1981, where 300 mentally and physically-challenged children aged 4 to 18, all rescued from leper colonies, live, learn and learn to live.
Costly antiobiotics, physical therapy and high protein diets restore their health. They are educated in all academic subjects, as well as yoga, music, arts and crafts and sports. They learn the skills to earn a living and will go on to become tailors, carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, leather workers. When they leave the centre, Udayan will help them buy materials to open their own shops.
Wherever possible, they still see their parents who reap comfort and joy from seeing their now-healthy children growing up to fulfil the dreams they never dared to even dream.
As the week progresses, the schools and health centres become bigger and better: The Dominique Lapierre School of Excellence for Children with Special Need, The Dominique Lapierre Centre of Excellence for the Disabled. We watch a football match played by two teams of polio sufferers, little boys with callipers on their legs and some on crutches, including one who ‘runs’ across the field on his hands and bottom.
As the patients grow up, they too become care givers, physiotherapists, manufacturers of aids and appliances, receivers and providers of physical and mental therapy for the next influx of rescued children.
We sail up the Ganges Delta on a hospital ship to visit the Sundarbans, a vast area of mangrove forest mudflats, straddling the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh. Designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the seven wonders of the natural world, 4.4 million people inhabit 54 of the hundreds of small islands which do not feature on any map.
Xander van Meerwijk, a Dutch philanthropist and heroic friend of the Lapierres, has donated, amongst much else, the funds to build a floating ambulance which provides a whole range of equipment including an on-board lab and X-ray machine capable of detecting tuberculosis in its early stages. This ship is a world first which has already saved thousands of lives.
Xander tells me a wonderful story about the little black dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“The designer Givenchy gave it to me to auction at Christie’s, the proceeds to go to my good causes,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “The price was going up and up to ten times over the $100,000 reserve. Hubert (de Givenchy) suddenly objected to the nationality of the highest bidder - a wealthy Russian - and slammed in a final bid just before the hammer went down. He effectively bought his own dress back but he still donated the money: close to $1,000,000 for that famous little piece of cloth!” *
The Sundarban region, as well as harbouring snakes and crocodiles, is famous for the Royal Bengal tiger, the only animal that drinks seawater. This fearsome creature is a merciless man-eater with a penchant for the cadavers that float along the Ganges, bodies only partially cremated for the simple reason that their families couldn’t afford enough wood for a decent funeral pyre.
Local farmers wear masks on the backs of their heads because the tigers supposedly won’t attack if you’re looking at them, but this is poor protection when you take into account the annual number of deaths.
The remote islanders are in dire need of all types of medical assistance. Cataract removal, cervical screening, malaria control, leprosy treatment – you name it, they need help for it.
One young woman I spoke to explained she was trying to raise enough money to build a house (one room mud hut) and start a stationery business to provide pens and paper for the islands’ schoolchildren.
“How much would that cost?” I enquire. “About $300. . .” she replies. The price of a good lunch.
From having been afraid to touch anyone or eat anything, we have learned to tuck into the local produce laid out for us and clutch the outstretched hands that greet us. We hug the smiling women and pat the straight-faced babies. We stroke the children’s silky hair then surreptitiously pass round anti-bacterial hand wipes in our inbuilt Western paranoia.
On our final day, we visit the slum immortalised in Dominique Lapierre’s best-selling book The City of Joy where his hero, a rickshaw puller/human horse died of TB aged 32. On an area the size of three football pitches, thousands of people live, love, give birth and die alongside open sewers, stinking latrines and polluted wells.
One enduring memory however is of a photograph of a filthy, crippled baby in a crib covered with flies followed by another of that same child aged 18, upright and well, graduating from University. Without the charity, the 2nd photo would not have existed.
Dominique Lapierre is one of life’s heroes instrumental in opening 102 schools, digging 650 wells, bringing literacy to the women of 3000 villages, launching 4 hospital ships and distributing millions to those in need.
“When I see a wealthy Indian driving a brand new Bentley or Ferrari through the streets of Mumbai” he muses, “I see enough money to lift 50,000 tuberculosis-ridden children off the streets, to cure them and to educate them.”
In hard economic times such as these, there is a terrible deficit in funds. Due to the recession, benefactors are knocking noughts off the end of their previous donations. Some of the schools and centres may have to close.
On returning home, I scoop the last spoonful from a jar of coffee then have a terrible dilemma about throwing the empty jar away. What use the Kolkatans could make of it: as a storage container, a water vessel, a grain pounder, a rolling pin.
I’ve heard it said that India changes you.
I never believed it.
I do now.
Tragically, dear Dominique sustained a bad fall in May and is still recovering in hospital in Toulon. We all wish him a speedy recovery to full health.