Instagram offers me “Kolkata /Calcutta (City of Joy)” as a location choice.
And that might well be the most abiding, if inadvertent, pop culture legacy of the late great Dominique Lapierre.
The French author died recently at the age of 91. Along with his writing partner Larry Collins, he wrote many best-selling books like O Jerusalem, Freedom At Midnight, Is Paris Burning? This was history as racy best-seller, a genre most of us were unfamiliar with in India. Freedom At Midnight, about the tumultuous days leading to independence in 1947, filled with lively anecdotes, some slightly off-colour, was exactly the kind of history we did not learn at school. For many of us, it was the first “adult” book we read, a rite of passage of sorts, and we devoured it with glee.
But it was his novel City Of Joy, which sold over eight million copies, that came to define his relationship with India, especially Kolkata. City Of Joy wasn’t just a book. It became a Hollywood film starring Patrick Swayze, directed by Roland Joffe. It made Om Puri an international star. It also came to encapsulate the complicated relationship between India and the West.
I remember going to watch it in the theatre in California. I was both enthralled, excited and nervous. The city I had been born in had been immortalised in Hollywood’s golden eye. The film starred Kolkata as much as it starred Swayze. I could recognise its streets, its markets, its rickshaws, all rendered larger than life on the big screen. I felt the thrill of being seen. But at the same moment I also realised that being seen can be a double-edged sword when you have no say in how you are being seen. Sitting in that dark theatre, I cringed because I knew that for almost everyone else around me, Kolkata would now forever be a gigantic slum filled with lepers, hand-pulled rickshaws and ravenous dogs, a city crying out for a saintly white saviour. Even worse, Kolkata was just a means to an end, a way for Swayze’s Dr Max Lowe to get his lost mojo back. From the white man’s burden, India had become the West’s 12-step programme of self-discovery. I was not sure if that was a promotion.
I was already used to Americans asking me, “Have you ever met Mother Teresa?” City Of Joy just hammered that image home. That the story was actually about a slum in the adjacent city of Howrah rather than Kolkata was irrelevant. At the time the film was being made, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, then West Bengal’s culture minister, complained that the book was an “insult to every Indian” and attacked “racists and colonialists” for reinforcing black hole stereotypes of Kolkata. Even Satyajit Ray, who had been accused himself of selling poverty to win awards, decried the book.
Lapierre feistily retorted, “Satyajit Ray, who thinks he owns Calcutta, has he ever been in a slum?” He himself had lived in a slum in a four-by-six room without running water with his wife and done hundreds of interviews over three years. In fact, that’s what gave him street cred—the white foreign correspondent who went and lived in places that others would consider dangerously exotic and turned them into engrossing best-sellers so everyone could enjoy that experience vicariously without having to deal with the heat and dust.
Lapierre joked that they would leave the slum every few weeks to take a “good long bubble bath” but he vociferously denied that his book glorified poverty. Rather, it was about celebrating life and resilience. As he told The New York Times, he woke up one day to find the slum dwellers celebrating the arrival of spring with music. “There was not a tree in that place, not a bud, not a flower, not a butterfly. Yet people had the guts to celebrate something they did not know.”
Lapierre was no helicopter journalist, swooping in and out of Kolkata. He had a long and affectionate relationship with the city, using the royalties from his books to support many non-governmental organisations and charities like Asha Bhawan, a home for destitute children. He was even given the Padma Bhushan.
In a 2013 interview with PTI, Lapierre called City Of Joy his “song of love for India”. That love is unquestioned. As he told journalist Shekhar Gupta in 2004, he wanted his tombstone to read: “Citizen of Honour in the city of Kolkata”. Yet the book (and its title) haunts the city he loved in ways he probably never imagined. “On the streets of Calcutta these days, the book is often seen clutched in the hands of western tourists,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “If Paris has the Guide Michelin, Calcutta has ‘The City of Joy’.”
That title has attached itself to the city even for those who have not read Lapierre or heard of him. In the book, City of Joy is the literal translation of Anand Nagar, the slum named so by a jute factory owner, writes Lapierre, “either out of ignorance or defiance”. But over time that moniker has lost its ironic overtone. It has been embraced by the very government that once bristled at the content of the book. Lapierre once chuckled that there was a sign outside the Kolkata airport welcoming visitors to the “City of Joy”. The title, once ironic, is now a cheery tourist slogan. And from a tourist slogan it has become the cliche of choice for travel writers and Instagram influencers, spawning endless headlines like Exploring the city of joy—Kolkata. 10 Absolute Reasons why you must see “The city of joy”. 15 Things We Love About the City of Joy. Durga Puja, Roshogolla and Trams: Why Kolkata is called The City of Joy.
Lapierre was amused by it all. He had a point when he said the reason many of Kolkata’s elite bhadralok were upset by the success of his book was because he as a foreigner was going into the underbelly of the city, something they themselves did not have the stomach for. But, equally, many of Kolkata’s bhadralok were star-struck by this French couple literally slumming it in Kolkata. They felt flattered by the attention.
But where did City Of Joy leave Kolkata? That answer was clear to me some 20 years later, when I went to see a 3D superhero film, The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon. In it I discovered that Dr Bruce Banner aka the Hulk was holed up in Kolkata, trying to keep his demons in check by saving poor slum dwellers who grabbed his sleeves and whined “mere baba sick”. Why Kolkata? Mark Ruffalo, who starred as Banner, said in an interview, “Joss (Whedon) and I were wondering ‘So where is Bruce Banner?’ And I said ‘I think he’s in a leprosy colony…. it didn’t turn out to be a leprosy colony but he’s in the slums of Calcutta, which I thought was a cool place to find him at.”
And even though I was watching it in some fancy INOX movie theatre in Kolkata, the leprous Kolkata on screen was a time machine back to the City Of Joy, all slum dogs and no millionaires.
The irony was that this “City Of Joy” had been recreated on a film set in New Mexico.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.