Dominique Lapierre, the best-selling French author of City of Joy and Freedom at Midnight has died at the age of 91. A Padma Bhushan awardee, Lapierre had a special bond with India, travelling through the country and spending time in the cities of Kolkata and Bhopal, both of which featured prominently in his work.
The 1985 novel City of Joy, which made him a household name in India, is set in the slums of Kolkata and won the 1986 Christopher Prize. It was made into a major movie in 1992, starring Patrick Swayze, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi.
Lapierre spoke Bengali fluently and would often travel in rickshaws on his visits to the city. In the aftermath of the success of the novel, Lapierre set up the City of Joy Foundation and donated a large share of his royalties to it to support humanitarian projects in West Bengal, which included the setting up of dispensaries, care centres for those suffering from leprosy and tuberculosis, hospital boats, schools and rehabilitation centres.
In 1997, Lapierre wrote Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster, in collaboration with Javier Moro. The book was based on extensive research and interviews with survivors and those associated with the disaster over the course of three years that the authors lived and worked in the city.
The royalties from the sale of the book were donated to an NGO clinic in Bhopal, which provides free medical treatment to the victims of the tragedy. The author also set up a primary school in the Oriya Basti colony in Bhopal, a neighbourhood that features prominently in the book.
Lapierre’s earliest best-seller was Is Paris Burning?, a non-fiction book he wrote in collaboration with the American writer Larry Collins. Published in 1965, it chronicles the events leading up to August 1944, when Nazi Germany surrendered control of the French capital. It was later adapted for the silver screen by Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal.
The best known of Lapierre’s works centred on India is Freedom at Midnight, (with Collins) which tells the story of India’s struggle for independence and the great humanitarian tragedy of the Partition. The authors interviewed a large number of people with first-hand knowledge of the events of those years, and was stylistically similar to Is Paris Burning?.
Lapierre was born on July 30, 1931, in Chatelaillon, France. His father was a diplomat. The young Dominique spent a considerable part of his youth hitchhiking and travelling across the United States and doing odd jobs to fund his travels. It was around this time that he developed a flair for writing. His travelogues would often be published in papers in the US.
At 18, Lapierre received a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Afterwards, he began his career as a reporter for the weekly news magazine, Paris-Match, where he honed the journalistic skills that would shape his later work as a writer.