dead Dominique Lapierre, the legend of the saint and the writer-


The famous journalist recounts his meeting with Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Dominique Lapierre, the author of The City of Joy, died at the age of 91. We publish the article written by Dominique Lapierre published in the Corriere della Sera on Sunday 9 January 2005 in the Weekend insert directed by Dino Messina

I feel this is going to be a great day in my life: will meet for the first time Mother Teresa, the saint of Calcutta, in her House of the pure heart, the shelter she created to bring relief to the dying abandoned on the streets of that inhuman city. The old woman kneels in front of a still young man, so skeletal that he looks like a living dead. Her flesh seems to have dissolved. Only her skin remains of her, stretched over her bones. Mother Teresa puts a spoonful of food into his mouth and speaks softly to him in Bengali. I am deeply disturbed by the look of that unfortunate. Little by little his suffering changes into surprise, then into peace, the peace of one who suddenly feels loved. As if sensing a presence behind her, the nun turns around. I feel terribly embarrassed. I interrupted a dialogue whose unique character I clearly perceived. I introduce myself. The old woman gets up and hands me the bowl of soup. You continue to feed this man—she commands me—by loving him with all her might.

A cry in the evening. Loving him with all the strength of him!. The cry still hits me like a lash. Not a simple injunction, an order. An order that suddenly invites me to reconsider my whole life. I am fifty years old. I have succeeded in everything: my books are sold in millions of copies. Coupled with my wonderful wife Dominique I live in perfect happiness. My daughter Alessandra is starting a successful writing career. I live in the beautiful countryside of Ramatuelle. I collect vintage cars, including a magnificent Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, in which I roamed from India to Saint Tropez. In short, I have achieved all my dreams. And here’s that a woman in a white sari bordered in blue brutally makes me understand that the essential is missing in my life: God’s love for the poor. In my books and reportages I have often described situations of poverty and suffering, but without ever remaining in the field to correct them. I have testified, I have expressed complaints, but without ever really committing myself.

Mother Teresa’s order, launched on that very hot summer evening of 1981 in her shelter for the dying in Calcutta, will be the detonator that will change my life. My Long Inquiry into Mahatma Gandhi – made to write with Larry Collins Freedom tonightthe story of India’s independence – had already shown me how Gandhi had fought all his life to improve the lot of India’s five million lepers. My boundless admiration for little Mahatma who had liberated his country from the colonial yoke without ever firing a shot, only speaking of love and non-violence, shows me the way. I decide on the spot to offer half of my royalties to an institution that rescues child victims of leprosy. The day after our meeting, Mother Teresa, when I announced my intention to her, stared at me with her small eyes overflowing with compassion and love and exclaimed in a vibrant voice: the good God who sends you.

The English merchant. That same evening he introduces me to an Englishman, a former shirt merchant who has consecrated his life to the leprous children of Calcutta’s slums. His name is James Stevens. This anonymous benefactor of humanity has gathered, healed and sent to school thousands of children in his hospice to which he has given the beautiful name of Resurrection. But this magnificent work is about to disappear. Stevens has no more money. I am so impressed by this man and the quality of his action that I do not hesitate for a second to entrust him with the sum I have brought with me. Leaving him, I make him an extravagant promise: You will never close Resurrection. A few days later, Stevens takes me to one of the shantytowns where he has gathered his first little protégés. The place is called the City of Joy, a paradoxical name for a place of misery where seventy-five thousand people are crammed into a space barely the size of two football fields, a place where life expectancy does not exceed forty years, where a single well serves three thousand people. In short, hell on earth. But, having entered that hell, I witness so much dignity, so much courage, so much love, so much ability to share, so much hope, that I understand that I am among those of whom Jesus said they will be the first to appear before the Father. People who have nothing, but who seem to have everything. Models of humanity, like little Padmini, an eight-year-old girl, who gets up at four every morning to collect the pieces of coal that have fallen from the locomotives along the railway. She then brings her mother that miserable treasure, the sale of which will buy some rice so that the family may live one day longer. Or like Hasari Pal, rickshaw driver, who travels forty kilometers barefoot a day pulling a small wheelbarrow full of travellers. Like Gaston, a European who has been sharing the existence of the poorest for twenty years to help them hope.

The epic of the shantytowns. One day I decide to immerse myself completely in the hell of this shantytown for tell the story of the survival of its inhabitants. The book, the result of this crazy experience, will be the greatest human and literary adventure of my life. The city of joy it will sell nine million copies and inspire a cinematic superproduction with the great American actor Patrick Swayze in the lead role. I will receive one hundred and seventy thousand letters from readers shocked by this story which speaks of true human values. In an envelope, one day, I find two wedding rings taped to a sheet of paper that says: We have worn these rings for forty years of happiness. Sell ​​them today to help the children of Calcutta. In another letter I discover a check for twenty million lire. After reading The city of joy – a reader from Milan wrote to me – I gave up smoking. This check represents the cost of the cigarettes I bought each year. I’ll send you the same amount next year.

Doctors on the boat. As for me, I promised to share all my earnings with the heroes of the City of Joy. I kept my promise. In twenty years I have been able to contribute to the healing of a million tuberculosis patients, to rescue nine thousand leprous children from death, to have more than 500 wells of drinking water dug in numerous very poor villages of Bengal, to create dispensaries, schools, rehabilitation centres, to teach the women of a thousand villages to read and write, to launch microcredit programs… Finally, to respond to the appeals of a million unfortunate people living in the fifty-four islands of the Ganges delta, I transformed four old ferries in the port of Calcutta into hospital boats. Each vessel equipped with a radiology apparatus, a small surgery room and a laboratory for the diagnosis of tuberculosis. The crew consists of two doctors and five nurses. In five years, more than three hundred thousand sick people have been treated by this fleet of love, which intervenes on the edge of a forest populated by tigers who slaughter dozens of fishermen and wild honey gatherers every year. One of those boats bears the name of the cities of Lecco and Turin. Because in Italy I have found the greatest generosity to support my crusade. In Tuscany, hundreds of families have sponsored leprous children from our Resurrection shelter. In Milan, the Benedetta d’ Intino Foundation which allowed me to bring to life an entire shelter for handicapped children. In Carmagnola, a support association organizes a market and conferences every month to raise funds. Other anonymous friends weave a large network of solidarity across the country. Yes, Italy is a wonderful country, full of compassion and solidarity. I have met more Italian doctors, nurses and social workers in the Third World than of any other nationality.

On the river. I have just returned from the Ganges delta, miraculously spared from the apocalyptic tidal wave that claimed so many lives on the coasts of southern India. Fifty thousand locals were waiting for me on the island of Manipur, brandishing We love you Dominique placards. They made me an honorary citizen of the Ganges delta, during an event that is undoubtedly worth all the Nobel prizes on earth. Such a distinction had never been attributed to a foreigner. I had brought with me fourteen specialist doctors and two dentists, who throughout the day examined several hundred sick people in the huts placed at their disposal by the inhabitants of the island. Imagine a strip of land nearly at water level, where the soil can provide nothing but a miserable crop of rice a year, where the pulp of rare vegetables is so salty as to be almost inedible, and the water from hand-dug wells of three hundred meters deep almost always poisoned by arsenic. The inhabitants had organized a collection to buy the few grams of silver needed to make a plaque which the children of the island gave me to the sound of hundreds of shells and under a hurricane of applause. You helped us in our misfortune. Today we come to say thank you had engraved on the plaque the mayor of that island, whose existence, like that of the other fifty-three islands of the largest river delta in the world, does not appear on any geographical map. This moving tribute was added to what the inhabitants of the had offered me a few years earlier City of joy, after the publication of my book in Bengali. Every evening, some slum dwellers gathered in a courtyard around a Muslim mullah and a Hindu schoolmaster, to listen to a story read that recounts their life and their struggle against adversity. Knowing that I had returned, a group of inhabitants wanted to welcome me with a party at the entrance to the neighborhood. Welcome in the City of joy, proclaimed a red-and-white weather vane, which hung overhead from one side of the alley to the other. A little girl came out of the group, with a large bouquet of flowers in her hand. She was Padmini, the little girl who went every day at dawn to collect lumps of coal on the railway. She was radiant. Big brother Dominique, accept these flowers – he declared, offering me the bouquet in everyone’s name -. Today, thanks to you, we are no longer alone.

Universal message. Seven years after her disappearance, I often think back to that appeal that Mother Teresa had addressed to me in her hospice for the dying in Calcutta. I tried to answer her, more or less well. One day I asked her what she would like to do and the saint of Calcutta replied: More. At the evening of my life, I am more than ever aware of the universal duration of his message. We can all, wherever we are and according to our means, offer some love, compassion and justice to those who lack it. It is not necessary to go to Calcutta. Mother Teresa often said that we suffer, in the West, from a much more serious disease than the leprosy of the Indian slums. This disease is loneliness. How many people – she asked herself anxiously – have never received, in your rich countries, the comfort of the caress of a fraternal hand?. As the new year dawns, let us all try to answer this question together.

Dominique Lapierre
(translation by Laura Bossi)

December 4, 2022 (change December 4, 2022 | 18:00)


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