‘City of Joy’: once tongue-in-cheek, now a cheery tourist catchphrase

Instagram gives me “Kolkata/Calcutta (City of Joy)” as a location option.

And that may well be the most enduring, if unintended, pop culture legacy of the late, great Dominique Lapierre.

The French author recently died at the age of 91. Along with his writing partner Larry Collins, he wrote many best-selling books such as Oh Jerusalem, freedom at midnight, Is Paris burning? This went down in history as a daring best-seller, a genre most of us were unfamiliar with in India. freedom at midnight, about the tumultuous days leading up to independence in 1947, full of lively anecdotes, some a little off-color, it was exactly the kind of history we didn’t learn in school. For many of us, it was the first “adult” book we’d read, something of a rite of passage, and we devoured it with glee.

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but it was his novel city ​​of joy of which he sold more than eight million copies, which came to define his relationship with India, especially with Calcutta. city ​​of joy it was not just a book. It was made into a Hollywood movie starring Patrick Swayze, directed by Roland Joffe. He made Om Puri an international star. It also came to encapsulate the complicated relationship between India and the West.

I remember going to see him at the cinema in California. I was captivated, excited and nervous. The city where he was born had been immortalized in the golden eye of Hollywood. The film starred Kolkata as much as it starred Swayze. I could recognize 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 time I also realized that being seen can be a double edged sword when you don’t have a say in how you are seen. Sitting in that dark theater, I cringed because I knew that to almost everyone around me, Kolkata would now forever be a gigantic slum filled with lepers, hand-pulled rickshaws and starving dogs, a city crying out for a holy white savior. Worse still, Kolkata was just a means to an end, a way for Swayze’s Dr. Max Lowe to regain the lost charm of him. From the white man’s burden, India had become the West’s 12-step self-discovery program. I wasn’t sure if that was a promotion.

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I was used to Americans asking me, “Have you ever met Mother Teresa?” city ​​of joy just nailed 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 all Indians” and attacked “racists and colonialists” for reinforcing stereotypes. Calcutta black hole. Even Satyajit Ray, who had been accused of selling poverty to win prizes, denounced the book.

Lapierre forcefully retorted: “Satyajit Ray, who thinks he owns Calcutta, have you ever been in a slum?” He himself had lived in a slum in a four-by-six room with no running water with his wife and had done hundreds of interviews over three years. In fact, that’s what gave him street cred: the white foreign correspondent who went to and lived in places others would consider dangerously exotic and turned them into fascinating best-sellers so that everyone could enjoy that experience vicariously without having to deal with it. with heat and dust. .

Lapierre joked that they would leave the slum every few weeks for a “nice long bubble bath”, but strongly denied that his book glorified poverty. Rather, it was about celebrating life and resilience. as he said The New York Times, woke up one day to find 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. However, people had the guts to celebrate something they didn’t know about.”

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Lapierre was not a helicopter journalist, flying in and out of Kolkata. He had a long and loving relationship with the city, using royalties from his books to support many non-governmental organizations and charities such as Asha Bhawan, a home for destitute children. He was even given the Padma Bhushan.

In a 2013 interview with ITP, lapierre called city ​​of joy his “love song to India”. That love is unquestionable. As she told journalist Shekhar Gupta in 2004, she wanted her tombstone to read: “Honorary citizen in the city of Kolkata.” Yet the book (and its title) haunts the city she loved in ways she probably never imagined. “On the streets of Calcutta these days, the book is often seen clutched in the hands of Western tourists,” she wrote on Los Angeles Times in 1987. “If Paris has the Michelin Guide, Calcutta has ‘The City of Joy’”.

That title has stuck 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 for the owner of a jute factory, Lapierre writes, “either out of ignorance or defiance.” But over time that nickname has lost its ironic tone. It has been adopted by the very government that once chafed at the book’s content. Lapierre once chuckled that there was a sign outside the Kolkata airport welcoming visitors to the “City of Joy”. The once tongue-in-cheek title is now a cheery tourist catchphrase. And from a tourist catchphrase it has become the cliché 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.

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Lapierre was amused by everything. He was right when he said that the reason why many members of Calcutta’s elite bhadralok were upset by the success of his book was because he, as a foreigner, was entering the underbelly of the city, something for which they themselves had no stomach. But, equally, many from Kolkata bhadralok This French couple was literally star-struck in the Kolkata slums. They were flattered by the attention.

but where city ​​of joy leave Calcutta? That answer became clear to me some 20 years later, when I went to see a superhero movie in 3D, the Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon. In it I found out that Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk was hiding out in Kolkata, trying to keep his demons at bay by saving the poor slum dwellers who grabbed him by the sleeves and complained “just sick slime”. “. Why Calcutta? Mark Ruffalo, who played Banner, said in an interview, “Joss (Whedon) and I were wondering, ‘So where’s Bruce Banner?’ And I said ‘I think he’s in a leper colony…. It didn’t turn out to be a leper colony, but he’s in the slums of Calcutta, which I thought was a cool place to find him.”

And though I was watching it in a fancy INOX cinema in Kolkata, the leprous Kolkata on screen was a time machine returning 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 bi-weekly column on issues we are grappling with. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

@sandipr

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