The City of Joy

Lapierre, Dominique. The City of Joy. Trans. Kathryn Spink. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

One day in Calcutta a rickshaw puller took internationally bestselling author Dominique Lapierre to one of the poorest and most over populated areas of this haunting city, where five million people live out their lives on the streets. The district was Anand Nagar - the City of Joy - and being there would change the writer's life forever. At the heart of this extremely poor community, Lapierre found more heroism, more love, more sharing, and ultimately, more happiness than in many a city of the affluent West. Above all, he was overwhelmed to discover that this seemingly inhuman place had the magical power to produce heroes and heroines of all ages and from all walks of life. For Calcutta is the home not only of such saints as Mother Teresa, but also of countless other inspiring people who are ordinary and completely unknown. Lapierre discovered Stephen Kovalski, the Polish priest who came to the City of Joy to share and ease the plight of of the most underprivileged; Max, the young American doctor who came to treat people who were without any medical resources; Bandona, the beautiful Assamese nurse who became an Angel of Mercy for the afflicted; and the thousands of men, women, and children who rose above harsh destinies to conquer life with a smile...(Dust Jacket)

Last Saturday morning my wife had to run some errands, so she dropped me and my four month old son off at a locally owned coffee shop. My son, Locke Edward, needed to nap, and I was nearing the end of Lapierre's book and hoped to make some considerable progress before she picked us back up. A few minutes later, however, I was taking a break from the text and pulling the brim of my hat down a little lower over my face so people wouldn't see me cry. I don't remember what particular chapter of The City of Joy I had reached at that point, but it doesn't matter because that wasn't the first time the book had reduced me to tears. The same thing happened in Starbucks a couple weeks earlier and multiple times since then at home. Lapierre's writing is simple enough, but emotionally and psychologically it's just not the sort of book a person can rush through, especially not in a public place. As a matter of fact, I personally believe it would not have been respectful of the inhabitants of the City of Joy to do so.

From the beginning I should point out that this book moved me more than most other books I have read. Suffering and religion are two central themes throughout the entire story, and though I don't want to minimize the significance of other books and films that make us sad or leave us impassioned, I can honestly say that I have read very few books and seen very few films that force me to consider these themes and my personal responsibility the way this one did.

Experiences of suffering in The City of Joy are rough, but most of them are not a result of hate. In this sense the book differs from other material with similar themes such as Holocaust literature, which typically leaves me considering the question of suffering as it relates to hatred, war, violence, and the general lack of humanity exhibited by human beings. Instead, The City of Joy showed me what happens to poor farmers in India when the monsoon season arrives too late. It also showed me what happens to the poorest of the poor living in Calcutta's shantytowns when the monsoon season arrives on time but then proceeds to flood the city, leaving thousands of people without homes and many others floating dead in alleys and gutters. It left me frustrated by a disorganized Indian government whose bureaucracy is not necessarily hateful, but such a mess that pregnant women die while they are waiting for the postal service to deliver medical aid. As a father, it broke my heart to read about children who completely surrendered their childhoods, their health, and their dignity to put a bowl of rice on their family's table once a day.

But The City of Joy has no bad guy. There are questionable characters, but no evil dictators, no single person or group of people I could accuse when I became sad or angry about the pain the characters in the book experienced. There is no scapegoat to blame for the suffering, not even human nature. Too often we Christians use human nature as an excuse to dismiss the profound suffering we see in the world around us. We shrug our shoulders at the problems, and with solemn faces that actually help no one, we suggest that the problems are simply a result of sin and God will fix them all in the end. On the contrary, Lapierre seems to think that human nature is actually quite wonderful, or at least has the potential to be wonderful, though it is often corrupted by the brokenness of the world. So, without someone or something else to blame, I could only reflect on my own choices - my own possibilities. The City of Joy forced me to consider where I stood in relation to the brokenness in the world and what I was willing and able to do about it.

Compassion is probably a typical response when people encounter scenes of suffering in the book, but the religious theme might be more challenging for some readers to appreciate. In particular, very theologically conservative Christian readers may have some difficulty with the fact that Lapierre tends to approach religion functionally. This means that he doesn't seem interested in debates about the truth of the beliefs or doctrines of the three major religions in the story -Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. He doesn't really attempt to elevate one religion over the others. Instead, the value of religion lies in what it accomplishes, how people respond in certain situations.

There is almost never a dull moment in The City of Joy because the story line swings back and forth like a pendulum between situations of extreme crisis and extreme celebration. Each crisis is an opportunity for a Hindu, a Christian, or a Muslim to do the right thing. Sometimes they shine as each of them are supposed to, like the light of the world, but sometimes they fail. Stephen Kovalski, the Christian priest, is so noble and compassionate, but he can be naive and short sighted. He can be timid and fail to accomplish important tasks in a culture that requires a loud voice to be heard above the chaotic noise of Calcutta's culture. His neighbors in the shantytown, the Islamic family, are so faithful and austere, but they are suspicious, don't communicate well, and some of their decisions lead to disaster. The story, of course, is dominated by the presence of Hinduism. Hasari Pal, his family, his fellow rickshaw pullers, and all the political powers in the story are deeply religious Hindus. They can be so generous and oriented toward authentic relationships, especially those who are poor. No one who reads The City of Joy will ever forget the power of tea and hospitality. But Lapierre does not romanticize Hinduism either. The ancient caste system is powerful in the social and theological system of the Hindus, and it often discourages self improvement, social advancement, and positive change.

In spite of religion's failures, the overall picture is positive. When there are great needs the Christians, Muslims, and Hindus frequently set aside their theological differences in order to save lives and relieve suffering. In addition, the descriptions of rituals and celebrations described throughout the story are beautiful and testify to the positive influence of beliefs and traditions of all kinds. Stephen Kovalski, for instance, celebrates the Eucharist in the slums with the the poor in several touching scenes. As a Christian, however, I was particularly intrigued by the Hindu marriage and burial rituals. In my entire life, I have never once even come close to wondering what it would be like to observe an Indian wedding in a leper colony! But the great Hindu festivals were the dominant religious features in The City of Joy. There are many of them, and with Stephen Kovalski, I at first found myself questioning whether Calcutta's impoverished and dying people should be spending what extremely small amounts of money they have on clothing and food for a single day of festivities, but with Kovalski, I soon realized that there was more life in those festivals than in any amount of food.

The City of Joy is simply a challenging read. Although I have not responded to all of those challenges adequately in my own life, I have started the process. For the reader who becomes immediately suspicious that this is socially liberal and theologically pluralistic, I might agree with you. But I would also suggest that if we never open ourselves up to anything different, especially real experiences as profound as the ones described in this book, we will never actually grow in any significant way.

Josh Fraley   # April 18, 2013 : COMMENTS ( 0 )