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Reaction Mixed in Overcrowded City : Book About Calcutta Inspires Tourist 'Craze to See Slums'

March 19, 1987|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

CALCUTTA — Santhi Bhattacharya, one of this city's most enthusiastic and able tour guides, was complaining the other day about a new breed of tourist.

Until recently, he said, the few Western tourists who came to Calcutta were content to see the city's famous monuments--mostly such relics of the British Empire as the ornate memorial to Queen Victoria or Dalhousie Square, once the headquarters of the British East India Co.

To show the "other side" of Calcutta, the terrible overcrowding and the poverty, a professional guide would typically escort his clients on a fairly sanitized excursion to a railroad station or to one of the homes for the dying established by Mother Teresa, the saintly Albanian nun who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

"The Howrah railroad station was a big hot cake for us," Bhattacharya said.

Recently, however, the guide has noted what he sees as a disturbing trend. "Now there is a craze to see the slums," he said. "They want to ride in a rickshaw and see the slums."

Chance to See Poverty

One Japanese travel agency actually organized a youth tour package to Calcutta so that children of the affluent Japanese society would have the opportunity to see abject poverty firsthand. This prompted Calcutta's establishment newspaper, the Statesman, to respond with a sarcastic editorial:

"Despite Calcutta's reputation, its long-suffering citizens never really thought that their city would one day figure on the tourist map of squalor. But now children from the land of the rising yen are to be conducted on a tour of what might be called the city with a yen for oblivion."

The main reason for this heightened interest in Calcutta's lowest levels is a best-selling book by French author Dominique Lapierre entitled "The City of Joy."

Since it first appeared in French two years ago, "The City of Joy" has been translated into 16 languages and sold more than 3 million copies. On the streets of Calcutta these days, the book is often seen clutched in the hands of Western tourists. If Paris has the Guide Michelin, Calcutta has "The City of Joy."

A Book of 'Faction'

The book purports to be a factual profile of a slum across the Hooghly River from Calcutta in the industrial suburb of Howrah. Lapierre himself calls the book "faction," which he defines as "true facts put together in a composite manner to tell a story about events that do not precisely occur at the same time."

For example, Lapierre, who co-authored several other best-sellers with American writer Larry Collins, including "Is Paris Burning?" and "O Jerusalem," changed the date of India's first detonation of an atomic device in 1974 to "somewhere around 1980" to help the flow of the story. Likewise, a historic drought, a flood and a hurricane were all lumped in the time frame of the story to provide more drama.

"The City of Joy" is a dramatic, very sympathetic portrait of a slum that focuses on the lives of a poor rickshaw puller and a Roman Catholic priest. In the French version, the priest is a Frenchman. In the British and American editions, he is Polish.

Actually, Lapierre said in a telephone interview from his residence in New York, the character is based on two priests, one French and one Swiss, who are still working in Calcutta.

Donates Half of Royalties

Because of his sympathies for the poor of Calcutta, Lapierre said he is giving half of his royalties from the book and from a planned movie version to Calcutta organizations helping the poor, including a home for the children of lepers. So far, he said, the book has made about $2 million. So by his reckoning, it will generate at least $1 million for Calcutta's poor.

Although response to the book around the world generally has been glowing--the French newspaper Le Monde called it a masterpiece--reaction in Calcutta has been mixed. One of the priests used by Lapierre as a model for his character burned the book after reading it, angered over passages that involved sexual intercourse in a leper colony. However, Lapierre said that he and the priest have since made up their differences.

Meanwhile, the governing board of the main community organization in Pilkhana, the actual name of the slum that Lapierre called Anand Nagar (City of Joy) in his book, unanimously rejected a donation of nearly $400,000 from the author on the grounds that the book is an "exploitation of poor people."

"We read his book," said Dr. Sushil K. Sen, 80, a physician and president of the Siva Sangh Simiti (Committee of Mutual Aid) in Pilkhana. "We did not like it. What has been stated in the book is all fantasy."

Angry at Rejection

Lapierre is furious at the rejection of his money. He contends that the antagonism is the result of an internal feud in the organization, which was created by one of the priests featured in his book.

"My feeling is that it is a personal attitude of two or three people who felt that their own role in the story was not big enough. Because of their vanity the poor will suffer," he said.

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