No other Indian city attracted me like Calcutta during my school/college times thanks to the regular updates about the city in our newspapers just because of the notable presence of the Communist Party in West Bengal. Besides, their literature and cinema attracted me very much. I always feel that there is a strong emotional-connect between the people of West Bengal and Kerala due to many factors like this. I visited the city for the first time in 2012 with great enthusiasm and many times in the last few years and explored the city a little bit. This helped me to understand, appreciate and relate things better when I started reading the City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre.
From the dates of its foundation in 1690 by some British merchants until the departure of its last Governor on August 15, 1947; Calcutta had epitomized the white man’s domination of the globe. For nearly two and a half centuries, it had been the capital of the British Indian Empire and the largest city in the empire after London. It continued to be one of the most active and prosperous cities in Asia for one more decade in the post-independence era thanks to its harbour, numerous industries, metal foundries, chemical and pharmaceutical works, jute and cotton factories.
The city was also considered the cultural capital of the country being the homeland of Tagore, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Satyajit Ray and many others of the same stature. Calcutta produced more writers than Paris and Rome combined, more literary reviews than London and New York, more cinemas than New Delhi and more publishers than the rest of the country.
However, for the migrant workers and refugees, Calcutta represented neither culture nor history. For them it meant only the faint hope of finding some crumbs to allow them to survive until the next day. As Lapierre narrates, the mass exodus of refugees towards Calcutta was caused by many incidents in the history such as the earthquake that shook Bihar in 1937, the famine that killed more than 3.5 million people in Bengal alone in 1943, India’s independence and partition alone cast upon Calcutta some four million Muslims and Hindus fleeing from Bihar and East Pakistan, war with China in 1962, subsequently the war with Pakistan also added the number of refugees in the city. Besides, droughts, famines and cyclones in different parts of the Eastern side of the country added to the burden of the city. It was, of course, beyond the capacity of the city to accommodate and manage. The population residing in slums increased drastically. The governments could not even provide basic amenities to them. Many slept on pavements. Unemployment, poverty, epidemics and crimes added to the woes of the city and resulted in total collapse of the systems.
The central characters in this novel are Stephen Kovalski, a Polish Priest living a life of total renunciation in a Calcutta slum and working for its dwellers; Max Loeb, a young American doctor who joins Kovalski to run a clinic in the slum; Bandona, an Assamese girl who helps Kovalski and Max Loeb in their charity and relief work; and Hazari Pal, a farmer from rural Bengal affected by drought and set out with his family for Calcutta in search of work and end up in pulling a rikshaw for survival. For many who sought refuge in Calcutta since independence, the shafts of hand-pulled rikshaws provided a means of earning a living.
What appealed me personally in the book is the realisation of Stephen Kovalski that human suffering cannot be seen as part of the redemptive process as taught by religions and charity serves only to make people more dependable unless it is supported with actions designed to wipe out the actual roots of poverty.
As a whole, City of Joy celebrates the humanity’s zest for life, capacity for hope and the will to survive against all odds. No matter what happens, life goes on with an energy and vigour that is constantly renewed.