Living in the seeming hell of one of the poorest and most crowded quarters of Calcutta are the saints of today: saints such as Mother Teresa, saints ...Show synopsisLiving in the seeming hell of one of the poorest and most crowded quarters of Calcutta are the saints of today: saints such as Mother Teresa, saints such as Stephen Kovalski, an unkown Polish Catholic priest who made his home there to care for the poorest of the poor. And Max Loeb, an American physician dedicated to fighting disease in this dirty hellhole. City of Joy, the story of these saints, is a testament to the human spirit unbowed by the most wretched of circumstances.Hide synopsis
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This is a story of hearts in Calcutta. Dominique Lapierre, world-renowned journalist and author, narrates and interviews the lives and struggles - eventually intertwined - of Hasari Pal (a peasant driven to the city by a drought which devastates his village), Stephan Kovalski (a Polish priest seeking to identify with the poorest of the poor, and getting more than he bargained for in the slums of Anand Nagar) and Max Loeb (a Jewish-American medical grad responding to Kovalski's invitation to help out for a year).
Everything revolves around the 'City of Joy', the name given to the slum of Anand Nagar in the heart of Calcutta. Lapierre's descriptions are fascinating and insightful in their detail and colour as they are horrifying and unbelievably stark in their vividness and actuality. He opens us up to the afflictions, hardships, rituals and occasionally care-free living of lepers, rickshaw pullers, eunuchs, peasants, scrap yard rag-pickers and hovel life in the slum. He explains the intricate and wondrous minutiae of Indian wedding negotiations, festivals, funerals, even toilet rituals; the scheming and inhumanity behind the blood (and skeleton!) donation business, the foetus trade business, the rickshaw business, mafia operations; the sad and almost comical inefficiencies of a Calcutta post-office, hospitals, traffic control; the horrendous adversities brought by floods, droughts, scorching summers, even a cyclone.
Along the way we're also treated to an exciting kite-war, fought between child and adult alike along the slum's rooftops, plus a glimpse of Mother Teresa's ministry in the Home for Dying Destitutes beside the Temple of Kali.For the poor, even their only source of joy - their families and dreams - are vulnerable to separation and shatter.
A family living on a pavement reluctantly and sorrowfully agrees to let their children beg for food when their father can no longer give them food, even after donating blood from his severely under-nourished body (the donation centre extracts surplus blood from him, causing him to faint). The father eventually becomes a rickshaw puller - after his predecessor loses a leg and dies a few days later in hospital - and is overjoyed despite having to run hundreds of miles in the heat and rain, suffer the humiliating treatment meted out by his passengers and people on the street, and risk the loss of his rickshaw from corrupt authorities.
A mother seeks to alleviate her family's food problems (she and her husband has to feed four kids - not to mention themselves - with only a handful of rupees a month) by selling her then-unborn baby for experiment purposes. But the operation, performed in a sleazy 'operating room' by even sleazier characters, goes awry. She bleeds helplessly, and the traders take her foetus and relief her of the upfront money she received. Worst of all, she's left for dead, becoming a target for the corpse business. And her family doesn't know and never sees her again.
A cyclone destroys an entire area of hovels and fills the streets with excrement, filth and carcasses. A defender of the rights of rickshaw pullers (who live hand to mouth and cannot afford a rise in 'taxes', as opposed to rickshaw owners who live fat, comfortable lives) is shot in the head after a successful campaign; a clinic for lepers is destroyed by thugs with zero-toleration for the non-payment of 'protection money', ridiculously high especially given the extant poverty; a rickshaw puller dives into a row of burning rickshaws to save his 'bread and butter' (confiscated and condemned for profit motives); a father breaks his back to produce a dowry and make wedding arrangements for his daughter and dies of sheer exhaustion in the middle of the ceremony, his body instantly collected by human bone traders.
The list goes on. Yet the book is filled with expressions of awe and sheer emotion by the main characters, through whose eyes we see the acts of selflessness, giving and caring which permeates slum-life, in spite of the numerous tragedies and heartaches experienced. There is just so much sharing going on in the book, even by those who have almost nothing for themselves, you'd suspect that giving is an occasion independent of circumstances and resources.
This speaks powerfully to our modern calloused hearts, often desensitized to the poverty and pain of the world (yet strangely overwhelmed by the self-inflicted stress of greed, ambition of urban society). The City of Joy shows us the joy and celebration in the midst of utter destitution, in a world where starvation, sickness and filth (the word-count for 'excrement' is in the dozens) are integral to life. It reveals hope and delight from the simples of things, the barest of providence. And it teaches that in the thick of demonic conditions, hopelessness and tragedy, the greatness and beauty of love shines through.
This book should also be a wake-up call for Christians to be more faithful 'lights' to the world, a reminder that love and self-giving is how we must touch the world. Christ's love, expressed in our compassion, is probably the only form of Gospel having any currency in the slums of the world. Yet how we fall short of Mother Teresa's - and God's - timeless instruction, given to a volunteer regarding a dying man (told midway through the book), "Love him...love him with all your might."
Some of the inhabitants of the City of Joy are role models of devotion and loyalty to what one believes. The numerous prayers and quite thanksgivings of the slum- (and pavement) dwellers reveal a continuous integration of 'religion' and 'daily life' sadly missing in many a Christian. Lapierre narrates, maybe without knowing it, 'true religion' in the story of Hasari Pal and many other Hindus and Muslims in the slums.
The reality of the lives in the City of Joy will be an everlasting reminder of how far and deep the love of God can reach.
The City of Joy can show me, if I pay attention, how lovely will be the City of God.
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