Dominique Lapierre

City of Joy

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City of Joy Summary

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City of Joy is a novel by French author Dominique LaPierre, first published in 1985. Set in Kolkata, India, it focuses on the trials of a young Polish priest, Father Stephan Kovalski, and how his story intersects with those of a young American doctor named Max Loeb and impoverished rickshaw puller Hasari Pal. Exploring themes of class separation, the caste system, religion, and the struggles of the poor in India, City of Joy was inspired by many real stories that the author witnessed during travels in India over many years. Deeply influenced by the people he encountered in Kolkata, which has been nicknamed the “City of Joy” due to the book, LaPierre donates half the royalties from sales of the book towards the City of Joy Foundation that takes care of slum children in the city. City of Joy won the Christopher Award in 1986, and was adapted into a 1992 film directed by Roland Joffe and starring Patrick Swayze.

As City of Joy begins, Father Stephan Kovalski has made the choice to join a religious order that sends its members to minister to people in the most impoverished, troubled spots on earth. He chooses to not only serve the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, but to live with them in the slums. He wills his life to God, devoting himself to starve with them and die with them unless God intervenes. Kovalski is slowly accepted as a guardian and friend by the slum dwellers, and he encounters moments of everyday grace and miracles as he lives among the kind people trying to survive in an environment of horrifying poverty and ignorance. Although the slum dwellers are ignored by wider society and exploited by those in power, they have their own prejudices, and there are those in the slums who are rejected even by them. These include the victims of leprosy, and those who are seen as on the bottom of the caste system. Despite this, Father Stephan still makes an effort to reach out to them, even as it causes him to be rejected by many of the people he has befriended.

At the same time, Hasari Pal is a rural farmer who sees his life upended when a massive drought destroys his family farm. He decides to move to the city with his wife Kamla and their three children, hoping to find a better life. However, from the start, the Pals find trouble in Calcutta. They are cheated out of their rent money by unscrupulous criminals, and their landlord is unsympathetic, throwing them out on the street. Hasari, a farmer by trade with few skills in the city, struggles to find a job. He’s able to purchase a rickshaw and slowly builds a business for himself as a driver, ferrying people around the city for a modest fee. The determined family, although there are many struggles along the way, slowly carves out a life for themselves in the poverty-stricken city as Hasari interacts with people both above him and below him in the city’s social hierarchy.

Meanwhile, young American doctor Max Lowe has become disillusioned by his easy job in a Houston hospital. Uninspired and seeking spiritual enlightenment after being unable to save a patient, he decides to travel to Calcutta. The reality of the city turns out to be very different than what he had hoped. Soon after his arrival, he is tricked by a young prostitute and is ambushed by local thugs. Robbed and left for dead in the streets, he finds himself without his documents and valuable possessions. He’s rescued by Hasari, who comes to his aid and takes the wounded American to what is known as the “City of Joy,” the slum home to the poor and rejected that the Pals have been living in. Although Max spends a lot of time in the neighborhood while recovering, he is hesitant to get involved. However, his personal skills as a doctor soon make him a valuable member of the community, and he meets the Irish woman who runs the local clinic and forms a strong connection with her. All three characters face great hardship in the slums. Father Stephan finds a new level of spiritual peace amid his suffering, however, and Hasari is able to provide for his family and find pride in his new work as a driver, while Max finds a connection with his patients and the second family he finds in the “City of Joy” that brings him the fulfillment he was lacking in Houston.

Dominique LaPierre is a French author, the author of thirteen books – six co-written with Larry Collins, one with Javier Moro, and six solo. He is deeply involved in charities that benefit the poor in India, having founded the City of Joy foundation and also donating his royalties from Five Past Midnight in Bhopal to a Bhopal clinic. In 2008, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award, for his works benefiting Indian causes.