In this section I write about books. I hope that whoever happens to end up on this page may find some inspiration for future readings.
In November 2016, when I was about to head out to a Fall School in the Senegal my sister gave this book to me. However, being occupied with indispensable preparations regarding my forthcoming advance in this unknown territory, including the examination of all possible exotic diseases followed by paralyzing feelings of despair, I didn't manage to read the book before my departure. Nevertheless, since I, against all odds, came back in perfect health, just enriched by new friends, knowledge and unforgettable memories, I eventually found the time to read this beautiful book.
City of Joy is a book about human hope and kindness. It tells two parallel main stories, both set in the 1980’s in Kolkata, that eventually cross their paths.
The first branch follows the life of Hasari Pal and his family: Droughts and pest infestations leading to years of poor harvests together with land loss and depts, force this Bengali farmer family to abandon their village and seek, like thousands of other farmers, new means of existence in Kolkata. However, their hope of quickly earning money and returning to their simple but self sufficient life in the countryside is destroyed within days as the city welcomes the Pals with nothing but indifference.
Kolkata, former treasure of the British Empire, suffers from immense overpopulation, unemployment and extreme poverty at the lower economic end. Due to its geographic position the city is frequently haunted by monsoon rains with disastrous floods, extreme heat during the summer months, droughts, earthquakes and hurricanes. Together with never ending religious conflicts, a catastrophic traffic situation and tons of waste filling its streets, this multiethnic city constantly appears to be at the edge of a collapse.
Overstrained and completely impecunious the Pals end up living on the streets. Day after day Hasari tries to earn some rupees that would alleviate his family’s hunger. But most of the nights he returns empty-handed and their despair is growing further and further. However, within all this misery and poverty you find kindness and humanity, beautifully depicted in the book. There is, for instance, the following situation: After being banished from their sleeping place by the police at night, the Pals find themselves wandering helplessly through the streets looking for a free spot on the crowded sidewalk to camp. But it does not take long until another homeless family willingly cleans up some space besides them and offers them their last chapattis.
Amongst the poorest of the poor you find solidarity and compassion. Those people rely on a system that they have experienced throughout their whole life: If you have something today, you share, and if you have nothing tomorrow, somebody else will do the same for you. This kind of mutual help has vanished in our Western societies where needing something from someone else is regarded as weakness. And being weak is not allowed in a society that chose independence and strength as their ultimate credo. It is simple, but true: money (besides all its undeniable advantages) isolates people; makes us less connected.
After a couple of weeks, Hasari meets Ram Chander, another former farmer originating from a place close to the Pal’s home village, who, many years ago, was attracted by the city’s possibilities, as well. Now, he earns his money as a rickshaw puller and he helps Hasari to become one, too. Pulled rickshaws, banished from most cities around the world, are still a mayor mean of transportation in Kolkata. The book elaborates on the organization of the rickshaw system, the unbearable working conditions for the pullers, the daily corruption by the police and the union efforts for improvements. However, for the Pals the rickshaw appears as an unexpected stroke of luck, a glimmer of hope for a better future.
The second line of the book tells the story of Paul Lambert, a french priest who dedicates his life to the poor. Growing up in a mining family with close relationships to immigrant workers and a strong awareness of solidarity, as well as early contact with injustice and misery during World War II, both, awoke the dream of becoming a missionary in the adolescent Lambert.
Eventually, after a long religious and physical journey Lambert arrives in India, where his brotherhood had sent him. Against the advice of the local priests, he decides to live with the poor. He wants to share their daily pain, suffers, needs, hopes and joy, instead of occasionally visit them and pity and advise them as a privileged outsider. Thus, a shed with neither electricity, nor furniture or windows in Anand Nagar, the “City of Joy”, a giant slum in Kolkata, becomes his new home.
Anand Nagar, an area barely as big as 3 football fields, is home to roughly 70 thousand people. They live, divided according to religious beliefs, in miserable, rat-infested, tiny rooms that lack the basic standards. Waste and latrine pits traversing the streets cause an unbearable smell in this place, where no tree or flower is growing. Most of its inhabitants are unemployed or work under inhumane conditions in nearby factories. There is neither an education nor a health care system and malnutrition, hunger, misery and death dominate everyday life. Anand Nagar is, like most of the Indian slums, controlled by Mafia-like structures that blackmail and exploit its inhabitants further. The diversity among the people is huge; they come from all parts of the subcontinent and follow numerous different beliefs.
Being used to experience nothing but ignorance from Kolkata and the rest of the world, the inhabitants of Anand Nagar cannot believe that a white french man voluntarily wants to share his life with them. Again, it does not take long until neighbors, who lack the basics for themselves, bring Lambert a mat, a blanket or a bowl of rice to help him out. Naturally, at first, the living conditions in the slum heavily challenge Lambert and it takes time until he accustoms himself to the routines and habits of his new home. However, step by step he manages to cross the language, cultural and religious barriers with his open and peaceful mind and becomes part of Anand Nagar. Together with locals he sets up initiatives to build up a long term support system for the people, as for example by organizing evening classes for the working children. Later, he also establishes, together with an American physician, an ambulance station to provide basic medical care for the inhabitants and to serve the leprosy community of the slum.
By telling numerous side stories of people Lambert meets during the course of time, the book gives detailed insight into everyday life in Anand Nagar. In so many ways, Lambert experiences kindness, recognizes beauty and witnesses hope and joy in a place that appears doomed from the outside. Moslem, Hindu and Christian families offer him hospitality. Here, where everybody is trapped in the same cycle of poverty, even the religions seem to move a bit closer together. He participates in colorful and joyful celebrations, where the inhabitants dance until dawn as if they had nothing to worry about at all. He is astonished by the children, who, despite suffering from so many deprivations, still laugh their boisterous children’s laughter, gaze in amazement at a traveling circus or get excited by flying a kite over the roofs of the slum. He finds neighborly help, compassion for the ill and weak and respect for the elderly. In every corner of this dismal place he finds hope.
As both stories evolve they depict beautiful situations filled with humanity and hope without, however, romantically idealizing poverty. Of course, the overall misery is constantly present: people are desperate enough to sell their body parts for money, children get abused, babies die from malnutrition,… there are countless manifestations of the merciless face of poverty illuminated in the book. However, the point is, no matter what the conditions are, human hope is indestructible.
The book also pictures the deep spirituality of the Indian soul. Even on the darkest of days, when the Pals merely survive, they sacrifice some rice grains or a banana to one of their Hindu goddesses. At first, Lambert gets angry seeing how people spent their last money on religious celebrations, when most of the days they nearly starve. But after a while, he realizes that this is his Western attitude speaking; trained to be rational, efficient and self-centered. Indians live in a close relationship to their gods which, as they believe, influence their everyday life. Work, harvests, marriage, death, birth, luck, health, basically everything is determined by specific gods that need to be appeased with sacrifices and prayer. The spirituality is deeply ingrained to the Indian society and disregarding its importance would be disrespectful and render any form of understanding impossible.
I really enjoyed reading this book, the fiction is picked with historical information and well researched facts allowing for a deep insight into the life and soul of the “poor” in Kolkata. It opens your eyes and mind for different perceptions of life and illustrates that there is more than one truth. What might look incomprehensible for you, is reality for someone else. It also makes you think about Western materialism and what it made of us. Would we share our last chapatti with a stranger? Aren’t we “poor”, not in goods, but in our minds? We cannot even begin to imagine what it is like living in an Indian slum. It would probably make us scrape all our belongings together, complain about injustice and look for someone responsible. But instead of being paralyzed in anger, those people share and hope. In this way, the book points at the deeper meaning of our existence that is uncoupled from possessions and external circumstances.