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Love's labour off track

Veenu Sandhu 

Dominique Lapierre (translated from French by Asha Puri)
Full Circle

186 pages; Rs 275

It's a mad idea. But Dominique Lapierre is fixated on it. After 14 years as an international correspondent with Paris Match, Mr Lapierre is about to set out on what would become the biggest adventure of his life - exploring and understanding India, a country, which he says, "requires at least ten lives to penetrate all her mysteries". And he intends to do this in a Rolls-Royce Corniche, no less, which he has spotted in a showroom window in London. For the condescending salesman, the export manager and the gentleman from the after-sales service, the very idea that someone would want to take this beauty to a god-forsaken, poverty-stricken country is unfathomable and needs to be nipped in the bud. And so, he is told, "We cannot sell you this motorcar." On the advice of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of the British Empire in India, Mr Lapierre eventually does get his Rolls-Royce - a second-hand Silver Cloud. And thus begins his India adventure. This is sometime in the early 1970s.

It's with this delightful nugget that Mr Lapierre begins his latest book, India My Love, an account of his love affair with the country that wouldn't tire of springing surprises on him. The book, in a sense, is a recap of his four-decade-long journey across India during the course of which he wrote three about the country: Freedom at Midnight (with Larry Collins about the events of the Independence movement from 1947 to 1948), The City of Joy (about life in Kolkata's slums) and Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (an account of the Bhopal gas tragedy co-authored with Javier Moro).

It is, however, not easy to pack 40 years in less than 200 pages. And that shows. What begins with promise soon turns into a rushed ride as Mr Lapierre moves from one maharaja to another (Patiala, Kapurthala, Baroda, Bikaner, Gwalior, Jaipur and others) and one anecdote to another (from Jain rituals and the aggression of Indian roads to the funerals by the Ganga in Benaras and the boar hunts that make him feel like Gary Cooper). One gets the feeling that the author's memories of 40 years are racing and he's trying to keep pace with them on paper. There's a bit of everything, but there isn't enough of any one thing. As a reader, the impression is that of looking at something from a great height, getting glimpses of this and that and perhaps a larger picture, but that's about it. It is a bit like an aerial survey.

The book is split into two sections. The first part, "In the Footsteps of the Greatest Empire of All Time", has incidents that formed the raw material for Freedom at Midnight. There is an interesting, and rather misleading, anecdote here of Gopal Godse, Nathuram Godse's brother and fellow conspirator in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, reconstructing the scene of the assassination for the author. As a crowd gathers, one onlooker starts searching for something in the folds of his belt. Mr Lapierre fears he is looking for a dagger to slit Gopal Godse's throat to avenge the "hundreds of millions of Indians inconsolable at the loss of their Great Soul". Instead, it turns out, the man wants Godse's autograph. "I was wrong," writes the author. "Gandhi had been dead for too long." Really? The incident, true as it might be, gives the impression of this being the dominant sentiment - and how lopsided that is.

Elsewhere in the book, the author speaks about his train journey in a third-class compartment from New Delhi to Kolkata and how Gandhi believed that by travelling with the most downtrodden of his countrymen, he could identify with India's inner strength. To this, Mountbatten tells the author, "If you only knew what these whims of Gandhi cost the British treasury! We were so worried he might get assassinated that all his co-travellers in his third-class compartment - untouchables, beggars and lepers - were police inspectors in disguise." Really? If that remark carries a hint of superiority, however unintended, the second part of the book, "The Unsung Heroes of India, My Love", adds to it.

Here, Mr Lapierre focuses on his experiences of living in a Kolkata slum, his own charitable work and touches upon stories that inspired his book, The City of Joy. His contribution towards Udayan, a home for children afflicted with leprosy, gets sizeable mention. The impression he gives is that he views himself as the saviour of these poor, miserable locals. He writes, "At Calcutta airport, an eager crowd is waiting to greet us. They are standing under a huge banner across which is written in large red letters: 'WELCOME TO OUR SAVIOURS'."

Repeated references to India as "My beloved India" and to the Rolls-Royce, which is as much an explorer in this story as Mr Lapierre, as "a venerable car" or "the venerable Rolls-Royce" also get a bit tedious beyond a point. The book was originally written in French. Perhaps some of the elegance and understatement of Mr Lapierre's writing got lost in translation.

First Published: Wed, September 10 2014. 21:25 IST