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Incredible India

The suffering in post-colonial India has brought forth many great names. Those of Ghandi and Mother Teresa have been committed to the history books for all time. But this poverty stricken and advancing world power has many saviours who have rescued the lives of millions while they themselves are shrouded in complete anonymity. They work in a hell of mud, disease, famine and natural disasters. Incredible India. French author Dominique Lapierre (78) is the linchpin of these invisible people on a disturbed world stage. The pen is Dada Dominique’s instrument for drumming up huge sums of money and donor support. This week he travelled, together with his Dutch conscience, friend and philanthropist Xander van Meerwijk (64), to the delta of the sacred Ganges River, recently ravaged by cyclone Aila. It was an exhausting journey through all the desperation and extremes that humankind has to offer. This is an account of a socially grounded endeavour, Bengal tigers and Audrey Hepburn’s dress that led to the building of a centre for the mentally handicapped.

By ROB HAMMINK

CALCUTTA, …
Every visit to a clinic or shelter brings showers of fairy-like petals drifting down. Flower wreaths mount up in suffocating numbers around your neck. The music carries you along. Beautiful women in bright scarves laugh, displaying their lovely white teeth. You may be poor, but you dress like a princess while your delicate little feet get all covered in mud. With their friendly nods, the men look as though their heads are mounted on springs. Often limbs are missing, yet people are happy. Their indescribable fate has been changed by help from the outside. Outside has come inside: Dominique Lapierre with his wife (also Dominique) in his wake. Part of this humanitarian trio is successful Dutch businessman Xander van Meerwijk, quietly accompanying them, attentive yet modest about all the projects with which he supports the French couple. “It is madness that it only takes two people to change the bleak future of millions,” says the founder of MVO ([Dutch for:] Socially Responsible Entrepreneurship). “If Dominique takes up the cause for electrification of the slums and the government does not take action, then he threatens them with a hunger strike. It’s amazing how these announcements still have the desired effect.”

While Dada Dominique and Didi Dominique investigate whether funds are properly employed for medical assistance, schooling and badly needed materials, a short distance away in the slums of Calcutta, farmers scrape together an existence having fled the poor rural areas of Bangladesh. Like rats, they sift through the rubbish dumps, through the debris that others have thrown out. Perhaps they’ll earn 0.30 Euro cents that day. They sleep rough, sometimes under plastic sheeting, on streets where chaotic traffic races past their heads.

The gulf between the two faces of Incredible India is growing in these technologic times. The blind and the crippled shuffle past billboards advertising cell phones that they will never own. The 10 rupees per minute savings that these billboards offer would buy a meal for their families. When we meet in New Delhi, the towering Xander van Meerwijk elucidates these two metaphoric faces with painful precision. He’s just come back from Bhopal where he and his good friend Lapierre remembered the gas explosion, a chemical disaster that cost the lives of at least 25,000 Indians 25 years ago (the central government claims it was 3,000, RH) because the American chemical giant Union Carbide ignored safety regulations at their pesticide factory: they were only Indians after all.

“A woman approached us on the street. She was clearly an Untouchable, one of the poorest in a society where caste still decides your happiness or misfortune. Her face was thin and gaunt, her eyes full of panic. To keep body and soul together, she was trying to sell a magazine. Forbes, a top international business magazine. The cover announced a report about the twenty richest people in India. And believe you me: they are filthy rich with all their billions. I was deeply moved. The biggest issue here is that problems, because of the numbers involved, are huge. Development here is going to take at least another fifty years.”

We fly from New Delhi to Calcutta, hell on earth according to Lapierre. To our left, the Himalayan peaks glow in the last light of day. The republic, with its 1.2 billion inhabitants, seems out of reach from this altitude. Here you don’t notice the Maoists in the north, who invade the land, pillaging and murdering as they go, because China views India as one of its biggest rivals. At 30,000 feet you can’t see the 55 million handicapped that literally drag themselves from one day to the next; nor can you see the tuberculosis sufferers, 50% of the world’s total live in India. And what is completely invisible is that killer, AIDS, that according to the latest predictions threatens to become the greatest catastrophe to ever hit the planet. It’s all – so safe – so far away.

Renowned Dominique Lapierre, who was once a journalist for Paris Match, decided at an early age to write books, and not without success. Historically well-grounded bestsellers, such as Is Paris Burning, the story of Hitler’s plan to raze Paris, were often turned into films starring big names, the likes of Jean Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas and Anthony Perkins. In 1975 he wrote his famous book City of Joy, for which he roamed the Calcutta slums of Anand Nagar for two years. This book became a film starring Patrick Swayze in the lead role and telling the story of one Brother Gaston, the unknown equivalent of Mother Teresa. As many as 9 million copies were sold. “The precursor for City of Joy was Freedom at Midnight, my earlier book about India to do with Ghandi’s struggle for independence” he explains. “I wanted to donate some of the royalties to charities in India, and ended up at Mother Teresa’s organisation. She said ‘God sent you’ and sent me on to James Stevens, a Brit who had sold his Jaguar and successful business in Gloucester, and left for good for India where he took up residence in a small house. There he looked after abandoned children suffering from leprosy. His funds had almost run out and he wanted to quit. It seemed I was exactly what he needed.”

That this encounter would lead to the establishment of the Udayan shelter, a life’s work that would cure 15,000 child lepers and that offers these children a roof, an education and a life, was something that Lapierre did not realise at the time. What he was also unaware of was that from that moment forth he would donate more than 50% of all his royalties to the charities that he currently supports.

Before we land, the indefatigable man, continues with a satisfied smile on his face. “The Netherlands has always played a role in my struggle. A dress belonging to your Audrey Hepburn made it possible for me to build a shelter for invalids just outside Calcutta. Hubert de Givenchy designed that dress, Hepburn wore it in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I was given that piece of black fabric as a gift from De Givenchy. When we auctioned it at Christie’s of London, we thought we might fetch ten thousand dollars. It turned out to be a hundred times that.”

While a million lamps in Calcutta loom closer out of the pitch darkness, he continues his tale about that small country on the shores of the North Sea. “It’s a fascinating country with a lot of history. My latest book, A Rainbow in the Night (Een Regenboog in de Nacht), due to be launched in the Netherlands in May, is about the history of South Africa’s origins. It describes how a handful of Zeeland farmers, true Calvinists who saw themselves as the chosen people, were put on land by the great Van Riebeeck to grow lettuce. Vitamins were needed to combat scurvy among the East Indian company folk on their way to India. Against the wishes of their employers, the settlers turned around at one point and said ‘Gee, that horizon looks inviting’ and went inland. Apartheid was born.” As we land, he says excitedly: “Ah, we’ve arrived in hell. Xander and I can get to work.”

We travel across confusing Calcutta, all eyes on the gigantic delta of the Ganges River, where the poorest of the poor battle for survival on small islands, fighting enemies that are greater than their chances. Apart from the ever-constant risk of flooding, one of the things threatening them is the famous Bengal tiger, the only animal that drinks seawater. According to the stories, this creature’s dubious reputation precedes him: a merciless man-eater, with a penchant for cadavers that float past on the Ganges, only partially burned for the simple reason that people cannot afford to buy enough wood to cremate their dead properly. Salient details: farmers wear masks on the back of their heads because tigers supposedly won’t attack if you’re looking at them. Poor protection when you take into account the annual number of deaths.

Next morning the time has come. In the car, Lapierre tells many a moving story. Once we’re finally alongside a tributary of the Ganges, he says dryly: “The sewers of Calcutta. If you fall in there, you have seven seconds to live. It’s been researched.” Then he discusses his extensive SHIS project that includes both an in vogue micro-credit system and a primary health care system. It serves 3,500 people on a daily basis. “My good friend Xander doesn’t say much, but his financial input is vital to our organisation. The boat, named after his company ‘Merison’, is a floating ambulance with a whole range of equipment on board, such as a lab and an x-ray machine, capable of detecting tuberculosis in its early stages. It brings blind people to our on-shore clinic and helps lepers that have been cast out of their communities. Leprosy is very easy to treat. The Merison is a world first. This year it has saved the lives of thousands.”

After the trip in the car, that’s more like a dangerous dance with death, the end of the majestic Ganges finally looms into sight. The 2,700 kilometre long sacred river flows into an area known as Sundarbans. Of the several hundred islands in the colourless delta, 54 are inhabited by no less than 4.4 million people who rely on fishing to keep their emaciated bodies going. The ambulance boat is their only defence should one of the many diseases visit their mud huts, if the hut is still standing after the devastating and lethal cyclone that hit the area in May. Merison, the company where Van Meerwijk was the CEO, funded the doctors, and the purchasing and maintenance of the boat. Van Meerwijk is also a board member of WarChild. The businessman supports several projects in Tibet and Senegal with money from a private fund, the Dito Foundation, where his children are also on the board. “I could be lying next to a swimming pool in Saint Tropez? Yes, that’s true. Why do I do this? We in the west have so much. Much too much. Why in God’s name do you need to have fifty shirts in your wardrobe? I can’t help but give, which is much nicer than receiving by the way. I’m always grateful to the people here because they give me the opportunity to help.”

Van Meerwijk prefers not to talk about ‘I’. He reflects on the good work of others, of the two Dominiques and of Gaston’s. His tone changes when he talks about the way some NGOs operate. They are given to writing off parties as promotion expenses in their books. “I don’t believe in them. They are often creative in their accounting, with expensive overheads and paid ambassadors.” He follows this by blowing the trumpet of financially challenged Marco Borsato. “He is WarChild’s unpaid ambassador. He does wonderful work for an organisation that is proud of its low salaries. I get angry when I read in your paper how the director of UNICEF was awarded a €350,000 redundancy package. UNICEF volunteers will have to sell a lot of cards outside the supermarkets to cover that lot. It also makes me angry when I see how distant we are in the Netherlands from the problems in poverty stricken countries. If someone drives into a canal in Amsterdam, it makes the papers. If hundreds of thousands of people here lose their hands and feet, no-one says a thing. And when people do get involved, it often doesn’t last long. Charity work is used for PR stunts. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great that Katja Schuurman has taken up the cause for prostitutes in India, but I hope she’s still doing something for them in twenty years time. Stick to your promises.” This likeable captain of industry has a clear vision of socially responsible business. Directors that let their company profits pay for their hobbies disgust him. “Because the top dog, and nobody else, likes sailing, he’ll sponsor a sailing event. But he’ll end up paying the price. You have to stay close to your employees. They should also reflect your choice of charity. Like Merison, if you deal with companies in India, then do something for India. Don’t get me wrong: businesses aren’t philanthropic institutes, but setting aside a portion of your profits for a good cause is a golden opportunity: employees who are proud of their company. That is profit!”

Like the strong current of the Ganges, names and faces pass swiftly by. Colourful annual reports full of business triumphs and figures weigh heavily in my backpack. They tell of Indian children who, two years ago, wrote a 12 kilometre letter about the heroics of Dominique Lapierre. This letter played a part in his receiving the Padma Bhushan, the most highly esteemed Indian award, from the President of India. The children talk of his charity, of his love for his fellows, and of the oft-debated rift in this society that continues to grow. At the end of the journey, we stroll through the City of Joy, the slum we have become familiar with. In this shut off world where westerners seldom tread, people crawl past each other like ants. Blood from the abattoir runs over the streets: our Middle Ages for all to see. But behind thin wooden doors, technological miracles are taking place. Lapierre shares in their pride: “This is where they make enormous and high tech propellers for ships, so gigantic that they have to break down the hut to get them out. They even make medical instruments, sold on through middle-men to western hospitals, because their steel here is better than the stuff they make in Sweden and Germany.” During this trip along the divide between hope and despair, one name keeps cropping up: Brother Gaston, the Swiss who gave all these projects roots. He spent eighteen years in the slums, among the poorest people on the planet. Now he sits like a spider at the centre of his web of charities, a frail man in his wheelchair. He has saved the lives of thousands and no-one knows his name. “I have done nothing. My work is a billiard ball that rolls all by itself,” he says with a gentle smile, in his place of prayer where Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists congregate. And our journey continues past the micro-credit centres that show that while men hanker after money, women long for education for their children. In the distance, the words of Mother Teresa echo over the Ganges. She said: Saving the life of one child is like saving the planet. In this interplay of forces, two friends work together closely and for always, a French author and a Dutch businessman. They too have gradually saved a constellation because their hearts were bigger than their egos.