Book Review: The City of Joy (Dominique Lapierre)

Can joy come out of a slum’s web of miseries?

In the real-than-life novel “City of Joy”, it does. The story revolves around the interwoven lives of Stephan Kovalski (a Polish Catholic priest), Max Loeb (an American doctor), and Hasari Pal (an Indian rickshaw driver), who found themselves being fashioned by the slum life in Anand Nagar (City of Joy), an urban poor community in the mega city of Calcutta (Kolkata).

Stephan wanted to care for the poor slum dwellers in the City of Joy. He lived with the people (and the roaches and rodents) and found ways to serve them: all from the victims of the local mafia to the most lowly lepers.

Max’s journey in Anand Nagar started when he was a young doctor, full of idealism as well as disillusionment from his upper-class life. His search for hope was met as he overcame the shock of encountering poverty face-to-face, and discovered real compassion in the midst of so much need.

Hasari was a farmer whose village was wiped out after a drought, and thus was forced to migrate (with his family) to the city. It was survival of unimaginable proportions: seeking to take the place of another rickshaw driver who dies “on duty”, being caught up in a web of corruption, earning some “good fortune” from scavenging for used hospital dressings in a dumpsite, and eventually succumbing to tuberculosis. The redemptive element: before Hasari’s death he saw to it that his daughter was married (in their context, the girl’s family had to pay dowry).

The story depicts – literally and figuratively—the struggles of the urban poor, mostly migrants from rural areas and driven to the city in search of a better life. Hasari’s case of migration was out of desperation and sheer need to survive. The contemporary urban migrant, ending up as members of the urban poor population, has a story not too different from Hasari’s. While the setting of this story is in East India, the characters and struggles are very much universal.

In March of 2011 I was able to visit Kolkata for 2 weeks. I did not get to live with the people in their real daily home settings, and what I observed for so short a time just always brought me back to the familiar Manila. Skyscrapers continue sprouting up like mushrooms, while the slums that support the labor force for these developments continue in unhygienic conditions. Water was scarce, education eludes children who are supposed to benefit, and day laborers support their families through seasonal work.

The book, though, brought me to a time and place where conditions of the urban slums were much more severe.

In the urban slum, the great divide is starkly evident, not only between the rich and the poor, but even the poor among themselves – as they struggle with the difficulty of reconciling differences between [castes – in this story’s case], religions, and degrees of poverty. It is a constant scuffle for work, water, housing, security.

For someone ministering to the urban poor, what can be learned from this story? I have noted some below; there are surely more.

Every slum has a history, and God has been part of it even before the development worker or the church planter or the humanitarian volunteer came.

The long introduction of this story makes a powerful statement. So many things have happened to people in the community, way beyond the slum that they are in now. Every Hasari, Max, Stephan has a story to tell, and would have some experience of triumphs and failures where the Lord has surely been using to try and speak to him/her. In the same way, so much history is present in the community itself, and it is ever changing as more and more people come and leave.

It would be very presumptuous for anybody to just come in (“immerse”, even) and conclude that they have known this community and how to work / deal with the people. Also it is not for anyone to assume that what works in other slums would work exactly the same way on a different community.

This leads to the second learning …

Incarnation is key.

This has been a repeated lesson in many classes I took for the Transformational Urban Leadership course. One cannot simply “serve” from behind the desk – it does not work that way. Although, a compromise is possible in many forms – such as, only a few members of the team actually live with the people, or better yet the team works with locals who know the place better than anyone who comes from outside.

For Max, what helped him gradually settle in, aside from living with the people like Stephan did, was the initial work that the latter did. Max learns from the experiences of not only the local residents but also the people who choose to serve them unconditionally. Just the same, it was the actual seeing and experiencing of the slum realities that allowed the doctor to realize and develop love and respect for the people.

In the midst of the deplorable living conditions, it is possible to find, nurture, or inspire hope.

Each of the characters, in their own time and amidst the challenges and personal anguish, found “salvation” in little or big ways (and almost over-dramatically for the main characters, I should say). The story shows human triumph where least expected.

Now the hope that we have in Christ is not as superficial as the kind of answers some characters in this story were able to find. When coming, then, with good news to the poor, how much more boldness, confidence, and commitment one must carry! The good news will never come back empty. It will strengthens hope where it’s dwindling, and rekindle where it’s lost.

Bringing the community to Christ [or vice versa] is not synonymous to alienating other beliefs, initiatives, institutions.

There is so much power and potential in having an open mind and heart. Just because one is an evangelical Christian does not mean that he must shy away from working with the local government unit, or the orthodox group, or the initiatives of other religious groups in the community. Understandably there is fear of possible compromise on practices considered non-negotiable in one’s faith, but taking this to the extreme may actually result to pushing away the very people being reached out to.

The book has left me with a fresh appreciation of how love can bring light in the darkness of slum living. It talks about faith in the good, even in the worst of situations. But most importantly for the Christian it is a reminder that nothing is too hopeless that the good news of the love of Christ could not transform into a place of joy.

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