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A Journey to Dominique Dada's Sunderbans

Drums, beating a rhythm of love and gratitude, greet French author Dominique Lapierre and his wife as they disembark from a boat and walk the narrow pathway that leads to Choto Sahera, an island village in the Sundarbans in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.

Thousands of villagers have turned up to felicitate them.

Men, women, children wear caps with Lapierre's picture and 'Long Live' printed on them.

Petals are showered on them. The smell of roses fills the air.

Banners greet them. They read: 'You are not for a day but for a life' and 'Lives begin with Dominique Dada and Didi.' For folks of this region, Lapierre is the messiah who has brought education and medical care to a remote corner of the state.

Lapierre -- whose The City of Joy has sold 9 million copies and his other books together have sold 40 million copies -- pours 80 per cent of his royalties into the Sundarbans region faithfully year after year. The other 20 per cent, incidentally goes to Bhopal's gas tragedy victims ever since he wrote Five Past Midnight in Bhopal in memory of the casualties of that tragedy.

But for Lapierre it is not enough that he pours in more than Rs 140 million (US $3 million) each year to projects in India.

He wants to be here too.

Lapierre visits India at least thrice a year. He has a strong urge to be in touch with the family he has adopted. He is supported in his efforts, for the last 40 years, by a wife, who in her words, "Shares everything with him including her first name!"

Clad in a denim jacket, trousers and a hat, to protect him from the strong sun, his bouyant humour and boundless energy belies his 75 years.

His wife Dominique Conchon-Lapierre says, "He has been gifted with energy and enthusiasm by the creator. What is nice is how he can give that energy to others. The love that we receive refills our energy."

Overwhelmed by the smiles on the faces of the thousands who have gathered to hear his address in Choto Sahera, he says "I am sure in a previous life I was an inhabitant of the Sundarbans. Mahatma Gandhi would say the world is my village. Today Choto Sahera is for us the world."

Text: Payal Mohanka reporting from the Sunderbans
Photographs: Mukul Gangopadhyay

Also See: The Chatwal wedding

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