They met on a bandwagon called ‘freedom’ in the dark hours before the liberation of Paris in 1943. Dominique Lapierre, the son of a French diplomat and a journalist mother, was fighting for his country. Larry Collins, from West Hartford, Connecticut, U.S., was there as a fresh Army recruit. In the streets and battered boulevards of the fabled French capital vacated by the retreating army of “ les Boches”, as the German occupation forces were collectively called, the question was, “Is Paris burning?”
It became the title of their first and most famous collaborative book in 1965. Lapierre had connected with Collins (1929-2005), whom he called his “pen brother”, in the heady environment created by the Allied Forces marching through the streets cheered by the citizens of Paris, framed in picture after picture with the silhouette of the Arc de Triomphe. It was a rendezvous with destiny that would forge a bond between them after the war. Lapierre, who is reputed to have led a picaresque existence, running off to work on a ship when he was just 17, had joined Paris Match, the popular news magazine, while Collins worked for Newsweek.
A new start for Paris
Though Paris had been brought to its knees, survived a punishing winter of famine and deprivation, followed by a vicious period of reprisals against those who collaborated with the occupying forces, its reversal to form was equally astonishing. It may have been presaged by Christian Dior’s unveiling of a fashion sensation that he called the ‘New Look’ in 1947. UNESCO, founded under the aegis of the United Nations, held its first general conference in Paris in 1946, inviting the world’s thinkers, philosophers, writers and artists to start a new era of hope for humanity.
India was very much part of the agenda and if persons like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan were invited, so were performers like Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal and Mrinalini Sarabhai, to celebrate new beginnings. Not to leave out the contribution of the Indian Maharajas with their retinue of beautiful wives wearing the most exotic pearls, emeralds and diamonds. Never mind that this was pandering to the Parisian taste for Eastern eroticism.
Lapierre’s engagement with India started on his honeymoon travelling across the subcontinent with his young wife Aliette Spitzer in 1952. It was to be his second book — Honeymoon Round the World (1953). Twenty years later, Lapierre and Collins carpetbombed the Indian public with Freedom at Midnight. It received the kind of adulation that Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was to garner a decade after.
It was not as though countless books had not already been written by and about the personalities and events leading up to Indian independence and Partition. One must remember that this was way before television or mass media. The book unfolded like a traditional sutradar, or storyteller, with captivating vignettes that captured the texture and tone of the characters who, despite being well-known if not revered, idolised or despised, acquired a freshness in the retelling.
“We don’t write bestsellers. We try to write the best book we think can be written on a particular subject. India and Pakistan interested us because it was the history of de-colonization that had taken place in our century,” Lapierre explained. The idea to write about the Indian independence movement had been mooted by his editor at Paris Match. Two years and a much-touted $300,000 dollars later, Lapierre and Collins had produced 600 pages of history. It was unputdownable, even if there were those who complained that it was journalese with attitude.
Many years and several other similar collaborations later — for instance, O Jerusalem! (1972), the sci-fi The Fifth Horseman (1980), and Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning (1968) — Lapierre explained how Collins and he would write. “We are bilingual,” he said. “We write in our own language and then translate the text. It’s when I can do the translation easily that I know it’s going to work.” The emphasis however was on research at the ground level with interviews with as many different people as they could find.
A full life
For Indians, Lapierre’s City of Joy (1985) was perhaps the more intensely personal and memorable book. He was conferred the country’s third-highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan, in 2008.
In 2005, Lapierre wrote Is New York Burning?, about an atom bomb hidden in the heart of New York.
Do we add that he met his second wife, Dominique Conchon-Lapierre, during the course of Freedom at Midnight, at least by virtue of her name appearing in the acknowledgments? She’s been described as his wife of 56 years and that they lived happily at Ramatuelle on the French Riviera.
She has the last word on the life of the man who advised all those he met to live an extra moment every day. “At 91, he died of old age,” she told the French newspaper Var-Matin. She added, “At peace and serene since Dominique is no longer suffering”.
The writer is a Chennai-based critic and cultural commentator.