Four Months After Lapierre’s Death, His Guide ‘Leaves’ Pilkhana ForeverApr 10, 2023 | Pratirodh Bureau
Barely four months after the demise of French author Dominique Lapierre, his Indian friend Reginald John, who helped him understand the life of slum dwellers that was featured in his book ‘City of Joy’ also died, ending the era of love and compassion showered by the two among people of Pilkhana in West Bengal’s Howrah district.
John, who earned nicknames like ‘John Sir’ and ‘Bade Bhai’ (elder brother) for his social services to the dwellers of Pilkhana, once considered the second largest slum in the country after Mumbai’s Dharavi, breathed his last at a time when the industrial city of Howrah witnessed communal violence during Ram Navami processions.
Lapierre, who passed away in December last year, and John are described by their admirers as men who could easily mingle with people and had big hearts.
John, who used to run an NGO, was suffering from cancer. He died at the age of 70 on March 29.
“Instead of love, peace and kindness that Bade Bhai, Lapierre, and French priest Francoise Laborde showered here, now our city experienced clashes between two groups and hatred,” said Mohammad Ejaj, a resident of Pilkhana, located around 3-4 kilometres from Howrah Railway Station.
Fr Laborde came to Howrah before Lapierre and the author’s arrival here was in connection with the priest.
Surajit Basistha, an advocate and the president of a local welfare organisation ‘Seva Sangh Samiti’, with which John was associated as its CEO, said Pilkhana did not feel the heat of such violence.
“Maybe, our social services helped strengthen the bonding among people in Pilkhana, which was once a Muslim-majority area. We serve one community, ‘needy’, without considering their caste, creed and religion,” Basistha told PTI.
Terrence John, the youngest brother of ‘John sir’, described the power of social workers and their humanitarian services to ward off such clashes.
“There was a big commotion when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead (in 1984). At that time, the entire place took a very different turn, my brother gave shelter to many in the Samiti. Nobody dared to enter the place because he was there. Because of his tireless work for the (local) people, the place did not experience any such disturbance,” said Terence John, the principal of a reputable school.
From a congested locality full of tin roof houses and dingy and waterlogged streets of the 1970s and 1980s, Pilkhana has progressed somewhat over the years. Some multi-storeyed concrete houses have come up and sanitation has improved, but the locality still lacks adequate social infrastructure.
However, despite the opprobrium of being described as a slum, “joy is still alive among people of Pilkhana”, Reginald John had told PTI after the demise of Lapierre in December last year.
Reginald John was one of the guides who had given the French author the idea of Pilkhana, a rabbit warren located along the Grand Trunk Road in the northern part of Howrah.
Basistha recalled that Lapierre found Reginald John as a “true friend and guide” to understand Pilkhana and its people.
Lapierre was a volunteer of the Samiti and an “ardent assistant” of Fr Laborde who lived in the slums and formed the welfare organisation in the 1960s. Reginald was such a man who helped the organisation realise the dreams of its founder.
According to locals, Fr Laborde, Lapierre and Reginald John covered the length and breadth of Pilkhana thoroughly and worked day and night for the betterment of locals.
Terrence said his brother’s association with the author was to help him collect information and introduce him to slum dwellers of Pilkhana which was later featured in his book.
“My brother was one of the soldiers of the Seva Sangh Samiti, working for the poor people for more than 50 years. He helped them not only during the flood of 1978 but also established a school for children and a medical centre for impoverished people. He had left a big footprint in this area as a social worker,” Terrence John said.