Forty years after the publication of Dominique Lapierre's La Cité de la joie, Brother Gaston Dayanand, whose existence in the slum of Pilkhana inspired this bestseller, is still working, at 86, for "the poorest" in West Bengal in northeastern India.
Brother Gaston, born Grandjean in 1937 into a working-class Swiss family in Geneva, remembers having decided "at the age of six" to dedicate his life "to Christ and to the poor." "I never wanted to be a priest," the Prado congregational brother told AFP, "the Church would never have let me live in a slum with the poor." "Now, my life was to share with the poorest," continues the old man with white hair and beard, at the Interreligious Development Center (ICOD), an NGO he co-founded twenty years ago in Gohalopata, a village 75 km southwest of Calcutta.
Of the twelve NGOs that this professional nurse has created in fifty years of existence in West Bengal, there are six remaining, including ICOD which welcomes 81 orphans, disabled people, individuals with mental disorders, the elderly, of all religions. "I went wherever there was no doctor, no non-governmental organization, no Christian," he recalls, "that is, places completely abandoned, abandoned."
He arrived in India in 1972 to work with a French priest in a small self-help centre in the slum of Pilkhana, near Calcutta. "It was the biggest slum in India at the time, they said the world!" he says. Arriving by scooter to the slum, he had surprised the residents by entering on foot. "I don't go into a place where there are so many poor people, on a rickshaw, like a rich man!"
"Chicago on Ganges"
One day in 1981, he received a visit from Dominique Lapierre "sent by Mother Teresa". The famous author, who wanted to write a novel "about the poor", was able to convince the ascetic of his "seriousness". The two men became friends.
Brother Gaston "is one of the 'Lights of the World' whose epic of love and sharing I had the honor to tell in my book The City of Joy," said the writer, who died last December. Translated worldwide, his novel published in 1985 has sold several million copies. "He funded all my organizations to the tune of $3 million a year, almost all of his copyrights, for almost 30 years," he said.
On the other hand, the adaptation of the novel to the cinema, with Patrick Swayze, displeased him a lot: "I frankly hated this film. " The City of Joy" became "Chicago on Ganges"!"
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At the time, Mother Teresa was receiving tons of medicine from all over the world. She donated large quantities to the self-help center, from which Brother Gaston was able to take advantage. He trained nurses and established a dispensary. "I had the medicines, I didn't need anything else!" he says, "we quickly had more than 60,000 patients in the first year. 100,000 per second. Three years later, we made a small hospital."
As soon as he arrived in India, he decided to adopt its nationality. "It took 20 years, of course!" He chose the surname "Dayanand" meaning "blessed (ananda) of mercy (daya)". He worked for a long time with Mother Teresa's brothers to care for the lepers of Pilkhana. "I stayed eighteen years, surrounded by 500 lepers, in a very small room," he says. For his friend, Abdul Wohab, a 74-year-old social worker, "Gaston is a saint."
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"A board to sleep"
Now disabled, he spends "three-quarters of (his) days meditating" on his bed, facing Christ. "I had never had anything but a board to sleep on! Now I live like a bourgeois in a big bed!" exclaims the ascetic. "But I didn't want it," he adds with a laugh, "the worst thing is that I accept it..."
ICOD co-founder and director Mamata Gosh, 43, decided to do so. Nicknamed "Gopa", she watches over the man who taught her the nursing profession twenty-five years ago. "Before him, I didn't know anything," she told AFP, "he's my spiritual father."
The brother's day begins at 5 a.m. with three hours of prayer, in front of a reproduction of the Shroud of Turin overlooking an Aum, symbol of Hinduism, in his tiny oratory next to his room. All dressed in white, barefoot, he then settles on his electric wheelchair to visit each of the residents of the thatched hamlet and then returns to his room at the end of the morning. On his bed table, a Bible, a crucifix, his glasses and an old laptop computer that is used in particular for his correspondence with foreign donors to the Centre. "I will earn my bread until the last day of my life," the brother said.