Forty years after the publication of "La Cité de la joie" by Dominique Lapierre, 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 Swiss working-class family in Geneva, remembers having decided "from the age of six" to dedicate his existence "to Christ and to the poor".
“I never wanted to be a priest”, confides this brother of the Prado congregation to AFP, “the Church would never have let me live in a hovel with the poor”.
"However, my life was to share with the poorest", continues the old man with white hair and beard, at the Interreligious Center for Development (ICOD), an NGO he co-founded twenty years ago. years, 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 left, including ICOD, which welcomes 81 orphans, disabled people, individuals with mental disorders, the elderly, of all religions.
"I went everywhere where there was no doctor, no non-governmental organization, no Christian", he recalls, "that is to say places that were completely abandoned, abandoned".
He landed in India in 1972 to work with a French priest in a small mutual aid center in the slum of Pilkhana, near Calcutta. "It was the biggest slum in India at the time, they said in the world!" he says.
Arrived by scooter to the shantytown, he had surprised the residents by entering it on foot: "I don't go into a place where there are so many poor people, on a rickshaw, like a rich man!"
One day in 1981, he was visited there by 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 of recounting in my book La Cité de la joie", said the writer, who died last December.
Translated worldwide, his 1985 novel has sold millions of copies.
“He funded all of my organizations at $3 million a year, almost all of his copyrights, for almost 30 years,” the cleric claims.
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 has become Chicago on the Ganges!".
At the time, Mother Teresa received tons of medicine from all over the world. She gave large quantities of it to the support center which Brother Gaston knew how to take advantage of. He trained nurses and established a dispensary.
"I had the drugs, I didn't need anything else!" he said, "we quickly had more than 60,000 patients the first year. 100,000 the second. hospital".
As soon as he arrived in India, he had 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 the brothers of Mother Teresa to take care of 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".
Now disabled, he spends "three quarters of (his) days meditating" on his bed, facing Christ.
"I never had anything but a board to sleep on! Now I live like a bourgeois in a big bed!" exclaims the ascetic.
"But it wasn't me who wanted it", he adds laughing, "the worst thing is that I accept it..."
ICOD co-founder and director Mamata Gosh, 43, decided so. Nicknamed "Gopa", she watches over the man who taught her the profession of nurse twenty-five years ago.
"Before him, I knew nothing," she told AFP, "he's my spiritual father."
The brother's day begins at 5:00 am with three hours of prayer, in front of a reproduction of the Shroud of Turin overhanging an Aum, symbol of Hinduism, in his tiny oratory adjoining his room.
Dressed all in white, barefoot, he then settles into his electric wheelchair to visit each of the residents of the hamlet with thatched roofs, then returns to his room at the end of the morning.
On his bedside table, a Bible, a crucifix, his eyeglasses and an old laptop computer which 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,” says the brother.
26/05/2023 08:13:43 - Gohalopata (Inde) (AFP) © 2023 AFP