I started reading a couple of months ago, it took me a bit more time than usual owing to work pressures and general lethargy. However, I finished it last night and have already updated http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_Joy, my first real Wiki edit.
The book revolves around a slum in Calcutta called Anand Nagar, based on the real life slum known as Pilkhana. Stephen Kovalski is a Polish priest who arrives in India with an aim to embrace the sufferings of his fellow humans. In a parallel story, Hasari Lal, a peasant farmer, arrives in Calcutta with his family in search of a living as monsoons fail year after year leaving his family in abject poverty.
Kovalski evolves as Brother Stephan for the slum dwellers who fight for everyday survival, and he amongst others are a source of good deeds in a harsh and uncaring world. The story talks about the value of human life in a hellhole like Anand Nagar (City of Joy), the mishmash of culture, religion and the horrors of the slum life.
While Kovalski attempts to help his fellow beings, Hasari Lal becomes a rickshaw puller, the human horses who still ply in the streets of this city, in order to earn his daily bread.
The book describes environment in a visually stunning in horrifying way, there were moments where I wept at the torrent of human tragedy. It made it all the more difficult to ignore this because I am a resident of this unforgiving city, and I know that the book has been based on real places and real heroes. But the book is not about tragedy, it is about the human endeavor which survives in the midst of misfortune, its about those people who make the world a better place in-spite of all odds.
Strangely even after 25 years of its being published, the city seems the same wretched place as described. A must read, for peace shall arrive in the end.
‘Misfortune is great, but man is greater than misfortune.’ – Tagore
PS-There is a movie based on the book, but the story seems very different.