She would spend entire days in prayer, curled up in a corner of her hovel, without lighting or ventilation. Behind her, hanging from a nail in the mud wall, was a crucifix, and in a niche above the door nestled a statue of a Virgin blackened with soot. The leper woman was so thin that her shriveled skin accentuated the angles of her bones. What age might she be? Certainly younger than she looked. Forty at the very most. As if her blindness were not enough, leprosy had reduced her hands to stumps and eaten away her face. The widow of one of the municipalitys lesser employees, she had lived in the slum for twenty years. No one knew how she had come to catch leprosy, but she was so consumed by the disease that it was too late to cure her. In another corner of the room her four grandchildren, aged between two and six, slept side by side on a piece of threadbare matting.
Around this Christian woman and her family had been woven one of those networks of mutual help and friendship that transformed the City of Joy into one of those privileged places to which Jesus of Nazareth referred when he called upon his disciples to gather in a suitable spot to await the last Judgment and the Resurrection. Such help was all the more remarkable because the neighbors were all Hindus, a fact that would normally have prevented them from touching anyone suffering from leprosy, from entering that persons house or even, so it was sometimes said, from tainting their eyes with the sight of a leper. Yet, every day, those Hindus took turns bringing the Christian woman a dish of rice and vegetables, helping her wash, doing her housework, looking after her grandchildren. The slum, so inhuman in other respects, gave her something which no hospital could have provided. This broken woman suffered from no lack of love.
Some sixth sense always alerted her to Kovalskis arrival. As soon as she sensed him approaching, she would make an attempt to tidy herself. With what was left of her hands she would smooth down her hair, a touching gesture of coquetry amid such utter degradation. Next she would tidy up the area around her, groping to rearrange a tattered cushion for her visitor. Happy then, all she had to do was wait patiently, reciting her rosary. That morning the priest was going to fill her with joy.
Good morning, Father! she was quick to call out to him as soon as she heard his footsteps.
Good morning, Grandma! replied Kovalski, taking his shoes off in the doorway. You seem to be in good form today.
He had never heard her complain or utter words of self-pity at her predicament, and on this occasion, again, he was struck by the sight of the joyous expression on her tortured face. She signaled him to sit down beside her and as soon as he was settled, held out her arms in a gesture of maternal love. The blind leper woman caressed the priests face as if to feel the life in it. I was utterly bewildered, he was to say. It was as if she were giving me the very thing that she sought in me. There was more love in the soft touch of that rotten flesh than in all the worlds embraces.
Father, I do so wish the good Lord would come and fetch me at last. Why wont you ask him to?
If the good Lord keeps you with us, Grandma, its because he still needs you here.
Father, if I have to continue suffering, Im ready to do so, she said. Above all Im ready to pray for other people, to help them endure their own suffering. Father, bring me their suffering.
Stephan Kovalski told her about his visit to young Sabia. She listened with her sightless eyes fixed upon him.
Tell him that I shall pray for him. The priest searched in his knapsack for the clean handkerchief in which he had carefully wrapped a piece of chapati consecrated during his morning Mass. The short silence intrigued the leper woman.
What are you doing, Father?
Grandma, Ive brought you communion. Receive the body of Christ.
She parted her lips and Kovalski placed the fragment of griddle cake on the tip of her tongue. Amen, she murmured after a moment, her face radiant with joy. There was a long silence, broken only by the buzzing of flies and the outbreak of an argument outside. The four little sleeping bodies had not stirred.
When Stephan Kovalski rose to go, the leper woman lifted up her rosary in a gesture of salutation and offering.
Be sure to tell those who are suffering that I am praying for them.
That evening Stephan Kovalski was to jot down in his diary: That woman knows that her suffering is not useless and I affirm that God wants to use her suffering to help others to endure theirs. A few lines further on he concluded: That is why my prayer for this poor woman must not be one of sadness. Her suffering is like that of Christ on the Cross; it is constructive and redemptive. It is full of hope. Every time I leave the hovel where my sister, the blind leper woman, lives, I come away revitalized. So how can one despair in this slum of Anand Nagar? In truth this place deserves its name, City of Joy.
From the book City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre. Copyright © 1985 by Pressinter, S.A. Published by Doubleday & Co., Inc. Fifty percent of Mr. Lapierre’s royalties for City of Joy goes to serve destitute children in Calcutta.