Gaston Grandjean is one of the most humble heroes imaginable. He work has been so inspiring that the main character in Dominique Lapierre’s novel City of Joy was based on him, but Grandjean did not want to be visible. But the success of City of Joy and the subsequent movie by that name have brought his work amid the anonymity of Calcutta’s slums to worldwide awareness.
Grandjean was born in Switzerland. He grew up wanting to be a missionary, but he was discouraged to take such a position because of his fragile health. Health never was a driving force in his decision-making, and instead of caring for himself he went to work in the coal mines of northern France with immigrants from Turkey, Algeria and Yugoslavia. Then he worked in the steel mills of Paris. These exposures to the working poor developed a life-long passion to serve the poor.
Grandjean got training as a nurse and then joined the Prado Fraternity. Prado is a Catholic order that brings together both “religious” (monks and nuns) and consecrated lay people who are willing to take a vow to “join the poorest of the poor and the most disinherited where they are, live the same life as they do and die with them.” He worked in Latin America, Africa and Asia, but it was India where he found his place to be. He settled in Howrah one of the worst slums of Calcutta, making his simple home among the people he sought to serve. His only belongings were a Bible, a razor and a toothbrush.
Known as Brother Gaston, he helped the residents of Howrah with their various needs, including health. He overcame their distrust because he didn’t seek to proselytize. Rather he entered into the lives and rituals of all those in the slum, Muslim, Hindu and Christian. He formed the Southern Health Improvement Samity (SHIS) in 1980 through which he trained social workers and health workers from the slums. Eventually he founded an Inter-religious Centre as a place for the marginalized in special distress to receive care and to be a place to apprentice social workers from all religious backgrounds. For example, Dr. Mohammed Kamrudin is a young Muslim who started a center for humanitarian action in Calcutta who was inspired, mentored and trained by Brother Gaston.
Brother Gaston also established Shanti Bhavan, the Inter-Religious Centre of Development. Shanti Bhavan is a home for the destitute, for orphans and for the menally challenged. Now an older man, the people of the home call him Dadu, grandfather, as he cares for them dressed in his simple kurta-pyjama pants.
Brother Gaston took the Indian name of Dayanand. In 1992 he became a citizen of India, fully rooted in the poor communities of Calcutta, known now world-wide by the name “City of Joy.”