Doctor Jack Preger and Calcutta Rescue remembered.
Doctor Jack Preger has a slightly twisted sense of humour and I hadn’t been in Calcutta long before I was on the receiving end. Driving through the city in what was then a twenty six year old Jeep (and for all I know, Jack’s original four-wheeler is still on the road over two decades later), Jack kept pointing out the signage on Calcutta shop fronts for me to photograph, asking if I’d later send them to his favourite satirical organ, Private Eye: ‘Big Belly Bras’ is one shop sign etched in my memory.
I clicked once or twice to please him, but otherwise pretended to shoot pictures rather than admit I was already low on film, and hadn’t money enough to replace Fuji slide film at exorbitant Calcutta prices.
Doctor Jack was on his way to a hotel on Park Street, to meet the Labour peeress Baroness Blackstone and I’d tagged along for the ride.
‘And put those f*cking cameras in your bag or you’ll scare the woman away’, he advised before leaving our clunky transport.
In the plush hotel foyer, Jack broke out like a naughty child and pushed one of his business cards into my hand.
‘Here. Pretend you’re me when the Baroness turns up,’ he chuckled.
Before I could protest he ran off into the lift and disappeared up the shaft.
So I stood in the foyer, fraudulent business card in hand, feeling very uncomfortable. If I’d known that a Baroness wouldn’t necessarily be wearing a tiara I might have attempted to pull it off. But when the lady turned up, she looked as much like a peer as I did a sixty odd year old doctor. We sidelonged each other from a distance until Doctor Jack reappeared from whence he’d gone.
Jack Preger was brought up an Orthodox Jew in Prestwich, between Bury and Manchester, not far from where I now sit. He later started going to mass with the Irish navvies, who occasionally helped out on the Welsh farm he then owned, and Jack became a Catholic in the mid 1960s. Whilst still working his farm, Jack Preger answered what he believed was a call from God to become a Doctor.
After finishing his studies, he went to work in refugee camps in Bangladesh and it was in Dhaka that his Romish allegiance buckled. Appalled by the indifference of well-heeled Bangladeshi Catholics to the suffering in their midst, his Catholicism hit the rocks in the 1970s. Whilst in Bangladesh, Jack exposed child-racketing by corrupt government officials, and for kicking up a fuss he was deported.
The previous paragraph is an abbreviated version of how Jack ended up in West Bengal and after spending some time at Mother Teresa’s Home for Sick Destitutes at Howrah, he started visiting the homeless in the nooks and crannies in which they lay. By his own account, the original clinic on Middleton Row came to exist by accident, when a Priest at St. Thomas’ Presbytery offered storage space for his supplies. After the first patient came to collect medicine, the clinic blossomed with the idea and six days a week Calcutta’s poor tramped from all over the city to get medical attention and treatment.
The Middleton Row clinic was truly something to behold. Situated off Park Street, in a salubrious area of Calcutta, the contrast between the locals and the visitors to Jack’s clinic couldn’t have been greater. Each morning, tarpaulin sheets were hung from the wall of the presbytery and the adjacent tree, to fashion some kind of cover for the street clinic, which spread for over 50 yards along the pavement: by mid-morning hundreds of people had taken their place in a queue for treatment. As the day shortened, the clinic was dismantled and packed away again, and this daily cycle continued for some 14 years, with Jack perched on a stool and flanked by both overseas volunteers and Indian workers.
Jack also started a clinic at Nimtalah Ghat, which, if anything, was busier than Middleton Row and the daily number of patients regularly topped 700. He also opened the first of two schools for street kids, affectionately referred to as ‘Number 10’, directly across from one of Calcutta’s many brothels.
Not only has Jack’s presence guaranteed medical care for many of Calcutta’s poor for decades, along with schooling, mobile clinics and a safe water programme, Doctor Jack provided a kind of spiritual half-way house, which appealed to volunteers who had been moved by the Hippocratic oath or a shared humanity, though not yet by the Holy Spirit.
And herein lives a key difference between Jack’s Calcutta Rescue and the Missionaries of Charity: Doctor Jack attracted volunteers to help in his mission to provide medical care, for those who would otherwise have none; contrastingly, Mother and her Sisters have always been a contemplative order of Missionaries, and their appeal was more often heard by the heart than a logical, medical mind.
Although unimpressed with the early medical practices (to put it politely) in Mother’s Homes for Dying Destitutes at Kalighat and Howrah, to my knowledge Jack has never doubted Mother Teresa’s dedication and holiness. But he did become increasingly cynical about the Catholic church and latterly sees Christ more as a prophet than the Messiah, thus (again!) demoting Christianity to a Judaic sect like the Ebionites.
One of Jack’s patients at Middleton Row had a delightful, bright eyed daughter called Lotika (above), who the volunteers encouraged with simple jobs within the clinic. One day, in a(nother!) burst of self-righteousness, I marched over the road to the Loreto school to ask about the possibility of her becoming a pupil. But once inside the pristine grounds, my heart sank as two things became clear: firstly, assuming they would accept her, I could never afford the fees and, secondly, Doctor Jack’s prior warning, that a child with Lotika’s background wouldn’t stand a chance amongst such privileged peers, was depressingly obvious.
Dreamers like me came and went, but Jack had to tread daily through the minefield of contradictions that is Calcutta / Kolkata life, and he knew that a private Catholic school, run for predominantly rich non-Catholics, was not the place for this Untouchable ragamuffin. When I asked about the possibility of getting her into another school, he punctuated a shrug of his shoulders with a world-weary sigh and said he’d try. But Jack also knew that old habits, mistrust of the unknown and the immediacy of an empty belly meant people could be the worst enemy of their own offspring, and Lotika’s disabled mother no doubt had different plans for her child – begging was the likeliest of limited options.
It isn’t hard to see the roots of Jack’s cynicism about the Catholic church: his Middleton Row clinic must also have weighed heavily on the sensibilities and conscience, of those rolling up to school in polished transports and pristine uniforms—particularly in levelling light of the Gospels at the curriculum cornerstone—as well as the religious who taught them.
The doubt and cynicism fostered by the Church Politic often stands in the way of that all-conquering leap of faith, because once you take your focus off the cross, and concentrate instead on the do’s and don’ts of power- mongering menfolk, it becomes clear that human frailties exist in abundance within Church walls – with the recent history of abuses and cover-ups, this is more obvious than ever.
And whilst Mother Teresa’s mission only truly blossomed when she left the safety of those Loreto School walls, it should be remembered that her Missionaries of Charity was made possible and sustained by the same church of flawed individuals, which is tolerant of so many strains of Christianity and unforgiving of so very few, though Jack’s Christ-as-Prophet would certainly be one of the latter (the Pregerian Heresy?).
I have some interesting taped conversations with Jack from my second time in Calcutta, and many pages of notes on old Amstrad computer disks (somewhere!…I will dig them out).
In the midst of a chat along previously mentioned lines, I quoted Mother Teresa’s retort to Muggeridge, when he asked why she could be part of a church overseen by such flawed clergy?
‘Of the twelve Christ hand-picked himself, eleven ran away and the other one betrayed him. How can you expect Priests and Bishops to do better?’ was her spectacular response.
‘Mother really said that?’, asked Jack, his face lighting up in genuine surprise.
Jack claimed to have outgrown Muggeridge’s beautifully written but spiritually capped theology – if only he’d taken a leap of faith into spiritual heavyweights like Kierkegaard, Ss. Francis de Sales and John of the Cross, his mixture of inspiration and doubt might’ve been fully engaged and fully overcome.
It was a lazy newspaper trick to write Jack up as Britain’s answer to Mother Teresa. But it was the spiritual nature of Mother Teresa’s mission that ignited such a universal response, and inspired the hearts of the materially rich to come to the place of the poor: not just in Calcutta, but in cities all over the world. Indeed, the core of prayer and devotion, which Jack saw as a hindrance to practical medicine, is the flame that ensures Mother’s story will run and run, and the essence of her faith is woven into the white and blue fabric of the Missionaries of Charity.
Doubting Jack was always more practical and his influences more localised, and of course he was never sent a Muggeridge to propagate his story. But a lot of people traveled across continents to help out and raise money all the same, and without his very special personality, Calcutta Rescue simply wouldn’t exist.
I suppose an MBE is a fitting accolade for someone whose doubt forbade him achieving the Sainthood of that other Calcutta resident. But if a foreshadow of eternity’s measure could be gauged from the faces of those around us; faces of the people with whom we have lived and worked, and on whom we have left the imprint of our worldly presence, many of us would be worried.
But if Jack Preger walked the length of Calcutta on any given day, there would be thousands of faces—beggars, street kids, lepers, AIDS sufferers and the disabled—that would shine a kindly light and testify that when they were sick, he provided for each when they had nowhere else to go.
This is a collective endorsement I won’t be getting – How about you?