Doctor Jack Preger & 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 steed is still on the road), Jack kept pointing out 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****** cameras in your bag or you’ll scare the woman away’, I was advised before leaving our clunky transport.
In the plush hotel foyer, Jack broke out like a naughty child and pushed one of his personal cards into my hand.
‘Here. Pretend you’re me when the Baroness turns up,’ he laughed.
Before I could properly protest he’d run off into the lift and disappeared up the shaft.
I stood there in the foyer, 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 read the Gospels and 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 studied to became a Doctor before going to work in refugee camps in Bangladesh and it was in Dhaka that his Romish allegiance buckled. Appalled by the indifference of well-healed 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 his 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 overseas volunteers and Indian workers.
Jack also started a clinic at Nimtallah 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 (and ‘put those ******* cameras away’ was repeated whenever I strayed too close to the windows).
Not only has Jack’s presence guaranteed medical care for many of Calcutta’s poor for well over 30 years, along with schooling, mobile clinics and now 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, but 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 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 at the time of my visit he saw Christ more as a prophet than the Messiah, thus (again!) demoting Christianity to a Judaic sect like the Ebionites.
I suppose an MBE is a fitting accolade for someone whose doubt forbade him achieving the impending Sainthood of that other Calcutta resident, who only fulfilled her spiritual mission when she took a leap of faith from her Loreto School bedroom window, which is still situated across the street from Jack’s old clinic.
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 and 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 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 one of very 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 consciences, of those rolling up to school in polished transports and pristine uniforms—particularly in light of the Gospels at the curriculum’s 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 mere menfolk, it becomes clear that human frailties also exist within Church walls – with the ever-unfolding history of abuses, this is more obvious now than ever.
Even so, I doubt he majority of nuns and the faithful who journey to Saint Peter’s in Rome even notice the wealth and splendour of the grandest of Catholic church buildings, let alone pass judgement, because the best amongst them are the least amongst them, and their hearts belong elsewhere. And this spiritual separation exonerates them from any possible stain by association, with those comparative few who saw too much, once too often and too nearly.
If you are intent on lowering your gaze from the pinnacle, better seek out those guided by the light of humility, and the writings of Francis de Sales shines brighter than most.
But it should be remembered that Mother Teresa’s Mission 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 that would quadruple the length of this essay and do him far more justice than working from memory (I’ve been meaning to dig them out for years). Amidst a chat with Jack along previously mentioned lines, I quoted Mother Teresa’s retort to Muggeridge, when he asked her 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 out of Kierkegaard and St. John of the Cross’ books, his mixture of inspiration and doubt may well have been fully engaged and fully overcome.
Some claimed Jack to be 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 many people travelled across continents to help out and raise money all the same, and without his very special personality Calcutta Rescue simply wouldn’t exist.
If a foreshadow of eternity’s measure could be gauged from the faces around us; the faces of the people with whom we have lived and worked, and on whom we have left the imprint of our worldly presence, most of us would be worried. But if Jack Preger were to walk 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 light up in his honour, and testify that when they were sick, he provided for each of them when there was nowhere else to go.
This is a collective endorsement few of us will elicit when we stand poor, naked and policy-less before our Maker.
However, as people like Doctor Jack are evermore rare – in an age of sub-Carnegie Vanity Projects – it is good to know he’s still amongst us and I rather hope he sticks around to get that second letter from the Queen.