Seeking Permission for the Book


    Jack Preger had never before experienced real pain, and his green eyes widened at the frightening redness of his own blood as it dripped on to the kitchen floor. His urgent cries mixed with the approaching rush of Annie O'Donnell's footsteps, and his world whirled as she lifted him to the wide white sink, where rushing cold water tugged at the tiny wound.

    Later, he surveyed the clean white bandage from her lap, and shed new tears at the memory of the sharp knife. A handkerchief in a houseworked hand pinched his nostrils. Between sobs, he blew, and sighed, and felt better. Annie’s soothing Irish voice rocked him on bony knees; wax polish and soapy smells mingled with her usual reek of tobacco and beer, providing solace in its familiarity.

    Outside, the sun discovered a chink in the banks of grey cloud, and suddenly flooded the room with unexpected silver light. An electric kettle boiled unattended and forgotten by the window, and Jack Preger marvelled at the distorted beauty of the luminous steam, viewed through his own tears.

    At age two, this abstract vision was the gentle genesis of three experiences which were to later influence his life.


        The blaring cacophony from the nearby main road penetrated the small hotel like shrapnel; jagged fragments of noise from  a multitude of motorists blasting their horns.  And for no valid reason I mused, smiling at the memory of the veteran taxi driver who, on my last visit to Calcutta, had enthusiastically klaxoned a completely deserted back street. When I asked him why he had done so, his answer was that charming benign smile and tilted head – those inimitable Indian indications that yet another silly foreigner has just asked a stupid question.

        Seated at a small rattan table in the hotel lobby shared with a dented metal ashtray brimming with butts, I took a sip from the rim of my stained cup, a tea time relic chipped and serrated by a thousand dish washings, and turned to observe the wizened accountant working behind the cluttered reception desk. He looked up abruptly, as though he had felt my stare, and squinted through the thickening gloom. Twilight was already nibbling at the remaining patches of sunshine outside in the dusty street. 

        "Are you busy at this time of year?" I asked with a smile, to ease the mild embarrassment of being spotted. 

        "Very busy sir..." he answered, then paused thoughtfully. 

        "Very, very, busy" he finally decided, holding his head to one side for a few moments in between the superlatives, to lend emphasis. His spectacled gaze returned to an old-fashioned adding machine, which responded to his ministrations with an obedient clattering sound. This produced a snake of paper ribbon which slithered out between stacks of cardboard files and flopped over the front of the old wooden desk, terminating on the floor in coiled testament to his workload.  

        Above my head in the small hotel foyer, the flock of ceiling fans which normally whirl in vain against the city's humid tropical heat were now stretched out contentedly, and their motionless yellow-brown blades reposed thankfully in the rare December coolness. I relished another mouthful, and where the hot sweet beverage met my solar plexus, the knot of apprehension was slowly tightening - could this imminent long-awaited meeting end in disappointment? Was my journey here in vain?    

         The old man suddenly raised his head expectantly, and fixed me with eyes drawn to pinpoints through thick lenses.

        "I think doctor is coming now sir," he remarked softly with a bilateral tilt of his head, and an air of satisfaction, as if my lone wait in the lobby had somehow been troubling him. He was correct. My host suddenly appeared smilingly, with a head of half-dried, newly shampooed grey hair, and shook my hand warmly.  

        "Come on up lad, and have some real refreshment" he said with a wink, as he watched me drain the last drops of tea from my cup.

        I followed the backs of his worn sandals and frayed cotton trousers at eye level up the nearly vertical wooden staircase, catching fragments of music and wafts of cooking smells from the other hotel rooms as we passed, until we reached his. He pushed the battered door with his fingertips. It opened silently and finished with a creak, as the rusty hinges took the full momentum. A pleasant fresh smell of toilet soap touched my nostrils.

        "Make yourself completely at home" he said with a little bow, grandiosely extending a broad upturned palm, as though I was entering some stately residence. With little other option, I shared a corner on the iron-hard bed with an assortment of books, medical journals, and hand-written letters peeking out of opened air mail envelopes. All around me space was at a premium, but the tiny dimensions of the hotel room were somewhat compensated by its generous height. Mini skyscrapers of files, textbooks, papers, photographs and various personal possessions, were all carefully balanced atop each other to gain maximum storage. Curving across the centre, a frayed hemp rope supported various articles of wet laundry. I was in the tiny home and permanent residence of Dr. Jack Preger, MBE.


        "How can you live in such luxury Jack?" I teased as he emerged from the tiny bathroom holding two tumblers, the kind you associate with toothbrushes.

        "Oh, there's plenty room to swing a cat" he said with a smile. "As long as it's a fairly small one"

         He cleared a space for the glasses, and squatted down to rummage in a carton on the floor whilst continuing to look up at me with a schoolboy grin on his face. The wink came again, followed by a dusty unopened bottle of Irish whiskey, which he brandished in the air, like a winner with a trophy. I wondered how long he had kept it there.

         "Only for very special occasions" he announced solemnly, cracking the metal seal, and pouring a much more generous measure for me than for himself. 

        "Welcome back to India, lad!" he exclaimed heartily, as we clinked glasses.

        The pale amber colour of the spirit in the glass glowed in the fading orange light of dusk outside the window, doing likewise in my inside, as it slowly trickled down to mix with my tea. Whilst we eagerly exchanged news between sips, the anxiety I had experienced downstairs now turned into a strange combination of déjà vu and total unreality, which intensified in inverse proportion to the slowly dwindling contents of my glass. He held up his own and affectionately circled it level with his eyes, watching the beads of alcohol evaporate on the sides.  

        "I still have a great affection for Ireland you know" he said, talking to the glass, then looked across at me with a thoughtful smile.

        "Back in the 1930's when I was a toddler, we had an Irish maid called Annie O'Donnell, who nursed me through my childhood. She drank like a fish, and smoked like a chimney dear soul, but a thousand early memories of mine were formed in her presence - including my first injury, and feeling the power of loving compassion. That experience coincided with a child’s reverence for the wonders of the physical world – something as grown ups, we all tend to take for granted”

        He paused for a long time, as if in meditation, then continued:

        "And if it hadn't been for Dublin, and the Royal College of Surgeons, I'd probably never have been able to study medicine"

        Then unexpectedly, in a mock schoolmaster voice, and simultaneously putting on a pair of half-frame spectacles, as if in anticipation of doing some serious business, he continued:

        "Right, let's hear it - what kind of a book is this that you want to write about me now? I thought we'd already agreed a photo-book concept?"

        He fixed me with a half-smile, half-questioning look. I found my tongue fumbling with the reply.

        "Not a biography, but about your thoughts on life in general" I stumbled, "And really what you believe in." What had seemed so easy to say to myself in private rehearsals now became heavy and clumsy, I struggled on:

        "I think many people at this time may be helped by learning of an unbiased, genuine spiritual discovery which they can relate to their own life and religion - whatever religion that is"
        He nodded, and continued rotating his glass.

        I added, as authoritatively as I could:

        "And if they don't have a religion at all, or are agnostic or even atheist, then your own experience is equally if not even more valid. Look at all the people who've known you here in Calcutta, whose attitude to life changed totally as a result of meeting you. You are an inspiration to everybody on the planet”

        The din of the traffic and incessant car horns outside contrasted starkly with the ensuing silence in the tiny room as Jack contemplated a reply. I suddenly regretted my last assertion. Sincere as it was meant to be, I knew Jack disliked any kind of praise. I felt uncomfortable, and for a moment, defeated.

         The original photo-book idea, already discussed in correspondence, was for a simple fund-raising publication filled with images of Calcutta's street children, with captions provided by Jack. This he had readily agreed to, but the more I thought about the concept, the more I realised that Jack's thoughts and philosophies, which he only shared on rare occasions with a tiny circle of friends, should be made available to everybody. I had already outlined this new approach in my last letter to him, and my journey here was for the sole purpose of achieving this. At a distance in another country, it had seemed easy. Now, sitting here with him, I suddenly feared he was opposed to the idea. Jack tended to eschew any kind of personal publicity

        "How on earth can you sleep amongst this noise?" I asked to relieve my own suspense.

        He laughed heartily.

        "Oh, this is absolutely nothing I tell you - you should hear it later on when the brothel next door really gets down to business, especially the “grand finale” when it finally closes shop at three in the morning - with all the girls yelling over their share of the takings..... and shortly after that, the mosque starts calling people to prayer - and these chaps have amplifiers big enough for a football stadium ... ear plug manufacturers might well test their products here!"

        We both chuckled. It was now almost dark, and I could no longer distinguish Jack's features. Only his spectacles were clearly defined in the gloom, reflecting the remaining luminosity like two silver half moons, and I wondered nervously what he was thinking behind them. With sinking heart, I decided that the delay could only mean he was searching for a painless and polite way to say no. The uneasy silence returned.

        "Then there was light" he said suddenly, leaning over and clicking a switch which illuminated the small space in a dim yellow glow, which made it seem even smaller than before. He sensed my impression.

        "I'm maybe going to move to another place you know - to something even more luxurious than this"  he announced dramatically, allowing himself a hearty chortle, and poking his glasses back into his shirt pocket. He stood up, and drained his glass.

        "So, what about the book?" I dared, unable to stand the discomfort any longer.

         "Well, first of all, I don't see how you would you go about it" he ventured warily, wearing a blank expression.

         I produced a small tape recorder.

         "I'd follow you around whenever possible and practical, and sit with you at mealtimes, or whatever, and just have you talk on subjects which would be of interest to many people." I answered.

        He retained the non-committal look.

         "I would not ask you to upset your daily routine in any way" I urged, trying to suppress a pleading tone.

        Jack stood motionless for perhaps a full minute, then took a step towards me, grasping the rough clothes line between two large frayed granny knots.

        "Well, I've got no objections, I suppose" he conceded, balancing on one leg, and trying purposefully to locate an errant sandal underneath the bed with his big toe.

        "That's wonderful Jack!" I said with the enthusiasm of a child, as a wave of relief swept me towards the task

        "When can we start?" I added greedily, fingering the tape recorder in anticipation. He peered at me through the space between two dangling T-shirts.

        "Do you like Chinese food?"


        He reached for his shoulder bag, and opened the door to the landing where the stairs led precipitously back down to the hotel foyer.

        "Then why don’t we start tonight?" he affirmed, as he led the way downwards towards the teeming pavements of the Indian megalopolis.

        “The restaurant is only about 15 minute’s walk from here, and - of course, the exercise will do us good.”

        Jack stopped on the stairs to look up at me, and smiled wickedly, with a finger directed at my ample stomach.

        I laughed, but I felt my legs tremble a little on the stairway, a momentary weakness created by a mixture of excitement and exhilaration. I was now going to research and write a book about Dr. Jack Preger, the street doctor of Calcutta. The thought was beginning to overwhelm.

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