In the Kalighat Kali Temple, Calcutta


        Jack Preger sat alone, reading. A passing zephyr fondled the leaves of the tree outside the small lodge. Birds chirped, and were still.

        The 34 year old British doctor put down the book, and looked out of the window. Everything seemed normal, and natural. He could not know that in the very next minute, something inexplicable was about to happen.

        Something that, to the end of his life, he would never be able to forget.


        Walking around the Kali temple in Calcutta is a rather unlikely situation in which to talk to a man  recently awarded an MBE, born an orthodox Jew and tipped to be a Rabbi, then a Roman Catholic, and now serving the penniless destitutes on the pavements of India's second largest city, with no specific religion at all. I had suggested visiting to this Hindu temple next to Kalighat because I had put off seeing it when I was a volunteer, there being 'plenty of time' to do so, and typically, I never did.

         We peeked in to the interior sanctuary where the goddess Kali presides - For the uninitiated, it might resemble something created by Salvador Dali for Halloween. The question formed itself naturally on my lips.

         "How do you reconcile what you believe in, with something like this?" I asked

         Jack smiled.

         "It helps to remember what I told you we Jews thought about the Roman Catholic church, and its 'idols'. In a way, this is a parallel, although a more extreme one, as there are literally millions of Hindu Gods, as you know. It's important however to ensure that one's perception is not clouded by what has been created by man to present a particular religion to the masses. So - just because the bible in my opinion has been played about with over the centuries to suit the theologians, churchmen and politicians, this does not mean that my belief in God and the Holy Spirit is in any way affected by what is plainly not a perfect manuscript. Others however may understandably need the 'magic' of Christ's virgin birth, his miracles and resurrection to fortify their faith, and maybe even that's why these events were created and inserted in the first place"

         He paused and we both stood contemplating the rather frightening image.

         "This is why every religion is likely to have an outside shell of beliefs, characters, ceremonies, demons and superstitions which have been created by civilisations over the centuries in order to make it more believable, dramatic, or even frightening to the adherents. Don't you remember your parents telling you that you would go to the eternal burning fire if you told a lie?'"

         I laughed, as it was indeed my own case.

         "So everything is relative' Jack went on, "And these Hindu Gods may look quite absurd to a westerner,  if you took any of these Bengali Hindus here in this temple to a Baroque church in Europe, they'd feel an emotion very similar to yours now"

        I smiled to myself, as I had never thought of such a scenario.

         "Now if you consider that Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions, with roots going back over 1,000 years before Christianity - that has given it a very long time to evolve into its present manifestation. But the key to Hinduism is no more in the worship of four-armed plaster idols, than the key to Christianity is in going to church or saying multiple Hail Marys - the way is in observing the essential teachings - and Hinduism has a tremendous wealth of this in the Vedas, which include the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. In the last few decades, these teachings have attracted a growing number of westerners and continue to do so, even although Hinduism is not a proselytising faith - you cannot convert to it"

        He looked at me with his eyes mischievously sparkling

         "And there is certainly no Hindu equivalent of door-to-door missionaries, or television evangelists trying to 'convert' people in their sitting rooms whilst watching the box. Just imagine what these folks would think about that!"         

        We were both laughing by now.

         "So really, the quintessence of accepted religions in the world will teach you the same thing, as I believe that most of them were brought to us through divinely inspired prophets, such as Lord Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, and many other lesser known figures, like Baha'u'llah who founded the Ba'Hai faith for example. Of course the patterns and the colours, if you like, will vary enormously, but the basic fabric is the same - it has to be, as there cannot be one God or Creator or whatever for Europe and America, another for Asia, or Africa, and a different one for hill tribes, Australian aborigines, or the host of other cultures and peoples on this relatively tiny planet we inhabit"

        He emphasised it by pointing a forefinger towards the earth.

        "The problem is contained in two things - one is human tampering with the original pure teachings to suit people seeking power, for example to "justify" going to war; the other is blinkered thinking amongst adherents who do not have the vision or wisdom or common sense to see through the imperfections of their faith caused by these tamperings, thus causing them to swallow the lot"

        He shook his head despairingly.

        "That is why you have misguided people knocking on your front door peddling some dogma which they'll insist is the one and only way to God. More tragic are Catholics or Protestants willingly murdering each other, or Moslems and Hindus doing the same in the name of their religion. You cannot embrace a faith then use it as an excuse to kill someone who believes something a little different to you. To do so you become a heathen in the most diabolical sense"

        "So how would you define your own belief?" I asked

        "I'm told I'm an eclectic, which means you take the best from a number of other individual faiths, and apply them to your life, and I'm also a charismatic, which comes from the Greek 'charis' meaning grace. This refers to the action of the Holy Spirit in communicating God's love to mankind. We already talked about the Holy Spirit this morning, and my experience in Ireland which really forms the unshakable foundation for what I believe"

        "Can you tell me more about what actually happened that day?"

        Jack nodded. His eyes seemed to focus on some distant object.

        "I was staying in a gate lodge on the Irish border, before returning to Bangladesh in 1974. This was a remote place, and I was sitting there one afternoon when I experienced a complete change of  consciousness. There was no reason for this to happen - I was not in meditation, nor short of sleep, nor taking medication of any kind. Any psychiatrist would say it was an hallucination, but I know that it wasn't. It is not easy to describe, and it wasn't that intense, the best way I can relate it is to say that it was a moment of comfort, like my brain was resting on a cushion"

         He smiled, and turned to look at me.

         "That may sound crazy, but that's how it felt - I was totally relaxed, free of any tension, and my body felt fresh and clean, like I remember as a child. Then a thought formed in my mind - there was no voice, but the thought was not from within myself, it was an announcement of a presence which said: 'I am the Paraclete' Then came the most beautiful feeling of peace and well being, which slowly faded, and I returned to normal consciousness, wondering what 'Paraclete' meant, as I didn't know the meaning of the word. There was a dictionary just opposite me in the bookcase, but I didn't look at it for several days"

         His face took on a soft contemplative look.

         "When I did, I discovered it was the Holy Spirit, with reference to St John's gospel. This happened two days before Pentecost, which is the feast commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ."

         "And you say that this experience forms the whole basis of your faith?"

         "Yes, I have never ever doubted the existence of the Holy Spirit since that day, and I'm able to remain a Christian in that sense, but there was in fact another incident before that which happened on the farm in Wales, after I had started reading the bible when I made one of these very dangerous bargains like Faust did with Mephistopheles - something the church would definitely advise you not to go in for!"

         He broke off. I looked at him expectantly.

         "Go on" I urged

         "Well, I prayed for a sign of God's existence - as I really didn't know beyond my own intuition if anything I was reading was true. So I asked for some absolute proof, something which I could not mistake. I added that if this was given to me, I would do something constructive with the rest of my life - to carry out His work or His will in the world"

         "So how did you think you would receive such a sign?"

         "As I said, it's not something which the church would approve of - I opened the bible at random,and the pages parted at one of St Paul's letters to the Corinthians"

        He smiled pensively.

        "I was fortunate not to finish up with Numbers, or Deuteronomy, or lists of famines or wars. The strange thing also was that I didn't start reading at the top of the page where your eye would normally fall, but my finger was drawn involuntarily down the page, like it had a mind of its own"

        The image of Jack's strong heavy hand in these circumstances was vivid in my mind.

        "It stopped at a passage which had such extraordinary significance, that I had absolutely no doubt that this was in response to my prayer"

         "What did it say?" I said impatiently after a few seconds had elapsed.

        Jack replied slowly:

         "It said that a darkness had fallen on Israel, and the House of Jacob would not fulfill its destiny until Christ was recognised, and then the Jews and Christians would come together"

         He continued matter of factly:

         "Now since Paul was formerly Saul, the converted Jew, and I am Jacob - which is my official forename - and at that time a Jew who didn't recognise Christ, I really felt that this passage was as appropriate as one could wish. Since then I have tried to carry out in medical work in a away that I think would be the teachings of Christ. It's as simple as that"

        "And that propelled you into the Catholic faith?"

         "Yes, as I mentioned, at that time, I felt that it was the closest one to what Christ actually taught, this being at the time of Vatican 2 - alas, this is no longer the case"

         He was shaking his head.

         "If there hadn't been a Vatican 2 and a Pope John 23rd, I'd never have become a Catholic. What they were promising in the mid-60's stopped being done when he died, and succeeding Popes reversed Vatican 2 in my opinion"

         His normally soft spoken voice had taken on a more forceful quality.

         "I was assured then by a very sincere priest in Dublin that my objection to the church's stand on population control - and particularly the effect it had on third world countries was groundless - it was all about to change. I believed it, and so did many priests and nuns. This was just before Humanae Vitae, which represented a movement rejecting Vatican 2 in terms of population control in 1968, and the previous teachings were reinstated. From that time onwards, I began to fade out"

         "When did you finally leave it behind?"

         "After arriving in Bangladesh as a doctor in 1972 and seeing the so-called devout bourgeois Catholics' total indifference to the tens of thousands of refugees, which I simply couldn't believe"

         "And that was the end?" I asked

         "Yes - basically" he replied

        "So you never go to church now at all?' I asked after a long silence.

        "Not for any form of personal worship, but of course I would go for weddings and funerals of people who are close. Other than that the church means nothing to me as I'm so aware of these theatrical elements"

        "But don't you think they're necessary for most people?" I asked.  

         "Yes, of course" he agreed. "They're important to bring in people, and to introduce children to Christ. People need a place to be baptised, get married, and have a place from which they are laid to rest. If you took away the church, how would people bury their dead? The message at the graveside by the priest in all his special clothes, his voice, his actions, all these bring a message of great comfort, and if you haven't got someone conveying that to you in a very special way, there's a great emptiness otherwise"

         He reflected for a moment. 

          "You can tell your children not to worry if grandma has died and say she's in the arms of Jesus, and
they'll believe it. They'll probably remember it when their parents die, and feel they'll see them again one day with God - so it provides a good basis for getting through life and all its tragedies"

         "So the theatre is actually important" I affirmed

         "Yes, - but you can reach a stage where maybe all the meaning is in the theatre and nowhere else - and that's when it gets really difficult. I would never say to anyone that they're just a bourgeois Catholic going to church and it's all a load of nonsense - it isn't, as the church can bring God into your life, and it's very important.  But many people, all their lives, fail to see the true message amongst the theatre, and go back home each time after receiving the Host with very little idea what they've actually received. Here in Calcutta for example, anyone who is a Christian coming out after receiving the Host and being able to ignore all the suffering on the streets, and not raising a finger to help - then they don't know what the Host is, or what Jesus taught. This is same as those supposedly devout Catholics in Bangladesh who chose to ignore the tens of thousands of refugees, whilst continuing with their theatrical performances in the church"

         He shook his head slowly.

         "One reason I don't go to church is because I can't sit with people who are so intense when receiving the Host - it's like a great spiritual experience that they conjure up for themselves every week. You see, if they did understand what is symbolic in the Host and the wine, they could never remain indifferent to suffering as they do, and be able to keep coming up with countless excuses why they can do nothing"

         "So what replaces the church for you?" 

         He looked at me pensively.

         "I don't think you have to replace the church with anything if you don't need it in the first place. If you want to talk with God, you meditate or pray or do both, and where you do it is immaterial"

         "Do you pray for your patients?"

         "In special cases yes, when I become directly involved and close to them"

         "Like the man who died yesterday?"

         "Yes I knew he was going to die, he knew also, and he was very frightened of it, that's why I wanted to see him one more time today to try and reassure him somehow. He knew everything was finished, and just before we sent him off to Kalighat he took a hold of my hand, and looked at me. There was an instant feeling of closeness, of togetherness, a kind of deep understanding between us in that moment. It's something extremely profound which I can't explain, but I've experienced it many times, and it's very real, very tragic, but very beautiful too."

         "Will you pray for him now he's gone?" I asked

         "Yes I will" said Jack, "Several previous experiences tell me that my prayers are received after death"

         I waited for him to continue. His face had already softened, and he spoke with obvious deep affection.

         "Some years ago we had a terribly unfortunate woman with a cleft palate and lip. She was originally an assistant nurse, not fully qualified, and probably because of her awful physical appearance and other people's reaction to it, she eventually had a nervous breakdown, and went completely to pieces. Her employer and family then just threw her out on the street"

         I had no difficulty imagining the awful plight of a woman in such circumstances, even without the physical deformity, in any city, far less in Calcutta.

         "She came to work for us in Middleton Row helping with the patients, and slept on the pavement in Wellesley Street which is nearby, but she was persecuted constantly by others who wanted her space. She was with us quite some time until one day she became seriously ill, but dressed in rags as she was, no hospital would have taken her, so she had to go to Mother Teresa's. She died there the same night"

         He bore a pained expression.

         "I was totally devastated by this, and went to the cemetery with some flowers, but they'd given me the wrong date, as she wasn't buried until the next day. I left the wreath at the spot, and returned the following afternoon only to discover that she'd already been buried. Mine were the only flowers and they had all shrivelled up, with rubbish and filth blowing all over the grave, as this was part of the cemetery for destitutes where nothing is tended"

         He looked at me with an immense sadness in his eyes.

         "You know, I stood there and thought what a terrible life she had, just filled with misery and dejection. A really tragic existence, in a physical form which was so repulsive to herself and all around her, with no chance of any kind of happiness, far less the elementary dignity that every human being should have. Then - after all that, to experience this awful death, and just be dumped in the ground anonymously, amongst all this stinking garbage and dirt....."

        He broke off.

        "..... So I prayed for her, amongst all this devastation, thinking that you really couldn't get a human life much worse than this, when suddenly I just felt she was telling me from beyond the grave - I didn't hear any voice, just an unmistakable message that it's OK, don't worry, it's all right. My feelings of grief and mourning disappeared then - I just knew she was telling me that her suffering was over, and everything was OK"

        He was silent for a moment, then continued.

           "There was another case in quite different circumstances, when I received the same kind of assurance"

         "So even although some prayers are not answered, for reasons we don't know, they obviously are powerful enough to reach people like that poor woman?"

         "Absolutely" said Jack, "and I also believe that it can work the other way"

         "You mean dead people praying for the living?" I asked somewhat incredulously.

         "Exactly that. I undoubtedly owe much of what we have achieved with the clinics to the prayers of people who are alive, but I am also convinced that it is also due to prayers of people who have already passed on, and in particular an Irish nun I worked with in Bangladesh, who had terminal cancer. She was also a doctor, so she knew exactly what was in store. I remember vividly her giving a tea party for those of us who were leaving Bangladesh - with cakes and all kinds of goodies, which she insisted on serving herself. At the end of it, I put my arms round her to say goodbye, and underneath her loose clothing were only bones, there was no flesh at all"

         He paused and looked at me.

         "I shall never forget the feeling of holding that dying woman's body. And in the same way as I have described before, when she looked at me, there was that profound look and moment of absolute closeness. Shortly after, when she was very close to death, she dictated a letter to me as she was too weak to write, saying that she would pray for my work when she was dead. I had never even considered such a possibility, but I do now. After she died, my work did expand greatly"

        He nodded slowly.

        "It could be coincidence of course, but this was such an extraordinary thing to do, I believe because she was so close to the end, she knew exactly what was going to happen after death - this was not something she'd learned in the convent, but something I think you can only grasp when you're about to leave this life completely"

        "Do you still feel her presence?" I asked.

        "No, and the strange thing is that although we had worked together on occasions, we weren't all that close, at least not until that last meeting and deeply emotional goodbye at her tea party."

        It was an unforgettable feeling to sit here with Jack in such surroundings, and learn of these things. Late afternoon, had softened the sunlight, and I was studying Jack's face illuminated by the soft glow. He caught my look, and shouldered his bag.

      "It's well past time for afternoon tea lad, and there is little chance of it being served here" he announced in a serious voice, then laughed.

        "The Jolly Old Fairlawn?" I suggested. 

        "The Jolly Old Fairlawn it is" nodded Jack.

        We were heading for a special place.

HOME PAGE                    NEXT PAGE

 Chapter Links: