CHAPTER 12

The Fairlawn Hotel, Sudder Street, Calcutta.

COMMAND

        The obedient drone of a farm tractor complemented rather than disturbed the sounds of the Welsh countryside. It blended softly with the skylark's song high above. and the distant wail of the gulls wheeling white over the sea beyond the cliff top.

        The lone silhouette at the controls blended equally well with the landscape and viewed from a distance, he might easily have been a life size model, or someone motionless in meditation, as the large machine carried him in successive parallels over the field.

        The heavy sweet smell of manure mixed with the breeze, and the driver contentedly let his mind drift, lulled by the throb of the engine and the gentle motion of huge tyres turning in soft earth.

        It was not a moment to receive a peremptory order from somewhere beyond his own consciousness, but the information came resolutely and forcefully from nowhere. It was almost as though his head had been opened up to receive it, and was closed again immediately, leaving the command permanently in place.

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       If it ever closes its green-painted iron gates for good, The Fairlawn will be sadly missed by connoisseurs of character and charisma as one of the great little hotels of the world. It will not be particularly fondly recalled for its cuisine, or for its functionality, which combines idiosyncratic plumbing, and groaning air conditioners set in a marvellous mix and mismatch of mementos and colonial memorabilia. Instead, it will be remembered and treasured as a travellers' tryst, a unique place where friendships seem to form faster than anywhere else in the world - "a magnet for kindred spirits" as one regular guest aptly described it.

        This tiny relic of the Raj is a globetrotter's bijou, where visitors have congregated and communicated for decades. Built in 1783, it has been owned and managed by Violet ("Vi") Smith and her late husband Ted since 1962. Its 18 rooms have accommodated an amazing medley of guests, from here-to-find-myself hippies, right up to famous film stars, and international celebrities. Whether you are eating in the communal dining room or sitting on the garden terrace under strings of coloured light bulbs in a perennial ambience of Christmas, it is probably Calcutta's prime location for fascinating human encounters.

         A number of Jack's volunteers already surrounded one table cluttered with teapots, and our arrival interrupted what seemed like a deep philosophical discussion.

        Whilst I secured a leafy spot for two and cornered a waiter, Jack went over to speak to them. Shortly after there was a loud detonation of laughter, and I looked up to see the previously sedate and serious group now rocking with mirth. Jack returned with a mischievous smile and sat down.

         "That sounded like a really dirty one" I said teasingly.

         "Just a little medical humour" he replied

         "Nothing to do with stethoscopes?" I asked.

         Jack laughed and shook his head.

         "But what made you become a doctor in the first place?" I asked belatedly, as the question had been on my mind for a while. "I thought you graduated in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics?"

         As if he was unsure how to address the question, Jack fiddled with the shoulder strap of his bag, frayed and discoloured after months of wear in the hot humidity.

         "You might say I was ordered to" he said contemplatively. His face took on a serious look in sudden contrast to the frivolity of a few minutes before.

        "I mentioned this morning that if you open yourself to the Holy Spirit, it will use you, and it might do so in a way that might not be exactly to your liking, at least in the beginning"

        I nodded, fascinated. The tea arrived via an unsmiling waiter, who unloaded the metal tray of cups, saucers plus pot and cosy, and left without a word. 

        "Well, if you're a 34-year-old farmer with a built-in fear of studying any of the sciences, you can imagine how it felt to be, 'told' or rather 'ordered' to become a doctor, so to speak. That, in a nutshell, was what happened -

        Jack broke off, the image of the event coming into sharp focus.

        "I was driving the tractor one day at the farm in Wales, when a thought was placed in my head - no voice, no burning bush, no thunderclaps, just an irrevocable indelible message that I must become a doctor, something which remained inside me, and which I couldn't possibly ignore, quite impossible, if not ridiculous, as it seemed"

       This was a fascinating revelation. The buzz of voices around us seemed to fade away, and I felt as though suspended in a cocoon of non-time.

        "Hard to obey"  I ventured, superfluously

                  "Yes, but I had no doubt as to where the message had come from, nor could I in any way discount its validity, so I started writing that same night to various universities in Britain asking if they would consider taking a mature medical student. I knew that the possibility of them accepting an aging arts graduate was almost zero, but I began studying chemistry physics and biology in Swansea just in case, got someone to look after the farm for me during weekdays, and I'd go back every weekend."

         Jack sat back in the chair, holding the cup and saucer against his chest and sipped slowly several times. His eyes took on a special expression, like a gaze at something distant, a look I was becoming increasingly familiar with, as things surfaced in his memory.

         "There was a strange sequence of happenings after that. First, my physics teacher told me about a special course in medicine in Ireland through something they called the Conjoint Board, and I scribbled this down in my exercise book without thinking. But another really major worry - even supposing that I managed somehow to find a place in medical school - was selling the farm. These were very depressed days, and farm labourers earned more than owners, so who on earth would want to buy a farm?"

         He held an upturned palm in the air

         "Then for some unknown reason, a random thought came to mind one day when I was looking after the sheep on this headland overlooking the sea, just north of Fishguard. This was that I'd never be able to sell the farm, or study medicine, until I could see the coast Ireland across the water"

        He laughed heartily, and continued

        "This was what you might call a bit of a tall order, as it had only been seen once in the last eight years during an exceptionally cold and clear winter's day. It was also a completely irrational thought, connected with nothing, but one day when I was seeing a friend off at the station in Fishguard, I saw the ferry boat, and on an complete impulse, phoned the couple who were helping on the farm to advise them where I was going - and hopped on the boat to Ireland, not really knowing fully why I was doing it"

        He laughed again.

        "It was a totally mad and quite irrational thing to do, as I had very little money with me, nor a change of clothes obviously, and I had to sleep in a barn as I didn't have enough to pay a hotel. Next morning, I cleaned myself up in a barber's shop, and hitch hiked up to Dublin"

        I was smiling to myself, imagining Jack crawling out from a barn, and sitting in a hairdresser's chair covered in little bits of straw. An unlikely applicant for medical school, indeed.

        "I applied first to Trinity College in Dublin, but I was too old, then went to the College of Surgeons, where through some incredible fluke really - can you believe it - I was accepted! I returned to the farm with one problem solved, and discovered two prospective buyers for the farm - who bid against each other, which resulted in a very successful sale and solved problem number two! Finally, when I came to take my first exams, I found they were in fact run by this Conjoint Board which my physics master had told me about, and in a roundabout way he'd told me exactly what to do, long before I stumbled on it myself.

         "And how did you find the studies – I mean with your weakness in the sciences?" I asked

         "I didn't honestly think I had the ability, and was extremely nervous that I wouldn't make the grade, but I felt compelled to go ahead anyway, even although I didn't think I would manage it"

         "But having been told in such a fashion, didn't you feel that you would somehow be carried through it, having more or less been pushed into it"

         "I didn't dare think or assume anything; it was all just extremely hard work for someone who basically does not have the ability or aptitude in the sciences"

         "And the message on the tractor?" I asked, "Was from the Holy Spirit?"

        He smiled.

         "I have no absolutely doubt about that"

        The hotel terrace had rapidly filled up, and most tables were now occupied with an odd mixture of young and old; of tourists, aid agency personnel, social workers, businessmen, and numerous volunteers; either working for Jack, Mother Teresa, or both. Some were hotel residents, but many were not, and had simply stopped by to meet friends and share in the bonhomie. Dusk was settling over the city, and numerous bottles of beer were making their appearance as afternoon tea and biscuits made way for more serious refreshment. Somebody somewhere flicked a switch, and the snakes of coloured bulbs glowed dully in the hazy air, strung under trees, over branches, along walls, across trellises, and above our heads. 

        The majority of Jack's and Mother's volunteers stay in less grand surroundings, sleeping in cheap hotel dormitories on oft-used beds with lumpy mattresses, complete with permanently resident carnivorous insects. This combination of primitive accommodation, a diet dictated by parsimony, and the aftermath of numerous illnesses picked up along the way, give many of the old hands a gaunt look, with faces stained muddy yellow by the sun, except their eyes, set in pale grey circles in sockets and holding compassionate gazes.

        Suddenly curious, I asked

        "Who was your first volunteer Jack?"

        "It was a girl called Susan Davis - at least that was her name before she got married. Susan brought more volunteers from the hotel she was staying in, and it went from there really. There was another woman called Frances Meigh who worked with me full time back in 1981, and there's really an incredible story attached to Frances."

        Jack paused for a second, and shook his head, as if renewing his own astonishment at what he was about to reveal.  

         "She became subsequently a Greek Orthodox hermit, then gave it up and joined an order of nuns who live in this convent on Dartmoor. The convent is part of an abbey, and Frances sent me some history on it which revealed that the abbey had farms in St Dogmaels where I used to live. It turns out that sometime in the 14th century that my farm, and the next one to mine, possibly belonged to the abbey where Frances is now based!"

         We both ended up shaking our heads at this extraordinary coincidence.

         "Have you ever kept count of the volunteers who have worked for you?" I asked

         Jack laughed .

         "Goodness no - we have enough problems keeping records of our patients! Many volunteers do keep in touch, and set up fund raising activities in their own towns or communities wherever. A good number also return to Calcutta on subsequent visits, and it's immensely gratifying to see their continuing involvement"

         "What do you think motivates your volunteers Jack? I mean many tourists arrive here in Calcutta and cancel or postpone their onward travels, others move from working with Mother Teresa, and plenty more give up good comfortable jobs in their own country to fly out and join you"

         "Basically there are two types. There are the 'do-gooders' if you like, who imagine they're doing something fantastic by giving a tiny bit of what they possess to those who have almost nothing, and frankly it's no great sacrifice for them to give up some of their time or money and then just go home and feel great about what they've done. Some people may derive some deluded satisfaction out of doing something like this, but it has no moral significance. What has real significance is when, for example, a nurse has completed her or his training and gives up a good job sometimes for several years, and at considerable personal expense flies out here to help, with no salary, working extremely hard under sometimes impossible conditions, often getting ill in the process, and for no other reason than simply giving – that person has earned for themselves something they probably won't understand until they're dead - it's there as a credit entry in her or his cosmic account so to speak.. They may feel the gratitude of those they are helping, even although gratitude here is not expressed the way we do in the west. If they don't, it doesn't matter, as I believe that it is all part of a very complex process of loving and helping which will eventually bear fruit on a large scale later on"

        He paused and smiled

        "Of course one should not do such things with the feeling of getting or expecting some credit karmically, but probably only saints can take such unselfish actions without thinking about their spiritual advancement. But all this business of people coming here for a short period and 'getting more out of it than they are giving' this frankly has no validity, and when they die, it will die with them"

        "But there must be many short-term volunteers who go back home and don't forget about it, rather, they use the experience to examine their own faith and distil their own philosophies, perhaps to carry out some work of their own of a similar nature?" I added.

         "Of course" said Jack emphatically, "there are a great many, and that is just another wonderful example of the Holy Spirit touching people. There are also many I think who sign up with the 'do-gooder' motive of getting some kind of glory or satisfaction out of it for themselves - and then being so deeply affected by witnessing suffering disease and death that they dramatically alter their lives as a result. I often see - just like in the eyes of small children - some very special qualities shining in the eyes of many of our volunteers"

         The noise of voices and laughter in the garden had increased in intensity it seemed, and with it came a special kind of atmosphere. It was now quite dark, and the reflection from the light bulbs shone on the glazed surface of our empty teapot, which was already accumulating dew.

         Jack picked it up, and made a mock gesture of filling his cup, draining a few drops out of the vertical spout.

         "I think the sun is now definitely over the horizon" he announced slowly with a knowing look.

         "So it is" I affirmed.

         I gesticulated to a waiter, silhouetted against the lights from the reception and the dining room beyond it. He nodded, then zigzagged through the tables towards us, arriving with two bushy eyebrows raised, signifying his readiness to take our order.

         "Two beers please' I said happily, already contemplating the taste of the malty brew.

         "Very cold please" I added loudly and urgently, in an essential afterthought, just as his back was disappearing from view. A tilt of his head signified the message had been safely received.

         "Have you ever had trouble with volunteers trying to convert patients or fellow workers?" I asked

          "Only once. She was a local girl who tried to tell everybody about Jesus, but she stopped preaching when we requested her not to. Occasionally we also have folks wearing religious artifacts around their necks, which when dangling in front of some poor non Christian villager's nose is neither dignified, aesthetic or practical, so we normally request that they stow them beneath their clothes – closer to their immortal soul"

         He laughed

         "What do you think about gurus, gospellers and religious sects?" I asked

         Jack took a deep breath, and expelled it as a sigh.

         "Some may be genuine, but they are the ones you are least likely to hear about. The high profile versions with all the hype only intend to attain power over people, and to manipulate them - and they very often succeed in the most incredible way. So much so in fact that hundreds of otherwise intelligent people will happily part with large sums of money to feed these organisations and will swallow their teachings without question, as they are usually cleverly mixed with some aspects which sound credible. It's very satisfying to the perpetrators if it works, and established religions are easily converted into something which is a power base and an ego trip for gurus or hot gospellers like Billy Graham. The extreme example you will remember is the case of so-called "Reverend" Jim Jones in Guiana where over nine hundred people committed suicide back in 1979. Can you imagine? Nearly a thousand people dying in the name of some madman!"

         He shook his head in disbelief.

         "But aside of cults and so on, the end result of power bases can be very bad even in large ashrams, or the established churches in the west. Just consider the life of Christ, and relate it to Rome, Canterbury and many other centres of established religions, and you can see how much they have strayed and degenerated from the basic essence. There are of course beautiful things and wonderful people doing tremendous work within these churches, but many are power mad, and as a whole have moved too much away from the original teachings. The Buddhists and Hindus are not exempt either – far too much effort seems to be wasted on building temples and accumulating materials and decoration to put in them, rather than helping people to concentrate on and understand the essential message contained in their religions"

        The beer arrived in tall glistening brown bottles, one looking oddly naked, having surrendered its label to the soup of ice and water where they had lain. The first frothy mouthful of this chilled brew had us both pursing our lips with pleasure. Jack set the glass down and drew rings with its wetness on the wooden table top.

        A faint smile appeared, and his face softened. 

        "One of the simplest and most memorable things I ever remember happening within the church was when I came a financial cropper in Dublin during medical school, and for various reasons I didn't have the funds to continue. This was an absolutely desperate situation, and I would never ever have qualified in medicine if it hadn't been for this very quiet, partly church-run charity - which didn't even have a proper name - they just called it the 'A' Fund. The priest on the committee just handed me enough money to continue - and simply said that it was a gift! I was completely overwhelmed by this gesture, and when I started work as an intern, I saved up enough to pay it back - and had a terrible job persuading them to accept it, which they only did when I pointed out that it could be used to help somebody else"

        I had visions of Jack some twenty years younger standing pleadingly in front of this diminutive priest with a handful of banknotes, and wearing one of his intense expressions.

        "The marvellous thing is also that this wonderful man has supported my work ever since by sending regular donations, and on his eightieth birthday, when his own insurance policy paid out, he sent the whole lot to me for our work - now that is the wonderful message of Christianity which survives amongst all the politics, and which still makes the churches worthwhile!"

         I stared in to my beer for a few moments, watching the bubbles form on the inside of the glass and detach themselves leisurely in long strings to meet the froth at the top.

         "So amongst all the altered texts of prophets, religious politics and theatrical performances, mad cults and deranged gurus, what would you advise anyone to do if they feel some kind of deep spiritual need, yet recognise all these obstacles searching for a true belief?"          

        It was Jack's turn to contemplate the contents of his glass.

         "It's different really for each person" he began,

         "But if you can pray or meditate, and do so regularly and insistently, and just open yourself to God - you will get the help and direction you need. You don't really have to search that much, because basically everything is laid out for you - I mean the teaching is there, in various forms, some of it altered and added to, yes, but all you have to do is look at it sensibly, critically, and when it has 'the ring of truth' apply it to your own life"

         He thought for a moment

         "And if you read, in a calm way, parts of the Bible, the Koran, The Bhagavad Gita or the teachings of Buddha, and come to bits that sound phoney, exaggerated, or like a fairy tale - just skip those. There's a thing called the 'Perennial Philosophy', as described by Aldous Huxley - a continuing revelation that is found in old Hindu scriptures where you find a clear expression of the Holy Spirit, of the Creator's spirit in the world. Buddha's teachings also form great guidelines as to how we should organise our lives, the same goes for the Koran, and the traditional teachings of Judaism, even if the latter also projects fanaticism and power building and erection of hierarchies. As I've said before, there are probably no 'pure' teachings - i.e. that haven't been somewhere exaggerated by the writers, or tampered with by bodies with a vested interest over the centuries, but the essential message is not altered, that is what is important and that is what we should concentrate on - not all the trappings or the decoration that goes with it, which can keep you preoccupied for a lifetime"

        He paused, and I followed his stare around the garden, until his eyes came back to mine.

         "I strongly believe that the first sincere and rumbling prayers of someone who is willing to open himself to God, carry far more power than the eloquent words of some renowned theologian who has forgotten Christ's message amongst all the stained glass, the ceremony, religious politics and millions of pounds worth of church real estate. Prayer needs neither techniques nor fancy composition, nor velvet-bound books filled with eloquent words written by someone else. Real prayer is what comes straight from your heart and onto your lips"

        "What about a personal philosophy? I mean just a basic formula to live by?" I asked

        "If you're looking for guidelines for your life, love - disinterested love for other people and the belief that they are created in the image of God - this is the basis of everything, and is the thing which will direct you to the most successful form of living"

          I nodded

          "At the same time, pause, and consider the wonder of creation - what we might call unthinkingly the 'everyday world' Let me take you back to the children this morning at the school - you saw those eyes, and it affected you, as it does many people. Christ’s reference to little children is no accident - until they are 'corrupted' by material life, they really do reflect the divine, and it is fascinating to consider the similarity between the look of a tiny innocent child at the start of his life, with that of a dying destitute at the end of his, as we have discussed - both reflecting in different ways this glimpse of spirituality. It is during these extremes perhaps that the veil is momentarily lifted for us, but during the rest of our lives most of us live in the ‘everyday' world which obscures everything because of material attachments, unless we access it through prayer and meditation - which brings me back to my original recommendation of how to start your search"

          He placed both broad hands on his glass, and stared at them.

          "Simple, sincere, but insistent prayer will call the Holy Spirit to you, and you will get all the direction you need. Persistent meditation or concentrating on creation will eventually lift the comer of the veil. Doing this, people begin to see each child as a miracle, surgeons start to realise that what they previously called matter-of-factly 'the healing process' after cutting tissue apart is yet another miracle. You do not need hallucinogenic drugs to be thrilled by our worldly surroundings, just a little bit of thought will suffice!"

         He laughed.

         "Most of us say we're too busy, or we put it off until tomorrow, but if today you combine prayer, meditation, and apply the essential basic teachings of Christ, Buddha. Mohammed or any of the great prophets to your own life then you have the most powerful spiritual fuel imaginable"

         He paused and reflected for a moment

         "And once you begin, the rest follows" he added softly

         Waiters wearing impressive turbans had now appeared in force in the dining room, administering finishing touches to tables already set for dinner. Jack looked tired.

         He looked at his battered watch, angling it to the coloured lights.

         "I'm going home" he announced emphatically, "I've had it for today"

         One of the waiters strode up to the polished brass dinner gong sitting atop a sideboard, and with practiced expertise, announced the commencement of service in a long insistent string of echoing notes.

        Jack was already on his feet and shouldering his bag. I sensed his urgency to be alone back in that tiny room, with his private thoughts. I hardly dared ask if he could spare me more time the next day, and he read my discomfort.

         "If you're up to it, we could take an early morning walk on the Maidan tomorrow, followed by you buying us breakfast - if you're feeling generous!" he laughed. "After that, we'll see"

         "That's fine" I said gratefully

         "I'll meet you here at 0600 am then" he said  "And don't drink too much of this beer tonight. I don't want to have to drag you out of bed!"

         He smiled, and was gone.

        As I entered the dining room, a waiter caught me in his raised eyebrows, and nodded to the one empty chair left at a table of six. Communal dining is one of the Fairlawn’s biggest benefits. You never know what kind of fascinating people you will share your food with.   

         "I just got in this afternoon from Sikkim" I heard one voice say as I approached the small group.

        A mixture of faces looked up as I sat down, and smiles all around acknowledged my arrival.

        "Wasn't that Dr Jack you were sitting with out there?" asked a fresh-faced young girl, who looked as though she'd flown directly out from England.

        "Yes" I said, "It was"

        But my mind was still listening to Jack's voice and that very simplest of sentences:

And once you begin, the rest follows.

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