The Maidan, Calcutta, at Dawn


        At the end of this crystal clear autumn day, the gathering twilight had already gently nudged the contours of the Welsh countryside into soft focus, and stolen the horizon from Saint George's Channel down below. The track which followed the cliff top however retained a strange luminousity of its own, and zig-zagged gently ahead, darkened only by the ragged herd of cows which headed along it towards the farmhouse, and home.

        The farmer was feeling the rewards of hard work at a day's end, and the ache in his legs looked forward to dissolving on the surface of his favourite chair. The bobbing head at his side belonged to his small son, whose aspirations to be a real farmer were reflected in oversized wellington boots, which made a curious popping sound as his tiny steps raced to keep up with his father's strides.

        Suddenly, a full moon previously hiding behind the rim of the cliffs soared into view with unusual and astonishing speed. It hung in the sky, almost close enough reach out and touch, bigger than he had ever seen it in his life, its craters shadowed and sharp-edged on the silver surface. 

        The little boy for a moment stood motionless, then jumped up and down in his boots, crying gently,

        "Light! Daddy! Light!"


        The alarm clock emitted a most unwelcome sound in the darkness of my hotel room. Simultaneously, an unnecessarily loud banging on the door heralded the arrival of the "bed tea" which I had ordered for 5.30am the night before, just prior to turning in, indeed with too much beer, and determined that Jack's prophecy about pulling me out of bed would not come true.

         I reached our rendezvous point in time to see Jack's figure, complete with shoulder bag, pacing up Sudder Street towards me, passing by and smiling at the small collection of people brave enough to bathe at the long- handled water pumps on the pavement. The weather was still cool.

         We passed the flank of the Indian museum towards Chowringhee, and the Maidan, the latter still half- hidden in the morning mist. Many of the pavement dwellers were greeting Jack as we passed them. One old man sitting with match-thin crossed legs clasped two wrists together level with his wrinkled face in tribute. His hands were completely missing, yet he still had a smile, which he offered us with a toothless mouth.

         "One of your patients?" I asked needlessly.

         "Yes, about 4,000 suffer from leprosy, as getting treatment is difficult, due to the stigma attached to it"

         "It is incredible how he can still smile" I remarked, experiencing a painful feeling of self-comparison walking on strong limbs, nursing a mild hangover, with money in my pocket, and a plane ticket to civilisation in the hotel safe.

        "Have you ever read Rudyard Kipling's poem about the leper?

        I shook my head.

        "I’ll try get a copy of it for you before you leave" he said, breaking off to take my elbow as we crossed the wide multi-laned main artery of Chowringhee, along which vehicles moved with even more alarming speed than usual in the light early morning traffic. Once safely across, he resumed:

        "It's the story of an unhappy courtier - someone demented by depression, seeing a leper and his wife, who are both filled with joy, despite the absolutely terrible state the man is in with his disease. When he asks his companion how on earth they can be happy, he answers that they are both filled with the spirit of pure love"

        "Back to the Holy Spirit" I said thoughtfully. "But do you think that God - the Holy Spirit - is present more in people undergoing great suffering than in ordinary mortals?" I asked.

        "Yes, I do" said Jack emphatically.

        "At least that is my own experience. Perhaps the suffering or proximity to death opens some people more to God, or perhaps God chooses to make his presence more easily felt, or maybe it's a mixture of both. Either way there is no doubt in my mind that this is the case. I've also read accounts of some events happening in the Nazi concentration camps, and the same phenomenon appears there too"   

         We walked in silence for a while, and finally reached the Maidan, Calcutta's equivalent of Hyde Park, the greenery helping somewhat to reduce the city's toxic pollution. The grass was wet with dew, and groups of young boys playing football were already just discernible through the mists. Several joggers also ran past, including one middle aged foreigner, probably a guest from one of the swish hotels, whose whole overweight body shuddered as his short steps on stiff legs successively hit the ground. Sounds like a miniature steam train issued from a gasping mouth set in a round florid face who bore a mixed expression of pain and determination.

         Jack shook his head as the wheezes receded behind us.

         "Abuse your body for decades, then torture it like that to earn yourself an even more premature death" 

        We both laughed sadly at the irony.

        "What do you think about euthanasia Jack?" I asked.

         A distant rumble added a little drama to the question, and at first I could not place the sound, which was somewhere between a distant avalanche and grumbling thunder. The answer materialised as a ghostly tram, which emerged ethereally from the mist and halted at the stop not far from our path, but strangely there were no passengers waiting to board. We watched until it disappeared back in to the mist, both wondering why it had stopped in the first place.

         "I don't regard it as a big issue" Jack replied, rummaging inside his shoulder bag and producing a thick newspaper, which he rolled up and held like a baton in one hand. I wondered if he anticipated meeting some ferocious dog, rabies being a serious problem in this part of the world.

        "Like most other doctors, I've played my part in that process. Most would not admit it, because it's what they call a cognisable offence, but in fact it's quite a common and accepted practice in most western countries. I've done it, acting on instructions, but I was the one who actually carried it out, and I have done it to somebody I really was fond of”

        He paused, and we continued walking along the path in silence, my mind calling up images of Jack at somebody's bedside, with a look of intense caring on his face.

        Another muffled rumble preceded the appearance of a second tram, and the first car horns were now audible from the city as the traffic thickened, the sounds mixing oddly with the strident cawing of crows and jackdaws on trees and rooftops. Calcutta was waking up. I was wondering whether Jack wanted to discuss the subject further when he suddenly went on:

        "We did it routinely in the hospital I was working in, every Monday morning. We never had enough equipment in the Intensive Care unit, and we needed some of that in the operating theatres, so every Monday at nine in the morning we had to decide who was going to make it, and who was not. The ones who we thought would not make it we took off the ventilators and let them go, so that we could use them on others who stood a better chance"

        He broke off, and signalled with his newspaper up ahead along the path.

         "One of my favourite perches" he said with satisfaction pointing to a stone wall, "where you can see nicely in all directions"

         Jack divided the newspaper and placed the two parts on the dew-soaked surface for us to sit on.

         I smiled to myself about my phantom dog.

        He leaned forward, his hands clasped, resting inner forearms on spread knees, and looked at the ground thoughtfully, curling and uncurling his toes inside his sandals.

         "Equipment aside - that's a resolvable issue - I recall a cancer patient whose actual condition we didn't realise until exploratory surgery. When we opened him up, we could see it was hopeless. The tumour had spread extensively, and he had no chance of surviving - only the prospect of horribly severe pain, which he was already suffering. We put him on an intravenous drip to feed him, as he couldn't eat normally, and we added alcohol to it, so that the next day he said he felt fine, not realizing that he was slightly intoxicated."

        "Did he know about his cancer?" I asked.

        "No, but of course we told his family that there was no hope, and their concern was of course for his needless suffering. We had added morphine to his drip to relieve his intense pain, and we slowly increased the amount...."

        He paused for a moment as if remembering the moment, then added softly:

        "Until he stopped breathing"  

       There was a change in the quality of light as the clinging mists gradually evaporated, and the early sun broke through, flooding the area with soft golden glow. The effect was dramatic, like a change of scene in a play, and made the green expanses look almost surreally beautiful.

        "It was the first case I had dealt with like that, but I've never regretted it. I could have gone to prison at that time, or even now, for what I did. Of course I did it under instruction, although I wouldn't have used that as a defence, but every one of us involved in the case agreed that it should be done – and we did it. It was a very merciful and quick death for him, and that kind of handling of a terminal case is justifiable I think. The problem comes of course when the prognosis is not clear cut, such as someone who may or may not come out of a coma, or when a person who is not immediately going to die expresses a wish to do so - handling these is very difficult, but great advances have been made in the control of pain which helps many patients and their family through the final stages"

        The first unmistakable sound of a cricket ball striking a willow bat came ringing through the cool thin air, and behind us a couple of young men in whites, even at this hour, were taking turns to bowl slowly to each other using a single stump as a wicket, and batting the ball back defensively. It was curious to think that in just over an hour they would be probably both be sitting at an office desk somewhere in the bowels of the city.

        "That's possibly why they thrash us in Test Matches so often" said Jack. "They really do take it seriously"

        We both laughed.

        "Do you think euthanasia is also practiced in Christian medical centres?" I asked.

        Jack nodded, and continued nodding as he was speaking.

        "Yes, I once saw in a hospital run by nuns where some of the charts were marked 'not for resuscitation' so that in case of a cardiac arrest or whatever, they would withhold treatment and let the patient die. It was the same with children or newborns who were anyway beyond hope - if they subsequently developed say, pneumonia they would not give antibiotics, and let the child pass away – so as long as you are really sure of what you're doing, I see nothing wrong in helping someone to die"

        The sun was sitting on the roof of a distant building, casting light everywhere, and painting long shadows from the trees. It spotlighted movement all around, creating the feeling of a painting suddenly becoming coming to life. Calcutta was now wide awake, and the intermittent car horns which had provided the initial reveille with the cawing of crows, now eclipsed almost every other sound in a cacophonous chorus from the beginnings of the rush hour.

        "Do you believe that evil exists as an entity, something like Satan, or the 'Unholy Spirit'?" I ventured

        After a slow exhalation he looked at me, as though he was recalling some painful memory.

        "Yes, I do. The belief came suddenly in Dhaka. The situation was so bad in the famine, I did believe in the devil - if you want to call him that. I couldn't find any other reasoning to explain the rich bourgeoisie callously ignoring dying people the way they did - shopkeepers would find someone semi-comatose on their doorstep - a fellow Muslim dying of hunger - and somehow be able to pour a bucket of water on the creature, shouting at him or her to go and die somewhere else. It was just incredible that such total indifference to another human being could exist"

        Jack was shaking his head and staring into the distance.

        "I also had the misfortune to witness the happening and the aftermath of Hindu-Moslem riots, and as a doctor treating the subsequent injuries, of realising what tragically hideous things people are capable of doing to one another. I was riding in a pedal rickshaw in Dhaka, going through narrow back lanes. We could hear the commotion in the distance, but had no idea what it could be. When we emerged on to the main street there was this ugly riot, with the Muslims chasing the Hindus down the road. It was absolute blood lust, the pursuers obviously enjoying every minute of it, and I can only think they were possessed by some powerful force which allows ordinary people to carry out hideous acts of violence on an enormous scale, and actually take pleasure in doing it. The same happened in Nazi Germany, in Cambodia, former Yugoslavia and recently in Rwanda - to mention only a few"

        He was silent for a moment, then went on:

         "Horrors on a small scale remain equally impossible to forget. Also in Dhaka, I remember when the authorities gave the order to clear a whole slum area. They came with bulldozers to level the shanty dwellings, killing a baby on the first day, and a second one the day later"

         He looked at me.

         "I mean what kind of power grips a man so that he can knowingly demolish the shack of a slum dweller, knowing from the parents' cries and screams that there is a tiny child inside?  The joy of persecuting people like this - the hatred is so powerful, it's like they're inspired by some universal force - which is, if you like - the force of evil"

         He paused, closed his eyes, and tilted his head backwards, his chin almost pointing at the sun, now low in the sky, and exhaled forcibly.

         "The excuse for clearing the area was in order to build a road, yet eighteen months later, just before I was deported, work hadn't even started. These two infants died for nothing."

         Jack's deportation from Bangladesh I knew had come after he had exposed a traffic in children which implicated some influential figures in government, as well as Bangladeshis working for western charities. He had worked and campaigned tirelessly, both to put a stop to the practice, and to trace missing children. His expulsion became necessary to protect the reputation and the pockets of those involved as his protests against the practice gathered momentum.

        "It must have been hard for you to be kicked out after - how many years?" I asked.

        "1972 to 1979" he replied "Seven years, after which we lost everything - everything that had been paid for by the donations and goodwill of people in the west - was looted by the Bangladeshi government. This included 2 farms, a clinic for 90 in-patients, a settlement for 50 evicted slum families, farm stock, vehicles, crops, foodstuffs - the lot. Our freehold farm was secretly put up for auction, and the local farmers got it I suppose"

        Jack's normally peaceful eyes were bright with anger as he resurrected the memory.

        "What happened to the patients and the families?" I asked, trying to envisage squads of government officials confronting sick destitutes to requisition their havens.

        "They were put out on the street, just like that" said Jack snapping his forefinger and thumb.

        "Two died the same day they were evicted, and I hate to think of the fate of the others. We were housing abandoned mothers and children we'd taken off the streets of Dhaka. The mothers worked for us for a salary, and the children were getting an education - they too were just thrown out and left to fend for themselves again. They turned the clinic into a garment factory"

        "But legally, who actually owns the land now?" I asked incredulously

         "I still have the deeds of the old farm" answered Jack affirmatively. "In a civilised world, one could go before an international court with every chance of redress, but not in third world countries such as this. I have approached the Foreign Office in the UK twice – both times they said they would try to help, I've also written to the Queen, but you know how it is..."

         He broke off and shrugged his shoulders.

         "It's a hot potato I suppose, and opening cans of worms does not help international trade. I of course offered to give any compensation in toto to other charities in Bangladesh, but it made no difference"

         He smiled to himself as if trying to relieve the hurt.

         "I suppose it's the biggest failure of my life" he added.

         "It's difficult to put it behind me, not just because of what happened to the patients then, and whatever followed, but also because I promised some of the parents whose children had been taken that I would try to trace them. I did find some, but not the others

         "But how can you see it as failure when up to that point you had succeeded in helping thousands of other people?" I asked

         "Yes," he conceded

         "But you're always more aware of what you haven't achieved, of the deficiencies, of what you have done wrong. Perhaps it's human nature, or perhaps it's just me"

        The sad smile returned.

        "It wasn't destroyed in peoples' memories however, and I believe that what you do does have eternal value. Even although all we did in Bangladesh was eventually wiped out because I was exposing the export of children, I believe it was worthwhile and achieved some good. And whilst we were working we did save many lives, and helped many to achieve a better life" he said, almost as though he were talking to himself.

        "Children are really important to you?" I asked rhetorically

        The smile broadened.

        "Some of the most beautiful experiences of my life involve children" he said, almost gleefully, and he seemed to fill with energy at the thought. His voice was now crisp and musical. "I remember this little boy in the childrens' hospital in Bangladesh. All the kids used to make fun of the doctors, and pretend they didn't want to be examined and things. We'd retaliate in kind with threats of injections with great big syringes etc. and it was such a great time really with these little souls. Anyway, one day I actually had to give this tiny chap an injection, so I was saying all the usual things doctors do to prepare a child for the pin prick, and we'd already swabbed his minuscule brown buttocks when he suddenly tugged the sheet back over himself, and then ......"

         A suppressed chortle escaped from Jack, and he continued almost unintelligibly.

         "........And then this tiny little fellow said - I mean he was not much bigger than a rabbit - he said in this funny little mischievous voice - Doctor! Why don't you go and stick it in your own bum!"

         We were both rocking back and forward on the wall with laughter. Jack fetched a handkerchief from his pocket, and a muffled voice continued from underneath it.

         "Then he looked at me from under the bed covers with enormous brown eyes and a wonderfully wicked little smile, and we both laughed, and laughed until we were sore. I'll never forget that moment of pure joy"

         We sat sighing in the aftermath of our mirth.

         "There was that other occasion I recall so clearly in Wales with my young son on the farm, when we were bringing the cows home one evening - and a full moon rose. I'll just never forget sharing his utter wonderment at the sight of that. People talk about seeing truth and beauty through the eyes of a child, and its absolutely true - and remember what Christ said about children - that's why their abuse or exploitation is such a horrible and insidious thing"

         Jack's face set in grim lines.

         "You see, by the very nature of their innocence and vulnerability, children all over the world are subject to the manifestation of evil in its most terrible forms. Not only are they the victims of forced labour, brothel owners, drug peddlers and so on, but also the most diabolical practices, when they are actually murdered. This happens here, in some primitive areas where superstitions will recommend a child be sacrificed and placed in the foundations of a new building to bring good luck. Worse still, in the west, children are killed in so called sacrificial rites for some of these sects we talked about, or victims of pornographic films - so called 'snuff movies, where after sexual abuse, their death is also recorded on camera. You don't have to look much further than this to find the existence of Satan"

         I stared out over the Maidan's grassy carpet, my mind struggling to grasp the reality of Jack's words, a horror so far removed from a dawn setting like this, with the morning light slowly turning from gold to silver in the alchemy of the sun's ascent.

         "It's amazing however how abused children do respond to kindness and proper feeding" he added, as if to erase the subject.

         "It can take some time whilst they accept the fact that they will no longer be beaten, and on many occasions, children and also adults who we thought were completely dumb, suddenly started to speak normally, the dumbness being some kind of reaction to constant maltreatment, confinement, or starvation. Others who refused to eat, after a while developed voracious appetites" 

        My stomach was also reminding me how good coffee and toast can taste when you make it wait or this long after rising. Jack must have been experiencing the same feeling.

        "I seem to remember you would be hosting breakfast - where would you like to go?"

        I decided, for my own selfish and private reason which was becoming rather urgent, to treat ourselves.

       "How about the Oberoi Hotel?" I ventured. "It's just a short walk from here"

        "No thank you......." said Jack with considerable emotion.

        ".......That is a place I prefer not to go. You already know my feelings about the bourgeoisie, so why subject us to the company of overweight affluent Indians and fat overfed globe-trotting tourists in the kind of surroundings which, in a city like this, only makes me feel uncomfortable?"

        I had no alternative but to divulge the other truth.        

        "Ahh - so now I have relieve your suffering?" he teased, pointing to my belly