Breakfast at the Oberoi Grand Hotel Kolkata


Jack Preger had been walking alone for days without a proper map, and only a compass told him which direction to follow. This mattered not, for the teenage boy was in no hurry, and had no schedule to keep. His boots ruffled the brown blanket of pine needles, releasing a spicy scent which blended with a hundred others from the mountain as the shifting breeze stole fragrances from foliage and alpine flowers.

        A cold current of air flowed down from the ridge ahead, and enveloped him in icy freshness. As he approached the treeless crest, stronger gusts tugged at his hair, until as a black silhouette etched in the cloudless vault, he stood at the top. His brain struggled to record the magnitude and the majesty of the panorama beneath him; the interplay of light and colour, the dramatic effect of mountain after mountain meeting the sea in a succession of fiords of intense blue.

       Transfixed, he became acutely aware of his own existence, of being a part of this, as if his true self had been in hiding until this moment. He saw the earth suspended in infinity, with vast oceans and landmasses wrapped on her surface, and knew that this scene was but an infinitesimal part of the cosmic miracle. His body felt weightless, and it seemed as though he was not standing on rock and stone, but was suspended in the air. 



        With my urgent needs taken care of in a sweet smelling men's room of the Oberoi Grand Hotel, I managed to persuade Jack to stay for breakfast, pointing out that my discomfort might recur at short notice.

        We sat beside the  swimming pool, with a breeze mixing the smell of coffee and hot toast with the scent of frangipanni. India had somehow always managed to provide me with the most tantalising blend of aromas, and here, even within a concrete hotel, was no exception. An obese western tourist appeared, and removed a bathrobe to reveal some immense statistics. Her entry into the water created a mini tidal wave.

         "That must be the jogger's wife" said Jack, with a schoolboy look. He began laughing heartily.

         "We have some very large ladies here in Bengal too, and one of the funniest scenes I ever saw in the clinic involved one of our local staff who was even more voluminous than Madame here" he said, watching the white bathing cap making slow progress on the surface.

         "Most of our foreign volunteers who are going home donate whatever they have to the clinic - medicines, clothes etc., which we usually distribute amongst our own patients and staff. Well, one day when things were being shared out, this tiny pair of women's briefs were held up, which must have belonged to a fairly petite person"

        He had already started to shake with silent laughter.

        "The thing is you see, that Bengali women don't wear panties, but the person responsible for sharing out the goodies called over to this enormous lady, and shaking this diminutive frilly thing in the air said, roughly translated, "Here you are dear, these are for you!"

        People at other tables looked across as I exploded with laughter. Jack was revelling in the memory

        "I mean even if she did wear these kind of things, she wouldn't have been able to pull them up beyond her ankles - I wish you could have seen that"

        I had no difficulty imagining the scene!

        ".....Then we had this chap who was supposed to be a guard for our supplies and things, but he was a terrible thief, so we had to lock everything away, despite his protestations that he was a very honest man. Well one day he appeared wearing this longhi with 'the SNCF' logo printed all over it - you know, the French Railways? Obviously this had been a cotton sheet that had been taken from a train by one of our volunteers, and subsequently nicked by this sticky-fingered fellow."

        "So I pointed to it, and asked him why he was still stealing..... well, he made this amazing demonstration of his innocence, and told me that this was a 'locally produced cloth and design, unique to his village' and it the garment had been 'specially tailored' just for him. Poor bloke of course had no idea how glaringly obvious his guilt actually was!"

        "Do your local staff really understand what you're all about, I mean your commitment, - your calling if I can put it that way?" I asked

        Jack reflected for a moment.

        "Possibly the doctors, and perhaps the odd few senior staff have some idea, but the rest simply work for a salary the same as everybody else. The thing is that wherever you live, you're brought up to believe what others in your society tell you is right - and how to survive. In third world countries, this survival behaviour is special, and here you're told for example that to help someone who's been run over by taking them to hospital will involve you in endless enquiries, which might keep you from getting to work for the whole day, and you could lose your job as a result, which sadly could easily be the case. The result of this is predictably tragic - people just look the other way. I'm often asked what 'we' would do if we were born here, without the benefit of our own society's values, education, and material wealth. The short answer is that we would initially follow our karmic level - thus, if in previous lives we had  reached a fairly high level of spirituality, we would of course bring it with us wherever we were born.

        However, if you are born in a third world country into a destitute family, and perhaps physically deformed, then your struggle for sheer physical survival will greatly challenge your karmic level. It is very easy not to steal or rob when you are well-fed and healthy, but if your family is starving and diseased, that's quite another story. So, if say a Swiss villager comes across a wounded man in the street with a wallet full of money, he would take him to hospital, and make sure his belongings were safe, in probably 100 per cent of the cases. In a big city, the chances are slightly fewer, and in New York say, much less. So as survival becomes more difficult, the more human values are challenged and eroded.  Thus in third world countries, a husband will often leave his wife and children to the machetes and clubs of some screaming mob, and escape out the back door. Road accident victims are commonly stripped of their valuables as they lie there, and crashed aircraft looted, with passengers often found with fingers cut off to get at gold rings. It's horrible, but it happens, and I believe that in extremis, we all act in a way that equates our struggle for survival with our karmic state - or our innate goodness if you like to call it that"

         He paused and looked thoughtful

         "Suffering of course comes in different guises, and in the affluent world, although there is little physical hardship, there is a lot of what people call 'stress' which can lead eventually to fatal illnesses, unhappiness, a great deal of disharmony, and a poor quality of life"

         He circled a finger in the air

         "Take a look at all these rich people around us - you don't see many radiantly happy faces do you? That jogging executive and his fat wife are probably not much better off in terms of contentment than many of my patients."

         Jack moved his head to the right as a pointer

         "And do you see the two young boys sitting there with their parents?" he asked.

        I nodded. I had been observing this affluent Indian family too.

         "These poor obese lads stuffed with goodies so as to be as big and fat as their father, and overdressed in expensive clothes - what kind of happiness do you think they will have inherited? And what kind of lives will they lead, loaded with these material benefits?"

        Jack smiled.

        "Remind me to find that poem by Kipling for you"

        "Do you read a lot?" I asked

        "I used to" Jack replied

        "When I was younger the mystical insights of poets had an influence on me. Books which helped me were ones which disturbed me, and that includes the Bible, the Koran, the original Hindu scriptures, and the writings of Evans-Wentz, who translated a lot of the original Buddhist teachings"

        "And when you were an agnostic from 16 to 32, did you have any kind of belief at all, I mean even a tiny glimmer?" I asked

        Jack laughed.

        "If I believed in anything, it was the Gospel according to Karl Marx! I joined one Zionist movement, then graduated to another communist and more extreme one, and went to train on an English Kibbutz, with the intention of going to Israel - which was just being formed then, so that was 1948. This was purely racial and completely non-religious. It didn't work out like that, as I had to do national service to secure my place at Oxford, and that cut me off from the movement. I did eventually visit Israel years later - and wasn't  impressed."

        Jack stared out over the pool where the fat lady was climbing out with difficulty on the vertical ladder.

        "The party I belonged to held the belief that Israel should be shared with the Arabs, that we should have a state where Arabs were equal citizens with the same civil rights. But the Jews at the time of fighting realised they were not only beating them, but that they could drive them out to some extent. People like myself didn't know that for years afterwards - we thought it was a magnificent victory, and that the Arabs had left as refugees - but they didn't. Fact is they were driven out, and their land was seized. Old Zionists like myself regard this as a great shame and disgrace- something that was hidden from us for years, until quite recently in fact"

        "And how do you see Judaism now, compared to when you were ultra-orthodox?" I asked

        Jack picked up our empty coffee pot, and beckoned to a waiter, who nodded his understanding.

        "I don't believe in orthodox Judaism. I believe in God, but think that the Jews misinterpreted his message. Christ has a message for us all - but it's not the message that the church is telling us now. Part of it is true in both cases, as it comes from some parts of the Old Testament or from Christ himself, but the rest as we have discussed already in the case of Christianity, has been interpreted to suit the church. The same happened to Judaism"

        "But haven't there been changes and movements within Judaism over the last few decades?" I asked

        Jack nodded vigorously.

         "Amazingly so - in fact I can hardly believe what has happened in England. Take the simple thing now of Jews driving a car to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Now if we'd had a car back in the 1930's or 1940's and done that, it would have been stoned or quite likely destroyed, and we would have been thrown out of Jewish society. The driver would have been lucky to escape with his life. And remember I'm talking about Manchester, England, not Jerusalem!"

         He started chuckling anew

         "Now they even have female Rabbis...that would just be incomprehensible to people of my generation! So yes, there have been massive shifts, including intermarriage, and the possibility of becoming a Jew through marriage. I still can't believe it's happened as I've been out of it for so long, but when these century-old traditions are changed so radically, it makes you start to doubt the authenticity of the whole thing."

         "But I still see quite a number of ultra-orthodox Jews?" I remarked.

         "Indeed yes and I don't think their numbers are diminishing, so just because the rest of the Jewish community is opening up doesn't mean that this nucleus is changing its beliefs. They remain very very strict, and don't share the same beliefs. They don't even believe in Israel, they regard it still as Palestine, and don't accept that anything can happen there until the Messiah comes"

        Jack looked at ease, and I hoped secretly that my visit and imposition on his normally hectic daily schedule was somehow relaxing, despite the intensity of our conversations.

        "What do you remember as your happiest moment Jack?" I asked

        The familiar look entered his eyes, and I wondered how many memories were being recalled.

        "The Paraclete experience was of course the most wonderful thing in my life, and as I said, is the whole basis for my faith in the Holy Spirit. Nothing can ever match the sheer joy of that moment"

        I nodded.

        "There have been many others of course, but one which I remember vividly was when as a teenager, I was hiking in the mountains alone in Norway - I was actually lost, and suddenly on reaching the top of a ridge I looked down on the whole coastline. I didn't even know I was near the sea. I've never forgotten the sheer beauty of that sudden vision"

        He looked at his watch.

        "Do you have to rush away?" I asked somewhat anxiously

        "Basically, yes" he said, but with no urgency in his voice. It was wonderful to see him so relaxed.

        "What did you have in mind?" he asked.

        "I'd like to go with you to the little church where you prayed to St Anthony of Padua"