South Park Street Cemetery, Calcutta


Jack Preger had always felt a remarkable fellowship with his dairy cattle, but he was unprepared for what was going to happen the first time he walked his two year old son out into the pasture.

        As they proceeded hand in hand towards the herd, he noticed an unusual movement amongst them, something he was not familiar with. He stopped to observe them more closely, and watched in amazement as one by one they approached, and encircled them both in a protective ring, like a wagon train in the Wild West of bygone days. 

        With a wave of emotion, he realised that they thought he had given birth to a calf.


           I was early and waited outside.. 

        The gate attendant inside, like the accountant in Jack's hotel, seemed troubled by my lone vigil on the hot diesel-enclouded pavement.

               "It is open, sir" he confirmed with a tilt of his head from behind the gate, extending an outstretched hand towards the inviting tree-shaded interior. He studied me through coal-black eyes set under thickly forested brows. A downturned moustache, heavy and dark, made his face look sad.

         "I'm waiting for someone" I explained. "Thank you"

         This however only served to deepen the mystery, and he stood observing me expectantly, like a dog at a rabbit hole. Peering through the entrance gate, I contemplated the grey and blackened obelisks and mausolea, alternately illuminated and darkened by the swaying foliage in a mildly macabre interplay of shade and sunlight. Lying underneath them lay the bones of Europeans and Anglo-Indians whose energy and creativity had helped to transform this former British trading post into a major city, with tropical illnesses often bringing young lives to an untimely close. 

        I knew this would be my last opportunity to share Jack's observations on life, or rather death, as we planned. My flight out was next morning. Half-hypnotised perhaps by the blur of the traffic swishing past and the curious  attendant still motionless in the comer of my eye, another powerful feeling of deja vu washed over me. I marvelled contentedly at the sheer improbability of the past few days. Few prominent and busy people would halt daily schedules to discuss their private thoughts in detail, fewer still would be coaxed on to crowded tramcars, into Hindu temples, or dragged on dawn walks in public parks. And now, into an old colonial Christian cemetery…

        "You like nice young lady Sahib?" a furtive, distinctly Indian voice whispered behind me.

        "No, thank....."

        My voice tailed off as I turned to admire Jack's mischievous face filling the space where I expected to see the familiar eager expression of a rickshaw driver or pavement tout. I laughed loudly.

       "I'm glad you were going to say: "No" he grinned, grasping me lightly by the elbow.

        "Your accent is getting better" I chuckled, and nodded to the gateman as we finally entered. The mystery now solved, he returned a broad and quite beautiful smile. I marvelled at the effect of this simple happening, which magically moved the setting of his moustache from the morose to the merry. 

        Like old cemeteries everywhere, this one possessed the same aura of tragedy and tranquillity, blending the grim finality of the physically dead down below with that of Mother Nature, serenely alive and beautiful up above. The handsome stone archway at the entrance opened out into a large roughly rectangular area, enclosing a gridwork of leafy avenues and smaller serpentine paths, the latter snaking off and disappearing between the aging monuments. We turned as we entered, avoiding the central thoroughfare, and strolled in silence, often dwarfed by the towering tombs, our thoughts diverted by inscriptions on ornate, crumbling edifices, revealing so many lives cut short at a tender age. I was reminded of Kipling’s description in City of Dreadful Nights.

"The tombs are small houses. It is as though we walked down the streets of a town, so tall are they and so closely do they stand—a town shrivelled by fire, and scarred by frost and siege. Men must have been afraid of their friends rising up before the due time that they weighted them with such cruel mounds of masonry. Strong man, weak woman, or somebody’s ‘infant son aged fifteen months,’ for each the squat obelisk, the defaced classic temple, the cellaret of chunam, or the candlestick of brickwork—the heavy slab, the rust-eaten railings, whopper jawed cherubs, and the apoplectic angels."

South Park Street Cemetery, Calcutta.

        Jack spoke first as we were exploring one of the twisting trails. He was crouching in the long grass, examining a tablet. He read aloud:

         "Here lie interred the bodies of Robert Udny and of Ann his wife, who on the 3rd of January 1794, were overset in a boat as they were crossing the river opposite to Calcutta, and perished. He aged 31, she aged 26 years. They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided"

          "Their death almost comes alive in such a description, doesn't it? Normally, we just read that people were born on such a date, and died on another, but that message from two centuries ago is really quite moving"

         He paused, and returned his gaze to the old stone.

         "One can easily imagine their awful fear - that of losing their lives - and losing each other – as they struggled and panicked in that muddy river, until finally their consciousness was extinguished"

         "And in their death they were not divided?" I asked "Do you believe that?"

         Jack stood up, and brushed the clinging grass seeds off his soft cotton trousers.

         "Yes I do, because of my own experiences with those who have died - the message at the graveside from that poor woman with the cleft palate I related to you is one example, and there have been many others too. These vivid experiences leave me in no doubt that after physical death, it is still possible to communicate with those you leave behind. This being so, wherever you go, or whatever you become after physical death does not separate you from others who die with you, or will die after you, or who have died before you"

         We continued our way. My mind was still focussed on the tragedy of a young couple drowning in panic.... 

        Jack continued. 

         "But I believe the mystery of death is not something we can, or are even supposed fully to understand during our physical life. Things progress in natural stages, and when you're an infant, you are not equipped to solve the problems or accept the responsibilities of an adult. Similarly, our earthly consciousness keeps us preoccupied with earning a living, supporting a family, keeping ourselves healthy and so on - thus we are geared to cope with this life, and this environment as a natural priority. Introspection and study of the spiritual side follows when we become aware of our Self and the miracle of physical creation, but the two must remain in balance, and it can be very unhealthy to become permanently preoccupied with what might happen after death, and in so doing not living your physical life fully, as it is intended. And even if you were given this absolute knowledge, it would not necessarily make you a better person, nor help you enjoy your physical existence any more. If however, you live in harmony with spiritual laws - the essence of the great religions as we discussed - then our death becomes as natural a component as our birth. Now, since nobody remembers their moment of birth, or any period spent in the womb, it follows anyway that we are very unlikely to ever grasp what death will be like, aside of the many 'near death' experiences described in modem literature which only of course covers the few moments of transition, not actually being physically dead"

        We were back on the main path, having almost crossed the breadth of the cemetery, and approaching an open, invitingly grassy expanse splashed with warm afternoon sunshine. Jack continued.

         "You might be able to understand better why we will never fathom physical death, if you consider the 'little death' we experience every night. We can study the physiology of sleep to the nth degree, but the natural process is still a mystery. We submit to it in much the same way as we do to death, and wake up hours later, with no sense of time lapse, or what has gone on around us. We dream, with apparently no conscious control over the topics, and these dreams - or nightmares - can be as 'real' as what we experience with our normal waking consciousness. It follows that if we cannot unlock the mystery of sleep apart from analysing the chemicals, brain waves and behaviour involved, then understanding what happens to our consciousness when our body is dead is pretty much beyond us"

        Jack turned to look at me.

        "Age-wise I should pre-decease you, so I'll try and get a message to you as to what it's all about" he said with a smile, and then thought for a moment.

        "But even if I was able to, you probably wouldn't be able to comprehend it anyway, as I've just said"  and laughed at his own contradiction.

        Our feet brushed through the pleasantly long grass which, warmed by the rays and squeezed by our shoes, exuded a sweet summery smell. We both spontaneously yielded to the natural inclination, and discovered ourselves contentedly sitting down amongst it, pulling contemplatively at the longest stalks within reach.

        "Are you scared of dying?" I asked. 

        He picked up a dry leaf, and looked at it.

        "Yes, I am scared of it. I'm not looking forward to it, and there may even be some horrible lingering illness waiting to transport me to the portals of it"

        He smiled to himself. 

        "I also think there might be a rough time after death somehow, when that divine super-computer prints out all your data - the events of your life that only you know about!"

        He laughed, then looked at me reassuringly.

        "But I know there is absolutely nothing to fear, my own experiences tell me that conclusively"

        "So, scared of the process, anxious about the spiritual assessment and report card, but not of actually being dead?"

        "Absolutely not" he affirmed

        'And what about disposing of people's remains?" I asked curiously "Do you think it makes any difference whether you are cremated, slowly decay in the soil, are embalmed - or whatever?"

         "No difference at all, but what is of great importance for those you leave behind is having some kind of memorial, or shrine or whatever"

        He broke off, and turned to gaze at our setting, sweeping his hand slowly in front of him. Only an office building, peeping periodically in the breeze over the tops of the trees, and the muffled sounds of the traffic, reminded us that we were in the middle of a mega-city in the making. He went on:

        "I remember going back to Manchester once, and visiting my grandmother's grave. She had died in 1915 – fifteen years before I was even born, but I went there anyway just out of respect for my father's mother. When I located it, I found it overgrown, so I started cleaning and weeding it"

        Jack looked at me, but his eyes seemed focussed on some distant object.

        "The incredible thing was that I suddenly felt her presence, and her gratitude that a grandson she had never even seen was taking the trouble to tidy up her grave - it was just a rush of awareness, a fleeting moment, but absolutely unmistakable"

        I nodded, recalling an identical personal experience in Scotland, when after decades of living overseas, I made a pilgrimage to my mother's grave, who had died when I was a child. The feeling of her presence was so strong, I felt as though I had been lifted into the air.

        "Obviously there is not enough room on our planet for everyone to have their own personal plot or tombstone, but for recent generations linked by family or close friendship, it is desirable to have some kind of place which is dedicated to their memory. It helps the bereaved accept and cope with the reality that their loved ones are gone, yet often provides a link to them through some subtle force such as I experienced with the woman with the cleft palate, and the one I just described"

        "But what happens between incarnations? I mean how long do you stay 'dead' and what determines how and when you come back, and what you come back as? Do you come back in the same country? Same religion?" I asked.

        Jack smiled again.

        "The big debate with Evans Wentz who translated so many of the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures was not when or where you come back - but as what!

         He laughed and continued. 

        "I remember once when I said on television that I might be reincarnated as a dung beetle for all my sins, and this lady wrote in to say that this was completely against Buddhist teachings - but it isn't - it's in conformity with one school of thought, and according to Evans Wentz, you can come back as a dog - or even worse. You know, many dogs - and cats and other animals - have something which you can recognise. There are also numerous reports of people after a death being visited by a bird - by what they feel is sent to represent the soul of the person they are mourning. There are all kinds of paranormal experiences reported with cats and dogs who come back at the time of death of somebody they were close to in the family, and if you bring a group of pet owners, stable boys and so on together, you will hear many stories about their animals which indicate that there's a lot more to these creatures than we would  imagine. Some of these accounts may of course be just fanciful imagination, but on my farm in Wales, I also experienced with my little son what I would call extraordinary behaviour amongst what we call - dumb animals"

         "When do you think that the soul actually enters the body?" I asked  "At conception, or at the moment of birth?"

         "Well, if you accept the Buddhist teachings that an abortion occurring naturally is karmically caused - i.e. that this is the result of the actions of the foetus in a past life, then the soul., the spirit of life, is simultaneously present at the moment of conception as part of the divine scheme. So if you accept reincarnation, then this makes sense, and until I'm dead, I'm prepared to go along with that belief. After I'm dead, I may know otherwise" he smiled.

         "So a foetus which aborts is paying some karmic debt?"

         "Yes, I believe so, in the same way as the death of infants or young children"

        We both sat savouring the surroundings, and the peace. Palm fronds rustled, frangipani and bougainvillea glowed, small white butterflies fluttered, a squirrel bobbed silently along a limb, crows cawed from cracked monuments, and a lone buzzard feathered the air high up in the sky.

        I pondered for a moment before asking

        "If someone takes their own life, does this affect their karma - I mean regress them so to speak?"

        Jack was closely examining the petals of a tiny blue and yellow flower he held between forefinger and thumb. Without looking up, he said:

        "Well, they would certainly frustrate the intention that they should live until their natural end, but in another sense they may indeed be fulfilling a karmic debt of a premature violent death, albeit at their own hand. After all, you have to be in the most advanced state of desperation and despair to commit suicide. It may in some ways a cowardly thing to do, an easy way out. On the other hand, it takes a special courage - even if it is born of terrible psychological trauma - to actually end your own physical existence, the more so without knowing what may follow your death. Suicide is regarded as a major sin in the Catholic church, and in some countries denies the person a burial in consecrated ground"

        He pulled open his shirt pocket, and absentmindedly dropped the small flower into it, then looked at me. 

        "No, finally, if someone was suffering from some incurable disease, and shortened the ordeal, I don't think it would engender worse karma. They might however miss some "lessons" if you know what I mean, which they would have learned otherwise"

        "And what if a doctor cuts short a life through euthanasia?"

        "As Lord Buddha taught, compassion is the key that opens all doors. Now if somebody is dying in the most awful pain without any hope of recovery, and we terminate that suffering, as an act of deepest caring, I do not believe this affects the karma of either the doctor or the patient in any way. Consider as a parallel the old lady who has lived with her pet dog or cat for years and years and is deeply attached to it. It then becomes ill with some horrible, untreatable condition, and lies there howling in pain hour after hour, day after day - what shall she do? If she permits this degree of suffering, yet has the means to end it humanely with a vet's needle, I would say she would incur bad karma by such an action - and most people indeed would call it cruel and inhuman. Now animals are not people, but the point I think is still valid"

          I nodded. Jack continued

          "The problem with sanctioning euthanasia, either from a medical or a spiritual point of view, lies in having the absolutely correct prognosis that death is inevitable with absolutely no chance that the disease will remit - as sometimes does happen. The other problem is that unscrupulous relatives or other heirs to a person's wealth could pay a doctor to carry this out so as to hasten their inheritance. This is unlikely in the western world, but not at all impossible, but in places like India, it certainly would be abused"

         "How about killing pests? I mean do you believe that purposely squashing a mosquito or a cockroach represents a tiny sin?"

         Jack was shaking his head vigorously.

         "Absolutely not. I know some religions teach this, and whilst one must respect such absolute reverence for all living things, it simply does not make sense. The Jains carry this to the extreme, and do things like covering their mouths to prevent them inadvertently swallowing a tiny insect, or sweeping the ground in front of them to avoid crushing anything in their path. But in my view, we have an obligation to respect our physical bodies by protecting them from disease, and anything which is a threat to our health can, and should be eliminated. So, just as we take medicine to kill intestinal worms, or whatever, we have a duty to protect ourselves from any other forms of life which could endanger our life. Take for instance malaria, which still remains one of the biggest global killers - do you want to protect the mosquito, or any other beastie which causes such immense suffering to the human race? They are representatives of evil instruments of karma, or divine will if you like, but we can do something intelligent to offset their effects, and just as you would protect yourself from anything which threatened you - a mad dog or whatever, you have a duty to do the same against these lower malevolent life forms"

         "And how to you see the spiritual evolution of the world from here?"

         "Well, if you put in the context of our concept of time, it is difficult, as there seems to be little progress at all - there are just as many wars, killings, and horrible things going on now as way back in history. I mean how much has the world changed since Christ was crucified? That was going to be the biggest thing that ever happened to mankind - the redemption of sins, and this new covenant between God and the world through the sacrifice on the cross........ well, where's the change?"

           He fell silent.

           A man was approaching us with a piece of paper. Jack let him get within earshot, and spoke to him in Bengali. The fellow smiled sadly and turned back.

           "He's the resident guide" Jack explained  "A curator of sorts I suppose, who shows you around and locates tombstones for visitors, interested in certain people. I told him we didn't need his services. He normally ensnares you near the entrance, but this time he must have had some other customer, so he missed us first time round"

           I smiled. In India there always seems to be somebody ready to provide a service for a few rupees, wherever you go. Here was no exception. Jack continued.

          "I do not think you can talk in terms of earth time if you want to consider spiritual evolution - that's a bit like planting an acorn before you go to bed, and expecting to see an oak tree the next morning. It is hard enough for us to realise and accept our mortality - the fact that everyone you know today as thinking, feeling human beings - friends, lovers, family - every single person will be dust in a few decades. In human terms, the whole lot will disappear and mix with the earth, fertilising the soil or be built in to the foundations of new skyscrapers and there'll be nothing left except their outward expressions what they might have written, painted, or carved. Spiritual evolution - the recycling of the soul to a state of final refinement if you like - is outside of our ordinary concept of time. A tiny inkling of that is in the way that time seems to accelerate proportionally as you grow older, as it becomes relative to the number of years already elapsed. So the 'immediate' spiritual evolution of the world seems to be hardly progressing – as I said, since the Cross"

         He smiled.

         "Nonetheless, man has always been fascinated by time, and all kinds of money is spent launching fancy telescopes into space so that we can find out how 'old' our physical universe is measured in 'our’ chronology as we conceive time to be in our terrestrial consciousness. That information is perhaps scientifically interesting but not of much value to the ordinary man trying to figure how why he's here for a meagre three score and ten, if indeed he gets even that"

         He laughed heartily and added:

         "Now what is of great practical use to some unscrupulous characters is to be able to forecast the 'end of the world'. A significant number of people do this every year, and usually attract a healthy following of adherents, and large sums of cash by promising them a rapid course in the absolution of sins just before the earth spins out of orbit, or is hit by the mega-meteorite that will snuff us all out. In the same way, I don't think any of the biblical references to the end of the world were actually uttered by Christ, nor did he promise to come back, they were just inserted to raise people's interest - or fears"

        "And if Christ did come back?" I asked.

         "As I said, you cannot plant an acorn and have an oak next day. Neither can you have a great prophet like Christ "convert" the masses to instant sainthood. The teachings have been there already thousands of years, and you do not need to have the original teacher physically present to learn - but you do have to make a considerable effort to study and apply the teachings to your own life. So just as kissing the feet of a university professor will not get you a degree, a second physical presence of Christ would do little to hasten our global spiritual evolution. It might generate tremendous interest, and mass adulation, but also might attract skepticism and create enormous rifts amongst existing faiths. It is quite likely also that he might be assassinated in the process, and have history repeat itself. But it would not help the world any more now than it did two thousand years ago or so"

        Jack shook his head slowly.

        "Spiritual evolution or progressive freedom from the earthly causes of suffering - Dukkha as Lord Buddha called it - does not come instantly from an evangelist on the telly, nor would it from the reincarnation of a Jesus or a Mohammed..... who would preach exactly the same truths as they did before, which most of the world wishes conveniently to ignore in order to sustain the illusive short-lived 'happiness' easily accessed through material wealth, selfishness, greed, covetousness, and so on. It is only when we finally realise that chasing worldly distractions does not bring any lasting happiness that we begin the very slow process of growing in spiritual stature, but you can accelerate this through meditation and constant prayer, combined with correct actions. You can also thwart it by allowing yourself to be diverted by bigoted church politics, and all the failings of established faiths which we've already discussed. Spiritual growth, like our muscles, develops with regular exercise, and by gradually increasing the load. By this I mean exercises in acts of loving kindness, unselfishness, control of the emotions and the physical senses, and not for example by preaching or proselytising whilst perpetuating or ignoring your own weaknesses, or defending what you believe in by denigrating the faiths of others"

        "What about fundamentalism - do you think it's stronger now than in time past?" I asked.

        Jack shook his head adamantly.

        "No, there has always been religious persecution, and it's a very old thing, going back to the bible in both testaments, in the writings of Josephus, the Crusades, the pogroms in Europe, Russian Orthodoxy, Catholic fundamentalism in Poland - and of course Arab fundamentalism which gets most of the spotlight today. But the latter, although it's viewed as a major threat say between the USA, Israel and the Arab world, is aggravated by wrong handling and approach - there's a way of talking to Arabs through their religious beliefs, through the Koran, through the actual teachings of Mohammed - but if you just tackle it in terms of politics, oil reserves or whatever, it really gets you nowhere. Now I'm not saying that such a line would have much effect on the Saddams of the world, but I believe that a lot of problems could be resolved by the correct psychological attitude. And if the Jews would only realise what they've done to the Arabs - never mind what the Arabs have done, subsequently, to the Jews - they would realise that they've brought it on themselves, I'm sorry to say"

        "What about the absurdity of Islamic death sentences - such as Salman Rushdie?" I ventured..

        Jack was nodding to himself gently

        "I don't say that he deserved this extreme sentence, but there are always two sides, and you must consider the nature of his writings as a starting point. What he wrote about Christ and Buddha in 'Midnight's Children' embodied quite grotesque insults which he got away with, achieving fame and notoriety in the process - so he may have thought: 'Why not increase the insult?' So in the 'Satanic Verses' he wrote a brilliant caricature of Ayatullah Khomeini - which probably catalysed the death sentence – but if he was justified in doing that, he certainly wasn't in the way he attacked the prophet Mohammed – in fact he revived the old insults from the time of the Crusades. Now you can of course pick holes in Mohammed's life, like you can that of Christ or any other historical figure for that matter, and in fact there is a book written by a French Jewish-Marxist author called Maxime Rodinson, available in Penguin. This contains every criticism imaginable of Mohammed, but this is offset by equally valid assessments of the value of his teachings. Now nobody blew up the publisher's office or threatened the author, since the whole is basically balanced and impartial - but what Rushdie did was certainly not, and he simply went overboard with his obscenities and insults. This may increase your chances of becoming a best seller, but if you ask for this amount of trouble, you should not be outraged and call for everybody's sympathy if it comes to you"

        Jack stared up into the sky. The buzzard was still there, alternately floating effortlessly for a minute or so, then sliding downwards to find another thermal. He continued:

       "As I've mentioned a few times, a spiritual awakening often comes from the realisation that the miracle is right here with us, not in fanciful bible stories. Simply by meditating slowly on physical creation, you can transcend your ordinary waking consciousness, and awaken your soul. Most astronauts admit to having experienced some pretty profound thoughts after viewing our planet from outer space, but you don't even need to do that if you calmly consider things in a focussed way"

        He smiled. 

        "I sometimes think it would be of great benefit if some advanced extra-terrestrial arrived amongst us, and pointed out, in his or her terms, the sheer magic of our planet, hanging and rotating as it is in what we call infinity. If the population of the world became fully conscious only of this, it would make all some of our actions look so incredibly foolish, whether it be the idiocy and indignity of warfare, or of Mr. Rushdie in some of his writings"

        "Do you believe in extra-terrestrial life?" I asked.                                                                                    

         "Well if you study the discredited stories and bogus photos of UFO's plus things like corn circles which fooled millions of people for a long time, there's not too much real evidence left to back it up. But on the other hand, the physical cosmos as we perceive it seems like an enormous construction just to house life on little planet earth, so you really have to keep an open mind on such subjects. According to some Hindus, this planet is the dumping ground amongst other inhabited planets, and that's why there is so much suffering - so that those who've made a real mess of an existence somewhere else can be sent here under terrible circumstances to learn necessary lessons. That may appear fairly fanciful stuff, but if you consider infinity, it's maybe more difficult to assume there's no life elsewhere than it is the opposite. A step beyond that is to try and imagine where spirit exists"

        He paused for a few moments.

         "I mean that Irish nun, who said she would pray for me after her death, and that poor creature with the cleft palate who sent me that clear unmistakable message at her graveside - where are they both now? These dimensions are beyond our comprehension of course, and you should not dwell too much on it, but it is nonetheless fascinating ... well, maybe it's another world which exists - if you can enter and pass through one of these Black Holes up there"

        We looked up, and the buzzard had both of us captivated by his single presence in the sky.

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