Dum Dum Airport, Calcutta


Jack Preger returned to his tiny hotel room, put down his shoulder bag, switched on the light, and closed the door. Purposefully, he cleared a space on the small table by stacking piles of papers, files and journals, then lifted a heavy typewriter from the floor into position.

        The search amongst his books took longer than expected, for they were scattered in various locations and receptacles around the room. Finally with a smile of satisfaction, he traced the volume he sought, and the binding, trained by many years of use, yielded automatically to open at the page he desired.

        With paper in the machine, and about to begin, his eye caught sight of a bottle of Irish Whiskey, nearly full. He fetched a glass and poured a small measure which he set down beside him, then started to type.


        Dum Dum airport has a odour as unusual as its name, a not-unpleasant blend of strong carbolic, Indian tobacco and aviation spirit, mixed with occasional wafts of something tasty made with onions cooking somewhere in the building. I had been reading that the airport is named after a nearby group of small towns, not, as many people assume, the flesh-tearing hollow-pointed military bullet, which was developed at the British arsenal in this location during the 19th century.

        Jack's eyes were sparkling with amusement.

         "I have company business with the Customs at the airport, so we'll drive you there in the jeep tomorrow morning to catch your flight" he had announced the night before.

         Now we were standing in the main concourse, brought to an involuntary stop, and caught in a stream of agitated passengers infected by some directionless frenzy, like ants in a kicked-over nest. Following a delayed departure from the hotel and a huge traffic jam on the way, I was already very late for the flight. I'd succeeded in fending off dozens of unwanted airport porters, and was now in proud possession of a baggage cart I had providentially found all by myself, but whose buckled wheels had given it a mind all of its own as soon as the weight of my luggage was applied. Now, after pushing it a few paces, the contraption resolutely refused to move at all.

         "I'm sure the boys park that spastic trolley there especially for Cheap Charlies like you, who are too stingy to use their services" laughed Jack.

         Moments later, his observation was confirmed as a contented-looking elderly porter broke through the milling crowd, pushing another empty trolley, and without bidding, obligingly transferred my bags on to it.

         "This one no good, Sahib" he observed innocently, pointing to the damaged one, and now stood triumphantly in charge of my possessions with a happy smile, which faded when he glimpsed the airline ticket sticking out from my shirt pocket.

        "Goodness gracious sir! - Thai Airways you are on? Check-in will be closing, please follow me very quickly!"

        Jack was having great trouble containing his mirth.

        "If Indian politicians were as clever as these fellows, we'd have little to worry about" he chuckled. 

        A public address announcement advising of the final call for passengers on Thai Airways International to proceed immediately to the gate for boarding intensified my anxiety as the wizened porter steered the trolley through the crowd - I had not even checked in, far less completed the lengthy immigration and customs formalities.

        "This is as far as I can go" Jack announced as we reached the barrier to the check-in desks, where a tall hollow-cheeked security policeman with a Lee-Enfield rifle asked to see my flight ticket, before letting me pass with a deep frown.

        "You are very late for this flight" he commented seriously, compounding my fears.

        I shook Jack's hand, feeling the sadness of parting mix with the suddenly very real worry of now missing the plane.

        "Wait" he commanded, rummaging in his shoulder bag, and producing a brown envelope, creased and slightly the worse for wear after being confined amongst his belongings.

        "I nearly forgot" he said inserting it into the side pocket of my hand luggage.

        "Open it later - you'd better do a sprint now I think. Have a safe trip. I hope you get on the flight OK"

        Halfway to the check in, I turned to share waves of goodbye with Jack, and subsequently suffered the mild indignity of having to run after the surprisingly fleet-footed porter who was pushing my worldly goods at an amazing speed. At the desk, the clerk gave my now freely perspiring face an admonishing but perceptibly sympathetic look as I humbly handed over my ticket and passport with a silent prayer. After a telephone call to establish my fate, and a suspenseful shuffling of paper, he finally handed me a hand-written boarding card, labeled my suitcase and placed it on the moving belt behind him, where it disappeared from view. I wondered if I would ever see it again. He turned to look at me sternly.

        "Sir, you are very nearly not getting on this flight. Technically speaking it was already closed." he said soberly, as though pardoning me from a death sentence.

        In a final sequel to the Belgatchia tram, my diligent porter smilingly fell heir to an enormous tip, as I had no small change. With a smile and waggled nod of the head, he paced back towards his hunting ground, baited by the broken trolley. I wondered how many he caught in a day.

        Following a high-adrenalin queue-skipping dash through customs and immigration, and an embarrassing solo sprint out to the Airbus, which was parked close enough to the terminal to make ground transport unnecessary, I reached the aircraft with perspiration flow at absolute maximum, with the face of the tight-lipped flight steward waiting impatiently at the top of the stairs dissolving into a compassionate smile. Any notion of perhaps not being the very last passenger was dispelled as he immediately closed and secured the door with a loud thud before I even reached my seat. The cool silk-clad stewardesses had already completed their cabin round distributing newspapers and headsets, and I was too conscious of my hot wet and red appearance to ask for mine. Fellow passengers, eager to see what clown had kept them all waiting, eyed me with amused disdain and lowered their heads to resume their reading. 

         Minutes later, we were in the air, doubling back in a long slow turn eastwards towards Bangkok. I watched the wing tilt and point down to the Hooghly River, shimmering in the sun beneath us. The memory of the young couple came back, struggling and gasping in the water. I saw Jack crouched beside the tomb, and heard his voice say:

       "And in their death, they were not divided" The aircraft levelled off, and the city spread itself below.

        By now, somewhere down there, Jack was sitting in the ageing dark blue jeep, on his way back to continue his extraordinary life.

        I remembered the envelope, and retrieved it from my bag under the seat. It was not sealed, and inside, typed on Jack's battered machine whose typeface I knew so well, were two sheets of paper. 

        It read as follows: 

RAHERE, King Henry's jester, feared by all the Norman Lords
For his eye that pierced their bosoms, for his tongue that shamed their swords;
Feed and flattered by the Churchmen - well they knew how deep he stood
In dark Henry's crooked counsels - fell upon an evil mood.

Suddenly, his days before him and behind him seemed to stand
Stripped and barren, fixed and fruitless as those leagues of naked sand
When St. Michael's ebb slinks outward to the bleak horizon-bound,
And the trampling wide-mouthed waters are withdrawn from sight and sound.

Then a Horror of Great Darkness sunk his spirit and anon,
(Who had seen him wince and whiten as he turned to walk alone)
Followed Gilbert the Physician, and muttered in his ear,
"Thou hast it, O my brother?" "Yea, I have it," said Rahere.

"So it comes," said Gilbert smoothly, "man's most immanent distress.
'Tis a humour of the Spirit which abhorreth all excess;
And, whatever breed the surfeit - Wealth, or Wit, or Power, or Fame
(And thou hast each) the Spirit laboureth to expel the same.

"Hence the dulled eye's deep self-loathing - hence the loaded leaden brow;
Hence the burden of Wanhope that aches thy soul and body now.
Ay, the merriest fool must face it, and the wisest Doctor learn;
For it comes - it comes," said Gilbert, " as it passes - to return."

 But Rahere was in his torment, and he wandered, dumb and far,
Till he came to reeking Smithfield, where the crowded gallows are.
(Followed Gilbert the Physician) and beneath the wrynecked dead,
Sat a leper and his woman, very merry, breaking bread.

He was cloaked from chin to ankle - faceless, fingerless, obscene
Mere corruption swaddled man-wise, but the woman whole and clean;
And she waited on him crooning, and Rahere beheld the twain,
Each delighting in the other, and he checked and groaned again.

So it comes, - it comes," said Gilbert, "as it came when Life began.
'Tis a motion of the Spirit that revealeth God to man.
In the shape of Love exceeding, which regards not taint or fall,
Since in perfect Love, saith Scripture, can be no excess at all.

Hence the eye that sees no blemish - hence the hour that holds no shame.

Hence the Soul assured the Essence and the Substance are the same.
Nay, the meanest need not miss it, though the mightier pass it by;
For it comes - it comes," said Gilbert, "and, thou seest, it does not die!"

At the bottom of the page there was a hand-written note from Jack which read:

PS. "Kipling you see, understood the Holy Spirit. As I mentioned to you, I firmly believe that anyone who is prepared through constant prayer and meditation to offer them self will be used by the Spirit to relieve suffering somewhere in the world. It may not be easy, but it will lead slowly and surely to fulfillment and self-realisation. All it takes is a first step and the commitment. And once you begin, the rest follows"



An analysis of Kiping's poem is here 

Jack returned to the UK in January 2019 aged 88 in 'early retirement' due to failing health. His vital work will continue in Calcutta.
If you wish to help the organisation he created, the following links provide information about donating, and volunteering.

For more information about Jack, and Calcutta Rescue see: