Jack's School at Nilmoni Montri Street


    The soles of the little boy's sandals slapped the path of Kew Gardens disproportionately loudly as he thrust them ahead, powered by white legs made wobbly with wonder. His father was awed also, not by the trees and the flowers, but by this child racing in front of him, created through him, but not by him, and whose very being represented the biggest marvel of all.

    The sandals stopped the boy breathlessly at a stand of tall blooms whose brilliant hues beckoned with the promise of exotic scent. Standing on tiptoe, he pushed a tiny nose into the petals, and withdrew it, unaware that it was now tipped with bright yellow pollen. Delighted, he repeated the process several times more, then turned to look at his father with a smile, unaware that he had just joyously fertilised the blossoms for Mother Nature.

    Jack Preger looked into the eyes of this small and innocent human being, and felt a moment of intense spiritual joy. 


    Next morning, I recalled the softness of my mattress as I viewed the convoluted collections of humanity on the broken pavement outside my small hotel. At my feet lay destitute and sick human beings wrapped in rags, waiting for the sun to warm the chill morning air. Across the road, women crouched beside tiny smoking fires of dried dung and garbage, cooking whatever scraps they had gathered. Children scampered half naked amongst pathetic piles of their family's meagre possessions, and ran up to me, holding out tiny grubby palms in front of their distended bellies. I contemplated similar survival scenarios being enacted by thousands of hapless souls all over this huge city, and thought futilely about military spending, human folly, and paradox. 

         Sitting now at the open window of a battered taxi on my way to the school, I rubbed a goose pimpled forearm, thinking how strange it felt to be cool in Calcutta, when the other ten months of the year were so uncomfortable. Previous visits had all been spent in a constant state of sticky wetness, particularly during my short period as a volunteer in Nimal Hriday, the Home for Dying Destitutes at Kaligat, one of the many centres run by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. It was in this sombre interior, between the rows of pallets and their tragic occupants, where I had first heard other foreign volunteers talking about Dr Jack's “pavement clinic” with such frequency, affection and admiration, that I decided I must go and see it for myself.

         This resolve had taken me to a quiet residential area, and a street named Middleton Row, where, six days a week, Dr Jack operated his free medical clinic for the poor, only partly sheltered by torn tarpaulins stretched over the pavement. Mirage-like, these coverings appeared each morning, together with all the pharmaceutical supplies and boxes of medical records, only to disappear without a trace by late afternoon, leaving the pavement empty once more.   

        Few cities in the world have the propensity for bizarre sights as Calcutta, and surely this was one of the strangest visions of all. Located just a few steps from a block of expensive apartments, a hundred yards or so from an international airline office, and immediately outside a Presbytery, whose exterior garden wall provided the hooks to support the ragged tarpaulins, Jack's clinic on that day was, as usual, in brisk session.

        Several hundred patients were sitting, squatting, lying or standing the length of the road in the full sun. The only lucky ones in the shade were those currently being seen by this British doctor, who was seated on an upturned wooden crate, with a face filled with concern and compassion. Around and about him, Indian staff and foreign volunteers flitted endlessly to and fro, dodging each other and the supporting ropes, amongst heaps of medical paraphernalia, and bulging boxes of dog-eared case notes. Along the length of the Presbytery wall, another line of foreign volunteers extended into the full heat of the sun, each person squatting in front of a patient put in his charge by the head nurse. At the opposite side of the tarpaulined headquarters where Jack sat, a queue snaked out from the pharmacy where medicines were dispensed, along with food, and small amounts of money given to the most deserving cases.

        Immediately sharing the esteem felt by other travellers for this extraordinary man, I had joined Jack's foreign volunteer force the following day, dividing my time between Middleton Row in the morning, and Mother Teresa's each afternoon. I too, became a sweat-soaked fixture at the Presbytery wall, sitting on my haunches, trying my inexperienced best under supervision to do what I could with a scalpel, bottles of antiseptics, ointments, gauze pads and packets of bandages. My patients - men, women, children and tiny tots - presented with all kinds of lesions, burns, and infections, but any feelings of incompetence or inadequacy were quickly dispelled by my charges who submitted to my fumbling fingers with total trust, as if I were a noted brain surgeon. And it was here that my affection was born with the calm stethoscoped figure sitting on the wooden crate under the torn tarpaulin. It was a friendship built on the deepest admiration and respect for this man's secular philanthropy, and for the milk of human kindness which flowed so copiously from him.

         These reminiscences were halted as the last stage of my journey to Nilmoni Mitra Street tested the suspension of the old taxi to the limits, lurching and bumping over the results of excavations for Calcutta's underground railway extension out to Dum Dum - a task which had turned this main road into almost a bomb site of debris and dust, and left me wondering how they could possibly put it all back together. The driver pointed out the effects of this onslaught with several roadside buildings sporting wide cracks in their exterior walls, with hastily erected steel girders in place to prevent them falling down altogether.

         The taxi left me on the main road, and I continued down the narrow street on foot. The sounds rather than the street number indicated Number 10, and the symphonic swell of tiny voices rising and falling in intensity was punctuated by strident adult voices, suggesting that a degree of control might have been lost over the multitude of little souls. This was categorically confirmed on entering, or trying to, wading against a knee-high wave of upturned brown faces, broad smiles and white teeth. My hands, arms, shirt and trousers soon had a dozen dangling attachments, all whooping with joy, and I suddenly thought how quickly Gulliver must have succumbed to his fate. The air was filled with the sweet fragrance of banana, blended with something else deliciously savoury.

         Jack appeared with a broad smile, and wearing a similar number of children as myself, with his shirt buttons demolished almost to navel level.


        "We give them breakfast before they start" he explained "And lunch when they finish - it's always this chaotic at meal times, don't worry"

         Shaking his own appendages loose, and dispensing paternal slaps on diminutive bottoms, he beckoned to me.

         "Let's have some tea - somewhere quieter, for Heaven's sake"

        We retreated to his office in the school where he often also sleeps. It was slightly larger than the one in the hotel.

         "This seems a much more peaceful to bed down" I observed "No ladies screaming here at 3am?"

         "Oh yes I'm afraid we do have - we're next door to a brothel here also" said Jack, as matter-of-factly as if it was a post office or a newsagent.

        "In fact, this whole area is a real warren of them, but it's OK during the day - although I wouldn't want to stick my nose outside here at night!"

          He blew several times on his tea, which gave off miniature wisps of vapour.

         "We were dead lucky to get this building you know" he mused gratefully.

         "Nobody wanted it, because it was haunted they said, the usual White Lady stuff - although you'd think she'd be brown in this part of the world! Two of the staff say they've seen a ghost, but I haven't - I reckon it’s much too noisy, as on top of having the brothel, there's an illegal drinking den downstairs as well, and these fellows go on all night, so it's another great earplug testing ground after dark"


          "No chance of finding a building for the clinic itself?" I asked

         "Not unless we can find a neighbourhood that would welcome the daily arrival of hundreds of destitutes, leprosy patients, and the like next door to them, and that’s verging on the impossible" said Jack, slowly shaking his head

         I looked into his faintly tanned face, illuminated by soft light from a window behind and above me, and marvelled at how fresh it looked after years of not only being in the unrelenting pollution and unsanitary conditions of Calcutta, but also choosing to live in such primitive accommodation. His unusual eyes twinkled, and reading my expression exactly he shook with laughter - a noise so infectious I joined him simultaneously, spilling my tea in the process.

         "Now don't you dare admonish me for living in these luxurious quarters!" he chuckled," because this is paradise...... and it is actually, compared to what 3 million slum and street dwellers have out there to sleep in"

         The simple reminder sobered us for a moment, and we both fell silent, listening to the muted sounds of the children with their banana delights.

        "There's 325 of them now" he said with obvious pride and affection. "We opened in 1989, and it's really one of the most satisfying aspects of the work. Most of the children are from slum families, so we feed them to help make life easier for all, plus we have regular health checks so that any medical condition we find can be nipped in the bud. We also provide transport, for those who need it, in a truck which serves as a school bus of sorts, but it works. If more funding was available I'd like to start a second school"

         He was speaking with the enthusiasm of a child himself by this stage.

         "Did the recession have an affect on donations?" I asked, suddenly contemplating the costs involved.           

        "Very much so" said Jack seriously. "In fact it put us in to almost a state of crisis, as one Australian businessman, a wonderful chap, offered to donate very large sums of money on a regular basis, which we budgeted in to expansion plans. When the recession hit, his company was no longer able to honour the commitment, so it put a big strain on us when we tried to make ends meet. Donations were also affected from many of our fund raising centres all over the world"

          "So how did you manage?" I asked.

         He smiled.

         "You always do somehow, and don't forget - we run a very tight show. We have no fancy offices or top heavy administration, so every single penny goes directly to the poor, and there is no chance of it being diverted as in Mother Teresa's case"

         I raised my eyebrows in surprise.

        Jack nodded.

        "H'mm, I'm afraid so. It’s estimated that over $1 million in donations to her have been intercepted, and cashed in false bank accounts opened in Hong Kong and Singapore under the name of 'M. Teresa'  Police believe the racket was started way back in 1983"

         I was surprised and horrified.

         "You see, she's such a wonderful and warm person, it's natural that donors want to send money to her personally in Calcutta, thinking logically also that in her hands money will be even safer, but since mail is regularly opened here, the thieving followed as a matter of course. Fortunately all of our funding is done outside of India, and remitted to us without any chance of being siphoned off”

         He paused, pursing his lips.

         "Except that the banks tend to 'lose' your money - you know, it mysteriously disappears into a black hole for sometimes very long periods. You get lots of apologies and waggling of heads whilst they are 'checking' and telling you each time to come back tomorrow. Finally of course, it does appear, after generating a nice slice of interest for them. I suppose many banks do it in other countries, but here, they're really experts, and it’s infuriating"

         "So how many activities have you got up and running now?" I asked. It was always difficult to keep up with Jack's projects.

        He smiled philosophically, "Best start with what's been up - and fallen down. As you know, our Middleton Row clinic was closed down because they wanted to redevelop the site adjacent to it. Our second clinic which had opened on the river at Nimtallah Ghat to take the overflow from Middleton Row had to close finally due to Mafia pressures, so we now have one large clinic at Cossipore, which is working well. We'll go over there later. We've also opened a separate leprosy clinic beside the river at Chitpur"

        He laughed, and added:

        "Cossipore clinic's a real deluxe job you know, as we've even got loos, which is the ultimate luxury, and prevents people squatting just anywhere in the area. This was always a terrible problem before in other places, especially at Middleton Row, where the patients would often make poo-poo in the grounds of the Presbytery, and leave these very unwelcome smelly offerings on the lawn"                                                                    

         He chuckled. "There was hell to pay with the Bishop over that! Then we've got the Mobile Clinic which  operates in outlying villages - that started in April 1993, and the spinning and weaving project at Canning, about 45 kilometers from here, which opened in 1992."

         "So what is your average operating cost?" I asked

         "It varies, but it works out at around £20,000 a month, including the salaries of 17 doctors and about 150 other permanent staff - teachers, accountants etc., as well as ordinary workers."

         "Does that include all medicine, treatments, surgery - everything, plus the school, mobile clinic etc?" I asked incredulously.

         "Everything" asserted Jack. "The lot. That's the great benefit of be able to run something by yourself without all the high costs associated with international aid organisations whose advertising budgets alone can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars annually just to raise their funds, not to mention their salaries, rentals, vehicles etc. There are disadvantages obviously, as we do not have the clout of the Red Cross or the UN, or the backing of some cash-rich religious denomination like the Roman Catholic Church, but we have always managed. If you worked for a large organisation, how long could you put up with their policies, politics and bureaucracy?"

        I smiled wryly.

        He slapped his thigh, and announced eagerly, with a hint of pride.

         "Come on, let's show you round. Eating should be over, disorder reduced, and lessons started by now" He was right. The halls and corridors sat silent, except for the rhythmic swish of a cleaning lady's broom, and over 300 small children were now dutifully dispersed throughout the building.

        If my initial impression had been of delightful chaos, it was now verging on a kind of respectful reverence, kindled by the warmth of soft voices, and an ambience of complete contentment. As we meandered from one chalky room to the next, hundreds of pairs of wide sparkling dark eyes rested softly on us, and hundreds of pairs of lips parted simultaneously to form smiles of such pure beauty and innocence, that the effect began to overwhelm me. Emerging from yet another classroom of radiant faces, Jack sensed my emotion.

        He turned to look at me with a knowing look, as if he'd observed such a reaction from visitors to the school many times before.

        "What you're seeing and experiencing in these tiny children is exactly what Christ meant when he said: "For of such as these is the Kingdom of Heaven"
        "For me, that simple phrase says absolutely everything"

        Jack looked pensive, and added with a voice which rang with conviction                                                                                 

         "And I believe that only somebody divinely inspired could have said it"

          We stood there in silence on top landing of the school. Like countless other people I had read, heard, and recited that passage many times as a child. Ironically, forty years on, I had only just glimpsed its significance in the eyes, faces and expressions of a few dozen slum children.

        Jack looked at his watch, and raised his eyebrows. "Let's be off - it's time I was in Cossipore clinic. The jeep's parked outside"

         The sounds of children singing were still distantly audible as I bent double to insert myself in the back of the aging dark blue machine, and a voice at my elbow said:

         "Now, no disparaging remarks please, this is the nearest thing to a Rolls Royce!"

         Jack followed me in, letting a telltale grunt of discomfort escape, and we sat facing each other, laughing, perched on piles of tyres, and medical supplies, heads bowed by the contours of the venerated  jeep's roof.

         "Now I told you, no nasty comments please" he insisted, as the little vehicle shook with the valiant attempts of the starter motor, to no avail. I was about to make some unkind remark about getting out to push when the engine unexpectedly caught, and was revved instantly into shuddering life by the driver, who turned and smiled knowingly, then waggling his head, crunched it into gear, steering skillfully around a buffalo cart then into the thick traffic on the main road. I was still thinking about the faces at the desks.

         "Your children are just delightful" I said, hearing how quite inadequate the words actually sounded.

         "I mean, their smiles, the expression in their eyes, the way they look at you as though they trust and love you so much" I continued.

        Jack was nodding.

         "You often see the same thing, but much more profoundly, in the eyes of people who are dying" said Jack, as we weaved through the maelstrom of traffic, animals, and human rickshaw drivers.

         "You'll also see it sometimes in mentally ill people – it’s almost as though, through their suffering, they acquire some kind of spiritual insight"

        "You can really feel it" he added, looking at me intently. "It's like a current of divine energy, something so strong and so beautiful, it's impossible to even describe"

        The driver suddenly realised he had not asked for instructions. He turned around with a questioning face.

       "Cossipore?" he asked, through gleaming white teeth.

        "Cossipore" Jack affirmed, staring out of the window, with his thoughts clearly elsewhere.   

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