CHAPTER 6.

At BBD Bagh - Dalhousie Square


 VOID


         
That particular afternoon combined perfectly the very elements of Summer, with the warmth of the sun tempered by a breeze blowing over newly mown grass, and a benevolent sky smiling from a face powdered in cream and white. 

        The young Jewish boy walking home from school felt his shoes squash the hot tar on the road, and he relished its sharp smell. He paused at a horse trough outside a village pub, and leaned over the surface of the water, examining for the first time it seemed, his own image projected against the sky. What he wore on his head at first absorbed him, and then inexplicably created a feeling of discomfort which grew until it could no longer be contained.


        He took the cap off, feeling the eager fingers of the wind reach instantly for his hair, as though it had waited all this time to do so, and its coolness precipitated a momentous change. His faith, so long unbreachable, now ebbed away, leaving behind a spiritual vacuum which would last until he was thirty two years old, when he would pick up an old Christian bible in a second-hand bookshop

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         We found a stone bench in the shade facing the lake, and settled comfortably into its curve, listening to an odd ensemble of mothers calling to their children, and children calling to their mothers, set against the discordant cacophony of traffic, and the rumble of accelerating tramcars.

        "That's Writer's Building over there where I spent so much time during my trial" Jack said pointing to the imposing red structure over the sea of heads on the pavement.

        "I used to dread going there during those black years before the charges were dropped, but now I'm a kind of celebrity with the staff – the long-serving ones fall about in hysterics when I visit, and when the new ones ask why, they say: 'Well, don't you know? This is the man who beat them upstairs! Sit down doctor, please, sit down! What publicity! And now you have a medal – an MBE - from the Queen of England!'

        Jack chuckled.

        “And having been in jail helps your status you know, because you emerge in their eyes as a kind of a martyr – not quite as famous as these BBD boys, but any fellow who suffers at the hands of the authorities is perceived as a kind of revolutionary.”  

       
"What was jail like?" I ventured, unable to resist the question.

        Jack remained silent, and I thought at first he was not going to answer, and we both continued observing the passing scene.

        "Once you go to prison" he began finally, "I don't think you're quite the same person again - you view society in quite a different fashion after being at the receiving end of their system of justice. It's one of those experiences that you have to live through to know it - like being desperately ill or witnessing terrible suffering and death. Of course, prison conditions in the west are quite different, you might even say luxurious - with televisions, libraries and things, but most prisons in the third world I imagine are the same as I experienced, or even worse"

       
He smiled philosophically at the memory.

        "You can imagine the smells and general conditions better than I can describe if I tell you that there were 40 of us in one cell, another 40 next door, and only one toilet among 80 of us. We were all under trial, except for the convicts in charge of the cells, so we did no work, but most were anyway known criminals. The majority slept the whole day, but the place became an absolute madhouse at night"

        I looked at him in surprise.

      "Yes, you see they locked us in every afternoon from 4.30pm to 6.30am the next morning, so we were completely unsupervised during this time. These fellows had drugs stashed high up behind the walls, and as soon as the door closed, and the key turned, they were climbing up there like crazed monkeys to get at the stuff, and most of them spent the night high as kites on dope. It was quite an incredible sight really"

        He shook his head slowly.

        "The place was also full of people who had been beaten up on arrest, and I really felt quite close to many of them - it's extraordinary really how the same kind of human bonding can happen even in situations like this, even though many of these people were hardened criminals or even murderers."     

       
"How long were you in for?" I asked

        "Only eight days, but it was long enough to contract amoebic dysentery. Lord knows what must happen physically, never mind mentally, to people in there for years"

        My mind baulked at the thought.

        "Talking about prisons, the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta was over there somewhere" Jack advised, pointing over towards the General Post Office.

        The dark thought of people dying slowly of crushing and suffocation was dispelled by three nuns from Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity, who appeared suddenly at the other side of the lake and simultaneously captured our attention. Although a common sight in Calcutta, and in many other cities around the world, this particular moment possessed a rare beauty, with the sun reflecting on their blue-bordered white robes as they walked with unpracticed grace.

         "Now, if you look at Mother's work" said Jack quietly, his eyes following the figures until they were lost from sight  “You see God, and the Holy Spirit intervening in human suffering on an enormous scale world wide, and her message is just so wonderfully reflected in her life. It was without doubt the Holy Spirit that came to her all those years ago on the train to Darjeeling when she was just a young nun, and told her to go outside of the convent amongst the poorest of the poor - and I believe that if any person opens himself or herself up to the Holy Spirit, it will guide them in the same way. It won't save you from suffering or from sickness or death, nor prevent you making terrible mistakes, but it's there to help you in ways that I can't explain, for they're to do with the whole mystery of God's purpose - and the meaning of suffering"

        After reflecting a moment, he added:

        "And I think it's there to use people to alleviate suffering. Now, why there should be suffering in the first place, and why the Holy Spirit cannot wave some magic wand and just remove it - that's something we won't know until we're dead. I think then we'll be able to understand why babies die, and why such terrible things happen in the world without God interfering. But until then we should listen to the simple message of the Spirit. I've gone past the Inn of The Good Samaritan, on the road to Jerusalem. It's fantastic, it's a place that just stands there, and it's got that same simple message for the world, which is expressed really beautifully in old English" 

          He stared out over the lake and said slowly:

         "Whatsoever you do……………to the least of these my brethren……….. you do unto me"

         His eyes seemed fixed on some distant object, and I suddenly had the odd feeling that he was speaking to somebody else. He turned to look at me.

         "For me, these are the words of God in English, transmitted through Christ. That's what my faith is really, and I believe that the Holy Spirit will teach you these things. It won't teach you how to be a good doctor- or how to avoid the wrath of the authorities here, and end up in prison"

         He laughed heartily.

         "But if you say to the Holy Spirit in your prayers or meditation that you are nothing in yourself, just use me - it will use you."

         He looked thoughtful.

         "And it may not be very pleasant or easy, but you will get all the help that you need. In Mother's case, she started with nothing, and the scope of her work was very limited, but the world opened its heart to her, and what she has done - I believe will live forever. People will never be able to say that evil is triumphant, or there is nothing you can do about poverty or suffering. As she has said herself so often, God is in the poor and the suffering - it's absolutely true. I don't know how to explain it, but the best way of knowing the Holy Spirit, in addition to prayer or personal meditation, is through devotion, even in your spare time, to the very sick, the destitute, the dying, to children and even mentally ill people. There is research going on at present into the possibility that some mentally ill people may perhaps be more open to paranormal experiences and divine influences, in the same way perhaps as those who are undergoing tremendous suffering, or people who have already consciously started the dying experience. Of course it is difficult to find in medical journals, but it did, I believe, get in to The Times during the autumn of 1993, following some work done at a hospital in London"

        I was anxious to ask Jack what I had wondered about since our dinner in the Chinese restaurant.

        “But what happened to your Jewish teachings, Jack?”

        He smiled at the distant memory.

        "It happened when I was walking home from school one very hot summer’s day when I was sixteen. My faith just evaporated.

        "Evaporated?" I queried

        "Just collapsed, like one of those towers you build with playing cards. Nothing was left, not an ounce of conviction. In fact, it was like some kind of liberation. Of course, I didn't dare tell my family. I managed somehow to keep up a pretence during worship and Jewish festivals, and I had to appear particularly devout when my father died, but actually there was just an empty space where my faith had had been. Nobody had any idea that the theological bottom had just dropped away from me. It's incredible really to think it happened after having had such a profound faith, and thinking I might be a Rabbi. From that day I was an agnostic for until I was 32. Sixteen years – that’s quite a long time really"

        "What happened when you were 32?" I ventured.

        "During that period, the Roman Catholic Church was closest - as far as I was concerned - to the teachings of Christ. It was the time of Vatican Two, and I started taking instruction in 1964, was baptized in 1966, and confirmed in 1967. In spite of a disastrous first confession, when the rather rustic priest was obviously totally on a different wavelength. I remained a Catholic until I went to work in the Bangladesh refugee camps in 1972. There, the whole thing fell apart, and I just couldn't relate what the Dhaka church bourgeoisie was doing – or rather not doing - in relation to the utterly appalling suffering right under their noses - it was, if you like, a complete contradiction to Christ's message, and that was the beginning of the end of my Catholicism" 

        An old man was approaching us expectantly, carrying a battered wooden box filled with balding brushes and flat tins of shoe polish. I pointed to my canvas sneakers, and to Jack's sandals, neither type suitable for any of his services, but he toothlessly insisted until he finally received sufficient waving of hands from me and Bengali words from Jack to convince him that there definitely was no business to be done. He went on his way.

        How do you explain the selection process?" I asked. "I mean if there is a God, then why does he present you and me say, with a life where we receive an education in a society where there are ample opportunities for advancement and access to all of life's goodies, yet hundreds of millions of others - regardless of their latent intelligence or hard work - have lives just full of hardships heartbreaks and suffering?"

         I pointed to the bent, aging figure with the shoe polish box shuffling slowly away from us on emaciated leathery legs.

         "I mean what determined for example the conditions for that old fellow's earthly life - why should he be so unfortunate, and we so lucky?"

         Jack looked thoughtful for a moment.

         "Well first of all, let's ask ourselves: what if there is no God? This would mean that countless millions of people around the world are behaving in a mentally disturbed way by going to temples, churches, mosques, synagogues or what have you, and when they pray they are indulging in psychotic behaviour, therefore a very large proportion of the human race must be suffering from delusions if this is the case. On the other hand, if there is a God - a benevolent loving one as we would want to believe - then your question is very valid, and it is one which troubled me for a long time, since Christianity has no answer for it" 

        A pained expression momentarily clouded his face.

         "I knew little really about suffering, except in my contact with Holocaust survivors, until I saw the refugee camps in Bangladesh after the war and the famine, where it was present on a massive scale. I cannot explain to you the sheer horror of first witnessing that. My brain could not cope with the colossal pain and utter misery that had overtaken huge masses of people. It was after experiencing this living nightmare that my belief in reincarnation and karma was born –I didn't get it from a book, it just came to me as an intuitive explanation, and the only one to explain this horrific situation"

        He reflected for a while.

        "I suppose that as both a circumcised Jew, and a baptised Roman Catholic, I was able to see another dimension more easily. I cannot prove that reincarnation is true, but it explains many things that Christianity does not, although there is some evidence to support a belief in reincarnation in biblical times, but it was removed by later church councils from the gospels"

        He smiled, and pointed across the water to where our old man was kneeling and now successfully shining somebody's shoes.

        "This begs the question as to what was the exact original content of the Christian bible. This is a particular interest of mine, and if one day I do retire, I would like to spend a lot of time researching the subject. I'm actually trying to start studying Greek - which the original version was written in, and have a book on Aramaic, which we believe was the language Christ spoke in, but the original translation from the Greek is obviously open to question. There is a great deal in the current version that I simply can't accept. Neither do I believe in the virgin birth, nor the resurrection. I believe that Christ was a divinely inspired prophet - and no more"

         He frowned.

         "And the teaching which says: I am the way and there is no other way to the Father except  through me - all that kind of stuff I can't believe, and I would certainly not expect or even contemplate anyone else believing it from another religion"

         He shook his head slowly but emphatically.

         "That's just inconceivable - that you're born in Basingstoke, go to Sunday School, worship Jesus as a child and grow up with the belief that only you have a preferential 'hot line' to God, whereas the devout Moslem, or even the dedicated tribal up in the hills worshipping a spirit which he believes inhabits the local river, have no access, or a way of communicating with the Creator at all. These people are a product of their own culture and their own environment, as we are, and deserve equal respect, whatever their belief may be, particularly if their devotion is linked with self improvement and loving their fellows. Yes, of course - savage tribes indulging in cannibalism or human sacrifices or whatever might benefit from some basic Christian teachings - but certainly not by saying 'come to church and get a free blanket, or come to our school, we'll teach you to read, and then you can study the Bible"

         "What about the stories you read about people remembering past lives?" I asked. 

         "I don't believe very much in these dramatic accounts of people reliving previous lives under hypnosis, and you have to be extremely skeptical of all these things. But if reincarnation is not true, then life as we see it is very difficult to understand, and all religions equally so, if there has been no previous existence....but no matter how much you think about life, you simply have to accept that there will always be terrible mysteries until you die, and although reincarnation explains a great deal, it leads us into many difficult areas of practical belief" 

         "So you go along basically with the Buddhists and the Hindus as far as reincarnation goes?"

         "Basically, yes, and other faiths too which embrace reincarnation, although as I said before, this belief came to me rather than me accepting a ready-made version. The same with the law of cause and effect - Karma - where every action you do is programmed into some divine computer whirring away up there, which dictates what your next life will be. That also came to me as a perfectly logical thought"

        "So those wretched refugees you saw in Bangladesh deserved that terrible fate?" 

        "If they did, then earned is a better word to use, but you cannot just assume such things. As I said, the mystery will never be revealed completely, and if for example an airline pilot gets drunk and crashes a jumbo jet, killing everybody, you cannot say that all of these passengers earned their death in that fashion. A lot of earthly suffering is directly caused by the actions of others, whether it be tragedies provoked by irresponsible drivers on the roads, or en masse, for example by blind churches which outlaw birth control - when overpopulation in many countries kills more surely than plague or leprosy, and causes more suffering than anything else. Now you can attribute suffering to specifics such as poverty, inadequate food supplies, poor medical services, scarcity of housing, poor sanitation, overcrowding, lack of employment opportunities, insufficient education and many other things, but a large number of these topics relate to overpopulation. You do not have to be a sage to realise that our beautiful but tiny planet, increasingly consumed by consumerism has definite limits, and by implementing death control – by keeping people alive longer and longer - and banning birth control, the equation will go wrong. If we continue like this, it is quite likely that Mother Nature will redress the situation for us. We are subject to the same laws as any other living creature in the final analysis, however smart we become, and we have leased this fragile planet in the same way as we lease our bodies - we don't own it"

         "But you said you cannot be sure that reincarnation is true, so how can you be so sure that what you believe about the Holy Spirit is true?" I asked, somewhat audaciously.

         "Because back in 1974, for whatever reason, I was shown the truth - as others have been shown, like Mother Teresa travelling on the train to Darjeeling in 1946. Doctors would call such things hallucinations, but I'm absolutely convinced because of the manner of presentation. Nothing can shake that, and I don't live in expectation of further revelations. There were no instructions, no directions, and I don't expect that because of it life will be easy, nor do I expect an easy death. Maybe there will be some dreadful conclusion to my life - I won't understand why - but I solidly believe that at the end of it, there is a life in the spirit"

         "Then why have this physical life at all, with all the suffering and death in the end, perhaps as you say with horrible pain or other forms of torment?" I asked.

         Jack nodded, and went on:

         "Because I think what we're doing here is almost like theatre, except that we're not puppets. We assume character personalities compatible with what we were in our last life, we have the free choice to write our own lines as it were, and take responsibility for our own actions in the earthly drama, changing our karma for better or worse in the process. It's like a trial period or rehearsal - you might even say an apprenticeship - for something else which is of much more significance, and which you cannot progress to until you go through this stage"

        We both sat looking at the surface of the water for a while before Jack added:

        "And if you don't mind, I would like to continue this discussion with a full stomach -I don't think any mortal should be discussing such metaphysical topics without something earthly to digest at the same time!"

        He laughed and stood up, holding both palms flat on his midriff.

        "So let's please find some terrestrial nourishment!" he added. We passed our wizened friend with the shoe cleaning service. He greeted us with another toothless smile, and renewed offers to polish the unpolishable.

         "We could eat in an excellent little place near Middleton Row " Jack suggested, "And have a look at the old site of the clinic, to see what's happening - but you'll have to pay for a taxi" he said with a wink.

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