CHAPTER 7

In a Calcutta Taxi.


 TRANSITION 


       
Jack Preger had always enjoyed going to the second-hand bookshop in the main street. Traffic noises outside were silenced by the tall shelves thick with volumes, creating a church-like peace, soothing to the senses.

        It was not just that books nourished his thoughts and filled the silence of that remote farm, he also found a comforting fellowship amongst the musty pages of other people's writings. Inside some of the covers, scratched by old nibs drained on crusted ink bottles, salutations and personal messages to souls long gone deepened the fascination, and this dusty place became an essential retreat during his trips to town.

        Today was one of those days, and he contentedly pushed open the door, enjoying its familiar tinkle, and smelling with satisfaction the welcoming odour of old paper and bindings.

        Reaching the end of one row, his eye fell on a table display of large volumes which he could not recall seeing before. On an impulse, he picked one up, requiring two hands to support its weight, and opened its yellowing pages.

        As his eyes rested on the unfamiliar and beautifully printed gospels of the New Testament, he decided that this had great aesthetic worth, and he carried it over to the lady at the counter. She said it had come from a chapel, and it would cost him sixpence. He took it back to the farm, unwrapped it, and laid the big bible on the kitchen table to read at meal times.

        It was going to change his life.

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         If you hail one of Calcutta’s wasp-coloured taxis in speeding traffic, it results in the awesome spectacle of a heavy metal object detaching itself from a torrent of vehicles, and streaking towards you with the resolve of a guided missile. This particular rocket drew up with a screech of tyres, and Jack's instructions shouted in Bengali through the window put paid to any fare structures specially formulated for foreign visitors. The driver obediently flagged his ancient meter with a broad smile of resignation, and resumed his Grand Prix position at the wheel, one hand on the rim, the other readied in eager anticipation on the horn.



      
  We were now sitting comfortably in an icon of India, as synonymous with the sub-continent as curries and saris, and as beloved as Bollywood. This venerable vehicle, the Indian Ambassador, is the matronly matriarch of all automobiles, and mainstay of the nation’s taxi fleets. Known affectionately as the “Amby” this go-everywhere repair-anywhere jalopy is actually a hybrid of the 1954 British Morris Oxford, now a nostalgic memory in the UK, but living happily ever after all over India, and as much appreciated by prominent politicians as the proletariat.

        Manufactured by Hindustan Motors in West Bengal, and licensed to take up to 5 passengers, but capable of squeezing in more than a dozen denizens, this tenacious Titan of Indian roads has stood the test of time like no other form of transport. A true “ambassador” she is indeed, upstaging upstarts like Toyota and counterparts as the world's oldest surviving mass-produced car. We continuously slid from side to side on a back seat polished to a gloss by thousands of bottoms as our aspiring Formula One driver piloted the stubby taxi from lane to lane, avoiding what seemed like inevitable collisions with some kind of intuitive mental radar.


        We were soon passing the Esplanade tram terminus at the north end of the Maidan, Calcutta's huge oxygen-enhancing 2,000-acre central park. This green expanse, dominated by the tall rocket-shaped Ochterlony Monument, is the playground of joggers, assorted sportsmen, including hundreds of cricketers, and is a preferred venue for voluble political rallies. It is flanked on the east side by Chowringhee, the city’s equivalent of Oxford Street, home to many bourgeois shops and malls, as well as the centenarian five-star Oberoi Grand Hotel, formerly the site of something less grand called “Mrs. Monte's Boarding House” – little did Mrs. Monte know what was on the cards for her humble premises. Accommodation of a different kind exists in this area at the city’s famous “Rat Park” – a warren of tunnels sheltering countless numbers of rodents which local people feed much like pigeons in Trafalgar Square, except that unlike the London doves, rats have a religious affiliation for Hindus, and are viewed as venerable, rather than as vermin.  

        As we pushed our way through the Chowringhee traffic, our chauffeur risked draining his battery with insistent blasts on his horn, as if somehow the decibels might magically dissolve the mass of cars carts and other conveyances competing for space. Other drivers obviously thought likewise. What a racket.

         Jack laughed

         "When I first came here after they kicked me out from Bangladesh in 1979, a lot of the taxis still had the old fashioned hand operated horns - you know, the ones with the big fat rubber bulb? It was much better then, as the honk-honk sound was pleasantly old-worldy and not at all aggressive. I wish it would become fashionable again - these ear-bursting blaring things they have now are murder."

        I settled back into the seat pensively. Jack’s story so far was both curious and fascinating. As he had revealed, his Jewish faith had slipped away in an instant – so how on earth had he become a Roman Catholic? I asked him, whilst bracing myself for what looked like another uncomfortably close encounter with a large diesel-belching double-decker bus.

        “It's strange I suppose how it happened. At that time I had my own farm in Pembrokeshire, Wales. It was a really isolated place on the sea, with high cliffs and windswept fields. We didn't have TV, and during the long winter nights there wasn't much else to do but read. I used to go into town about once a week for provisions, and I'd often visit this second hand bookshop - the lady who ran it was very nice. Anyway, one day I saw these old bibles - great big things, and on a whim, I bought one for sixpence - those little silver coins, you remember? I took it home to the farm, and kept it on the kitchen table, where I'd prop it up - it was really heavy - and read it at mealtimes."

        “So what happened?" I asked.

        "Well, over a period of time I gradually became very interested in what Jesus actually said, and realised that amongst everything that has been added, taken away or misinterpreted in from the Christian bible, that Christ was definitely worth considering. I couldn't believe that there was so much in the New Testament that I'd already heard indirectly in quotations, or that Christ had actually said these things, so I felt more and more as I read it that there was a message in this for everyone - and it came from God"

        His face had taken on a contemplative look, and I suddenly caught a glimpse of him, nearly thirty years before, sitting in a warm farm kitchen on a cold Welsh night, perhaps with his spectacles in the same accustomed position on the tip of his nose, reading the book which - little did he know - was to change his life so dramatically. He went on:

        "We were always short of labour on the farm, and the parish priest who was an Irish Catholic used to send me some of the Irish lads who'd not got enough cash for the boat back home. Another neighbouring farm would send me their Italian hand when he was free, so I suddenly found myself amongst a Catholic circle. I'd drive them to Mass, and wait outside in the car reading the paper. Eventually I became curious, and began attending myself. It was a short step from there to a conversion"

        A break in the traffic allowed us a stretch of empty road, and a green traffic light led us at lightning speed into Park Street, where we pulled up abruptly, provoking a frenzy of horns from those behind us.

        I paid the fare with some of the tram conductor's ragged rupee notes, and the driver waggled his head in acknowledgment before deftly disappearing back into the traffic. We crossed Park Street at a fast run, and found ourselves sauntering contemplatively down a relatively quiet residential street - called Middleton Row.

 

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