A Long Lunch with Jack Preger


        The taxi waited at the kerbside with the back door open the driver at the wheel, ready.

        An emaciated figure was being helped slowly towards it, and finally stood leaning against the vehicle on trembling limbs. From here, he looked back at the collection of people on the pavement, amongst them, so many who had tried so hard to save his life.

        He had no education, and little knowledge, but he knew that this long and painful illness was about to claim its final victory. This journey would be his last.

        The English doctor left his other patients, and approached to say goodbye. He placed a hand on his shoulder, feeling the sharp bones cut through the paper of the dying flesh. The man reached out and grasped his other hand.

        Their`eyes met, and neither could divert their gaze as a current of pure human love flowed between them, in a moment of perfect understanding.


         The most significant thing about Jack's lunch spot was the high-backed bench seats, richly upholstered in soft, sticky maroon-coloured plastic, which duly lowered us to chest level with the stained and spotted tablecloth. We thus sat facing each other like circus midgets.

         "Well I must say this is pretty deluxe stuff" I commented, trying not to notice the condiment set, whose sticky and congealed appearance suggested it had never been cleaned since its implementation, many years before. I could only hope that the spicy and vinegary contents discouraged the growth of exotic Indian bacteria.

         "The management is really nice, and the food is good" said Jack reassuringly, whereupon to underscore the remark, the manager himself appeared genie-like at the table, wearing a broad smile beautifully enhanced by remarkably white teeth, which flashed in the dimness. We ordered several dishes from the soggy menu, and both leaned back comfortably, producing a squeak of protest from the seats. A mammoth air conditioning unit occupying the entire length of the wall lay silently behind Jack, like some large animal drugged by a ranger's dart, but ready to roar back into life at the end of this short cool period.

         "That's a whopper" I remarked, pointing to the contraption.

         "Yes, this is one of the coolest places to eat in the really hot season. The trouble is the thing makes such a terrible noise, you have to order by shouting into the waiter's ear"

         He laughed.

         "And it's a miracle really if they get it right even then"

         "So what about so-called miracles Jack?" I asked on an impulse. “Do you believe the reports?”

        He looked pensive. 

        "You have to be very careful with these things. I don't out-rule anything, but an awful lot of what you read about is produced by mass hysteria in dim lighting by people desperately wanting to convince themselves - or convince others. Each incident has to be examined with a great deal of skepticism, as much or most of it is just imagined, and I do not personally believe in the biblical miracles. I do believe however that there is a potentiality for divine intervention, and that the Holy Spirit is there ready to guide and push us if we are open and receptive to it - but it's not going to offer guidance all the time to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Now if a statue of the Virgin supposedly lifts a left index finger in answer to one question and the other in answer to another, then it becomes crazy - is she going to guide your life with a set of yes and no answers? These things are very dangerous I think"

        He picked up the ancient condiment set by its central upright, and twirled it thoughtfully with his finger and thumb. I hoped nothing would fly off it during Jack's engrossed meditation on the subject.

        "There are of course very carefully investigated happenings at Lourdes which no doctor can explain, and even although in rare instances normally incurable or fatal diseases can remit themselves naturally for no known reason, I believe that where there is faith, there can be what we would term miraculous cures. I think only special people receive these things, in the same way as others experience stigmata for example - bleeding wounds on the hands, but that is also very complicated, as the wounds occur where the nails could never have been driven into Christ, so overall it's not easy to comment"

         A young waiter with the beginnings of a faint teenage moustache appeared with a plate of hot nan bread, the smell of which instantly made my mouth water. We tore at it gratefully. 

         "What about prayers being answered?" I asked.

         Jack finished swallowing the warm bread, and kept the next ragged mouthful poised in his hand.

         "Again, it's difficult, as there are many cases where despite the most fervent and sincere prayers from devoted believers, they appear to be ignored. My own father prayed in such a fashion to save his life - I know, because I overheard them in the next room, and he died just as though he hadn't prayed a single word. Why some prayers are not answered, and others are, again will remain a mystery until we die, but I do not doubt in the power of prayer, as I've experienced it myself

         "Can you give me an example?" I asked.

         Jack laughed unexpectedly.

         "I recall vividly when I was about to be deported from here, as I had been unsuccessful in my application for the correct papers to stay on, and I thought really that everything was lost. My lawyers had told me that basically it was all over, and that I'd better prepare myself to be kicked out. 

        The food arrived, and we attacked it heartily. Jack continued between mouthfuls.

        "Well here in Calcutta, there's great devotion to Saint Anthony of Padua, and many people pray to him at a little chapel close to the New Market, near your hotel. Every Tuesday, people bring offerings of bread, and on that day, the whole place is just filled with bread. It's really a fantastic and meaningful sight - afterwards, the bread is given to the poor. So some friends said to me: 'Go on Jack, just pray to St Anthony, and see what happens' so I went to this little chapel and prayed, asking him to show me some way of staying here, and carrying on the work"

        He looked up from his plate and grinned at what was obviously a vivid memory.

        "Well, when I got back to Middleton Row after my prayers, the police were already waiting for me! I was arrested on the spot, and thrown into a police cell in the central lock up. Then as I lay on the dirty floor with all these dead-beat criminals in the stink and stifling heat, realising my dire circumstances, I thought: 'Saint Anthony, you are the boy! Now my prayers are answered eh?'"

        His eyes glistened with mirth.

        "Next day, I was taken to the court, then transferred to Allipore jail, where I was visited by a fellow from the British Deputy High Commission. I didn't know it at the time, but this man had been what they call a special constable during the war, and he really knew all the ins and outs of the system. When I was brought in for the interview, he looked at me and started laughing! I wasn't amused at all, and asked him what he thought was so funny about me being in such a horrible place. He just continued laughing, and told me that I should be really overjoyed - as I'd just got absolutely the best visa any foreigner could ever get in India! He explained that in the court, I had actually been charged - not told by the magistrate to stay in prison until deported, which is what they do to everybody else under such circumstances. They had in fact produced a whacking big charge sheet, like this"

        He laughed, and with one palm against his chest, he extended the other parallel to it half way across our table.

         "So this chap from the High Commission said: 'You are really well away now Jack, because you'll be under trial for years for sure, and you'll be able to continue your work, just wait and see'. And it was true - I was 8½ years under trial, and in the end, they said I could stay anyway as long as I left them in peace! It took them 5 years - 5 years - to present the prosecution, and another 3½ years was spent presenting my own defence"

        "And all thanks to Saint Anthony?" I mused.

        "Absolutely - because you have to consider that there was simply no need to charge me. I had already got my tickets to leave Bengal the next day, and when I was arrested, they told me in the police station to go upstairs and see the commissioner and apologise for staying on, and show him these tickets. Now, if I had done that, they would have only kept me in jail until I was due to leave, then thrown out the country - that's what happened when I was expelled from Bangladesh"

        He turned his head very slowly from side to side.

        "But for some reason - and I have no explanation why, I flatly refused. I said if they wanted to arrest me then to arrest me. I had not a clue what the result would be, but some mad bastard in Writers Building - that edifice I pointed out this morning at BBD Bagh - decided he'd get me, and that was the result- 8½ years under trial, and meanwhile the work for the poor continued, just as I'd prayed for. There are many other instances of my own prayers being answered - but that was really the most dramatic and emphatic"

        "So you can pray to many different people?" I asked.

        "Yes. I believe you can pray to all the saints, to Mary, and to Christ - but as I said before, I don't believe that Christ was any more than a divinely inspired prophet like Mohammed or Lord Buddha for example, and I don't believe stuff about the resurrection or the virgin birth any longer. I believe it's possible, but it's not a part of my faith. I believe that God can do anything if he wants, occasionally he does. Maybe there really was an angel sitting there in the tomb at Easter, maybe Christ did reappear to his disciples – it’s possible, but it doesn't matter to me"

        He paused and smiled, adding:

        "Although it matters intensely to the Church" 

        He mopped his now-empty plate with the last remaining piece of bread.

        "I do believe what happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus - this makes sense to me. That was a divine revelation, which caused his devotion to the Holy Spirit, and he has a very important message for us. I know instinctively when Christ is presenting a divine message in the New Testament, despite all that has been removed, altered, or all the fables and parables added in. Many of Christ's teachings I believe come direct from God" He looked at me with the intensity of someone anxious to relate an important piece of news. "You know, they speak to you. They really leap off the page at you. Nobody can change that"

         "But why do you think the bible has been altered so much?" I asked.

         "Well firstly, it is a product of those times and you have to remember that it is a collection of writings from numerous different people, many of whom may have had their facts wrong anyway.

         Secondly, it is the tendency of every reporter to over emphasise, exaggerate or sensationalise what he is recording so that it makes better reading, and I don't think the gospels are exempt from this. Thirdly as I mentioned before, it must have suffered from the first translation from Greek, and from the interpretation from the language it was conveyed in the very first place which in Christ's case was Aramaic. Lastly, it has undoubtedly been tampered with by church councils throughout the centuries to best suit their teachings and politics - so anyone today picking it up, and believing every single word, is going to end up with some very odd, and perhaps fanatical beliefs"

         He paused, allowing the young waiter to gather up our debris, and ordered tea, as we were both now too full for anything else. Jack smiled.

         "I remember learning how Richard Ingrams the previous editor of the magazine 'Private Eye' handled really hot stories when there was no time to check their authenticity. He said that if they had what he called 'the ring of truth' he just went ahead and printed them, but rejected the others which his sixth sense told him were fishy. Now, I do exactly the same with the bible. I know intuitively when something is just not right, or exaggerated"

        He was still smiling, and I sensed another funny tale. I was right.

        "This editor also discovered that half the perverts of London were using his motor cycle classified columns with a special code offering various sexual services by referring to different models of motor bikes or types of leather jackets. Now these obviously had the 'ring of truth' as well - so you really have to be careful what you choose to believe in!"

        "What about celibacy?" I asked "Do you think it's a desirable state?"

        Jack leaned back against his seat, and took a deep breath which he exhaled slowly.

        "I've worked with many celibates, particularly in Bangladesh, over a period of years. There they helped me a lot in my work and were also extremely good to me - I lived alone and was very short of money, so they would invite me once a week for dinner when there'd be really great food and plenty to drink, but I always had the feeling that they were not completely natural, nor were they happy somehow. Over the years I got to know many personally, and observed that some were leaving the church altogether, others married, or went to live with a partner, so they were really subject to enormous strain, and it showed. It still shows in fact, as many still come to visit me, and I think a lot of them find celibacy quite impossible to cope with. I personally think it's an unnecessary imposition, as most people are much happier and healthier being in a permanent loving relationship - this kind of love plays a very important part in our lives, and you have to be a really exceptional person to cut yourself off from all that, and from sexual fulfillment. Most people I think are incapable of it - eunuchs of the Lord are very rare on the ground"

         He smiled faintly.

         "That's why so many of them drink so much. It's an enormous problem in the Roman Catholic Church - many drink themselves to oblivion in their spare time"

         "So you think celibacy is unnatural?" I concluded.

         "Yes I do, except for the tiny minority of people who have actually completely attained that state - but for the majority, they are never going to attain it. They can put on an aura or a pretence of celibacy, but they're wasting a large part of their life through fighting their sexuality. Some can rise above it, but I don't believe there are many of them. That's the evidence now in the church"

         "Are you celibate?" I ventured.

         "I'm not celibate" he answered slowly, and paused thoughtfully. "I'm capable of living alone, but I'm not capable of cutting it all out of my mind. I have a loving relationship with a woman now who I knew when we were both very young, and I hope it will continue. When my wife decided to divorce me to marry someone else, I was alone for 6 years, but wasn't celibate in the true sense of the word. I had nothing to do with women, and didn't want to find another woman, but didn't completely exclude the possibility. Anyway, I'm happy that those six years are finished"

         The young waiter returned with a tray dominated by a large round discoloured porcelain pot so amply filled that the rich-coloured tea was lapping invitingly at the top of the chipped spout. I served a cup for Jack, losing the first outpouring on to the tablecloth where it was absorbed readily, partly explaining the curious stain patterns already in evidence. The waiter gave me a knowing smile, as if every customer also made the same mess on the table, and departed.

        "What about homosexuality - do you think that is unnatural?" I asked.

        Jack was mopping up his saucer, which I had also successfully filled with the tea, with a paper napkin.

        "I think it's natural in the sense that it's a thing which is in some people, in them from birth in most cases, and it is their normal way of expressing themselves and their normal way of living. I lived with homosexuals at a time when it was illegal in Britain, at Oxford University, in this small college. They were quite different from the rest of the students, some of whom were muscular rugby-playing types, and I found that the gay chaps were the nicest people in the whole place. They talked to me - they didn't hold it against me that I came from the wrong part of England, or the wrong kind of school, or had the wrong religion - they just accepted me. They were very gifted sand sensitive people too"

        He was nodding his head.

         "So, I'd say that homosexuality is a natural expression of certain types of genetic make ups." he added.

         "You mean the gay boys accepted you at Oxford, and the rest of the college didn't?" I inquired.

        "In my first year, yes, there was a lot of class distinction. I was the only Jew, and there were very few others from the North. Gradually however I was accepted, and my second and third years were fine. But I will always remember the warmth of those gay boys in that very difficult beginning."

        "What were you studying?"

        "PPE" he replied - "Philosophy, Politics and Economics. I specialised in the latter for underdeveloped countries, which helped me, as it turned out, in this part of the world"

        Jack's schoolboy smile was returning, and I could see that another amusing memory had surfaced. I poured him another cup this time without mishap, and said encouragingly:

        "Can I hear it?"

        "I must be careful not to be too specific" he said, absent-mindedly stirring his tea for an excessively long time.

         "Anyway, there was this Anglican priest in the same college, who was quite obviously gay in his orientation  He was a very eminent and well respected figure, but you couldn't take away his gayness from him, it was an integral part of his whole being"

        He took a sip of tea, which coincided with the picture from the past slipping back into his mind, producing an odd combination of simultaneous coughing and laughter.

        "Well, some of his behaviour patterns were a bit odd" he said, his voice tripping over his chuckles. "I used to live in the room below him, and during the war we had this crazy hit song, you know, top of the pops, and it was called 'Run Rabbit Run, we've got the Hun on the run' - or something daft like that. Anyway he'd play this on his wind-up gramophone, and have his gentlemen friends in very late at night - and they'd dance and prance around upstairs to this incredible tune, just above my head! Well maybe those young gentlemen who he was pursuing - in a very genteel way - might have changed later on in life, but I felt he would never change, as it was perfectly natural for him, as it is I believe for all homosexuals"

        "What do you think about HIV? - a lot of church people are keen on saying that it's God's response or punishment for our immoral ways"

        "I find it very difficult to believe that it's anything special in the theological sense, or that it's God's last warning or anything like that. Humankind has already experienced the plague and many other catastrophic diseases, and HIV has been coming a long time, although in the beginning we didn't recognise it. I consider it to be as natural as malaria or tuberculosis, and I think it could in fact be very useful - in the sense that it could make us turn some of our societies upside down"

         I gave him a quizzical look.
       "For example, in some western countries it is not the threat that it was first thought to be, in that it is containable through altered behaviour. It could be containable in other countries, but instead, it's going to lay waste large numbers of people simply because in such places - like Calcutta - people won't change their lifestyle, which is an invitation to total disaster" He grimaced. "But perhaps when full blown AIDS cases really appear in great numbers, people will finally begin to stop exploiting women and boys in the brothels - as they have done since time immemorial - and stop pay offs to police and politicians who allow it to flourish. If they don't stop, they'll destroy their own bourgeois lives, as the virus, unlike leprosy, doesn't stop at the lower class. You see, with leprosy patients, all they do is remove them, put them into a colony, or push them out somewhere to avoid contact. In any case, leprosy is a difficult disease to catch - it needs prolonged exposure to someone in an infectious state, so the bourgeoisie are at little  risk, the only exception being in cases where an untreated person has a nasal lesion, as this creates an infectious aerosol of leprosy bacilli. HIV is different, as it sails over the class barrier via India's rampant prostitution through the likes of students and businessmen. They then infect their partner or future partner, and the virus can even pass to the foetus. As I said, in the west, some countries have limited the spread, but in Asia, and certainly here in India, it's a catastrophe in the making,  which will be the cause of widespread suffering as things stand now. It will take a long time before people fully realise the immensity of the problem but when they do, hopefully many of the current values will change"

         Jack was glancing at his watch,

         "What is your schedule this afternoon?" I asked hopefully.

         "I've blocked it for you, or you will never finish" said Jack, "Although I should be doing a million other things. Where do you want to go from here?"
       I thought for a moment.
        "Can we visit Kalighat?" I said, suddenly feeling the desire to return to the place where I had been a volunteer for Mother Teresa years before.

         Jack nodded slowly. 

         "Yes, if you want to. In fact I sent a patient there yesterday, and I'd like to know how he is, poor devil"

        "Do you send a lot of cases to Mother Teresa's?"

        "Only if there's nothing more we can do, and there's no hope left, which unfortunately is the case with this fellow. He has terminal cancer and is dying. This was a very special example, as we treated two men at the same time with quite expensive chemotherapy imported from Japan - one recovered completely, but this chap just got worse and worse"

         He shook his head.

         "The terrible thing was that he could see the other one getting stronger and better each time they both came for treatment, whilst he was just sinking lower and lower. This went on for months, and he suffered an awful lot. Yesterday he was in such a state we had to put him in a taxi to Kalighat"

         "Do you often visit patients there?"

         "No, I normally cannot get so close to our patients. I would send one of our nurses to follow their progress - but I've known this man for such a long time, and seen him go through such agony, he's really an exception"

         "But how do you decide when to try treatments that are costly like this when you have probably hundreds of other cases to consider?" I asked.

         Jack frowned.

         "It's always terribly difficult. Obviously, we can only go ahead if I consider that there's a good chance of recovery, but you can really never be sure - like in this case. The heart surgery patients are equally difficult. It's wonderful when people do recover fully, and of course terrible when you fail, as you always ask yourself whether it may have worked with another patient who you chose not to treat. The other awful thing is making mistakes - wrong treatment, wrong diagnosis or whatever. Yes, it happens in every field of medicine, but in my own case, I can never forget such instances"

         "But don't you find yourself becoming hardened towards suffering and death just by being exposed to it so much?"

         "Well obviously you must disassociate yourself to a degree, as you'd get no work done by dwelling on each set of tragic circumstances. But in individual situations, when you are closely involved, you cannot just switch off your emotions. As I've mentioned to you, in many cases, when someone who has suffered so much is approaching death, and leaving behind a wife just living on the pavement - like this poor man we'll see this afternoon at Kalighat, the relentless advancing evil of their disease, and what else can you call it but evil? - is eclipsed by something which is goodness, holiness almost - and you can feel it. It's as though these people are given a special consciousness which in their last days or hours, enables them to glimpse what the universe is all about. They perhaps feel the presence of God - and that is what is transmitted through them, to you"

        He paused. The restaurant was now empty except for ourselves.

        "I've come across this phenomenon so many times amongst people who are leaving the world with a hopelessly diseased body and dressed in filthy tatters, without a single coin in their pocket. It is almost as though their spirituality is refined in death by their total poverty, their complete lack of any worldly goods"

         His eyes took on a profound expression.

         "This I really believe is what is contained in that wonderful message from Christ, in St Matthew:

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

         He looked across the table at me at me intently.

         "As I told you, these are for me, without any doubt, the words of God"

         We sat in silence for a long period. The young waiter reappeared, perhaps fearing that the sudden prolonged quiet meant we had left forgetting to pay the bill, which he held ready in his hand. I was surprised at how little it was.

         "We can take the Metro to Kalighat" said Jack, shouldering his bag, "The station's just up the road"

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