From the Author

Basil McCall

Jack Preger sat on this pavement providing free medical treatment to the poor, six days a week, for 14 years

        When I first saw Jack Preger's pavement clinic, I was astounded. Who was this man? What on earth had motivated him to create this? 

        A conversation with him over dinner only deepened the incredulity. If a medical clinic permanently operating on a stretch of broken pavement in a huge city was already inconceivable, the story of his life sounded even more unbelievable. 

        My impulse was to help Jack raise funds to support the clinic. Selling a book of photography was discussed. Finally it became clear that the story of Jack's extraordinary life had to be told instead. Jack was reluctant. He had no time for publicity, journalists, or the media. 

        Chapter 1 in this book describes when, weeks later, he finally agreed to doing taped interviews. These are transcribed in the following 17 chapters, mostly just as it was recorded in various city locations.

        Jack's life reveals contrasts of profound spirituality and outright rejection. He was born in Manchester in 1920, to an ultra-orthodox Jewish family. Deeply religious, he was destined to become a Rabbi. His faith however 'evaporated' when at the age of sixteen, he watched his father die, despite fervent and prolonged prayers made for his recovery. In a moment of catharsis gazing at his reflection in a horse trough, he removed the Yarmulke from his head. For the first time in his life, he "felt the wind in his hair". (Chapter Six) Symbolically liberated from the Jewish faith, Jack was to remain agnostic until he was 32.

        He studied at St Edmund Hall, Oxford gaining a post-graduate degree in philosophy, politics and economics. His main interest was agriculture. To pursue this, he bought a farm in Wales. The intention was to remain a farmer for the rest of his life. Something life-changing however, was about to happen.

        Metaphysical things are not associated with down-to-earth folk who call a spade a spade. A farmer spreading manure would therefore be an unlikely person to experience anything beyond the norms of science. Notwithstanding, while driving his tractor one day, Jack became the unwilling victim of what might be best interpreted as a calling. This was an absurd 'command' - to become a medical doctor. (Chapter Twelve)

        Absurd, not only because had then no interest in medicine, he also lacked the basic certification to enter medical college. To comply, he would have to study 'A' level Science and Mathematics. And he was already 35 years old. The 'command' from nowhere however, was peremptory, powerful and permanently lodged in his head. Wherever it came from, it had to be obeyed. After a huge struggle, Jack graduated as a medical doctor from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin 7 years later. He was now 42, and went to assist with the tragic refugee crisis and terrible human suffering in Bangladesh.

        The origins of that other-worldly event on the tractor might have had genesis in Jack's purchase of a leather-bound bible he had previously discovered in a second hand bookshop. He had bought this for its aesthetic appearance, not for its contents. However, reading the 'forbidden' New Testament, the former Rabbi-to-be considered parts of the New Testament to make sense, and concluded that "Christ was a divinely inspired prophet - and no more"  (Chapter 6)

        This led to Jack converting to Catholicism which he considered "closest to Christ's teachings" This adherence did not endure. It disintegrated in Bangladesh. "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"  (Chapter 6)

        Jack's final exit from the Catholic church happened at a mass he attended in London. " was an empty experience. It was just theatre. Acting out the same old part, repeating the same old script. It was spiritually sterile, if I can describe it like that". (Chapter 15)

        Jack now embraces an eclectic and a charismatic approach to faith (Chapter 11)

The author and Jack Preger in rural Bengal, circa 1993

(Photo courtesy Benoit Lange)

Author's notes:

The taped interviews date to the early 1990's and some of Jack's comments and opinions will have been superseded by later events and changes. I have not tried to correct or update these, as the central message of the book is anyway perennial and unchanging.

Numerous place names in the city have also been changed since this was written, such as "Dum Dum" airport in chapter 17, which is now known as "Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport". In the same way, I have left all historic names in their original form in order to preserve the originality of the text.

Cossipore Clinic (described in Chapter 4) no longer operates, but four urban clinics currently serve the poor, together with Mobile Clinics, a Street Medicine Programme, two schools, an Arsenic Mitigation Programme, a Vocational Training Programme including Weaving Mills, and a Fair Trade Certified Handicrafts project

Each chapter is prefixed by a separate text in blue, outlining an important event in Jack's life as he described to me, often with deep emotion

All photography was taken by the author, except the one above in rural Bengal, the image of Kali in chapter eleven, and may not be reproduced without permission.


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