Spotlight shines on Jack Preger, the ‘barefoot’ doctor of Kolkata.
Nothing on his wrinkled face or demeanour gives an inkling of his remarkable life. Age has withered him but failed to break his indomitable spirit. Dressed carelessly, he stands with a slight stoop, talking affably, shaking hands with people whose paths have crossed his. After about half-an-hour, he has to be coaxed to take his seat at an auditorium, where a film on him is about to be screened.
Meet Jack Preger, the 86-year ‘barefoot’ doctor from the U.K. who acquired his medical degree in his 40s following “an inner urge”. Till then, he was happy working on his farm in Wales.
His life since then has been anything but a bed of roses. It reads almost like a film-script, which has now been documented in Doctor Jack — One Man, One Life One Fight. The film, by Swiss photojournalist Benoit Lange, was previewed here recently.
Dr. Preger has been hounded by locals while trying to treat the poor for free at his pavement clinics, faced deportation from one country, and been jailed in another. “I have stayed in servant quarters,” he says, reminiscing about his early days here. He survived these ordeals, learning some valuable life lessons along the way.
His journey as a doctor began in 1971 with the Bangladesh liberation war. He packed his bags and left England, answering a call for medical volunteers required to treat survivors and refugees.
The scenes of bloody chaos in the newly born country devastated him.
Throwing himself headlong into helping the vulnerable, he began treating the poor and refugees there for free. Even as he did so, he came across a child-trafficking racket. End result? He was deported from Bangladesh.
Remembering those days, he says with a wry smile in the film: “When I was deported, not a single person came to see me off at the airport… I found it very encouraging!”
Dropping anchor in Kolkata (then Calcutta), he joined Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, which he left later. He then began running free roadside clinics six days a week in central Kolkata.
Makeshift structures were propped up using just a few chairs, perhaps a three-legged table, and a tarpaulin sheet overhead for protection from the elements.
Every evening these clinics would be dismantled, only to be set up the next day — six days a week.
The medical records were stored in boxes. And, the queues were long — at times almost 500 patients were treated, some of them even given money to get back home!
The doctor treated his patients for all sorts of ailments, from burns to diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy.
Aside from run-ins with local goons — to whom the milling crowds were a disruption — Dr. Preger ran into serious trouble only once. He was thrown into Alipore Central Jail due to problems over his travel documents.
Long court case
“The court case went on for eight and a half years, although my jail stay was short,” he chuckles, adding that many joked at that time that his visa problem would not trouble him till the case was resolved.
Not one to give up easily, Dr. Preger stood his ground, got registration for his NGO, named Calcutta Rescue, and now runs a number of free clinics that are no longer set up on pavements.
There are also two mobile clinics, an arsenic filtration plant in Malda, and two schools (one of which is located in an erstwhile brothel in one of the city’s largest red-light districts).
He also runs a handicrafts centre, and a weaving centre that makes gauze and dressing pads, which are used in the clinics.
Dr. Preger, who needs to renew his visa annually, does not treat patients anymore. “ I am ageing, we now have 12 doctors to treat the needy,” he tells The Hindu.