‘On the one hand, it’s wonderful to be able to help other people, but you also don’t know how it will end up helping you.’

Backpacking across India was the last way I thought ex-editor of Newsquest, Sean Duggan, would have stumbled upon Calcutta Rescue. I also presume he didn’t imagine overhearing the conversation of a Swiss nurse working for Dr Jack Preger, just south of Kolkata, would kickstart his career in journalism, but as good luck would have it, it did.

After having served twelve years in the army, Sean Duggan arrived in Mumbai to trek across India. But as he disembarked the train he had taken to his starting place, his original plans came to an end. ‘Even though I’d been to India twice before, I’d never seen such poverty’, he articulated, ‘the thought of me walking for pleasure through a place where people were so desperately poor was just…’ he paused in quiet reflection for a moment, concluding, ‘well it was just impossible for me’.

Deeply unsettled, Sean explained he had told all his friends and family he was walking across India, when, in fact, he had just walked to the beach.

It was on the beach he sat to ponder his next move. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much of a choice, in a pre-credit card era, he spent the next ten days painstakingly taking buses across India to collect money he had sent to various post offices before arriving back just south of Kolkata. ‘I overheard a conversation there, there was a Swiss nurse who had been working in Kolkata for this doctor, whose name was Dr Jack Preger’. Sean was not going to let his opportunity evade him. Emblazoned with inspiration, he rose from his seat and approached the nurse - that was where his Calcutta Rescue journey began.

Coincidently, my interview with Sean was not where my experience with Calcutta Rescue began, either. I had previously been privileged enough to review their spectacular Christmas Concert in December. I fiddled with the lid of my pen in hesitation, trying to formulate the question spiralling in my head. ‘Is there anything you think people should know about Calcutta Rescue when you describe it to people when you first meet them?’ I asked, inarticulately. ‘It’s a small charity with about a hundred and fifty staff, many of whom were actually patients and have been trained up to fulfil a really useful role as healthcare assistants and we have doctors, we have teachers.’ But the limitations of Calcutta rescue are not confined to this traditional, charitable box, Sean spoke about the arsenic filtration programme. North of Kolkata, many people are being poisoned by arsenic seeping out of the rocks and the construction of wells has been a vital role Calcutta Rescue has played in ensuring these people’s safety. ‘It’s a very unusual little charity… it’s focus really is to ensure we help the maximum number of the very poorest people’, he explained that this meant that money was not depleted by the cost of extravagant offices and endless publicity. Therefore, the charity relies heavily on the altruism and selflessness of volunteers willing to get involved.

Sean decided to stay in Kolkata. Even on the verge of the First Gulf War, when, ‘there was a potential threat against all Westerners in India at that point in time and Mother Teresa was weeping every Sunday and urging everyone to go home because we were all going to be killed by the Muslims’, Sean said, entwined with eloquent sarcasm. Someone needed to sustain the impacts of the charity and Sean’s instincts were unerring: ‘I didn’t think we were going to be massacred by the Muslims, in fact, there was no violence at all. No one was hurt, not a single person’.

Soon enough, he was coordinating a medical clinic on the banks of the Ganges. Nurturing and healing over three hundred people per day, many of whom were suffering from serious conditions like leprosy and tuberculosis. The impact on Kolkata may have been one of intense amelioration, but Sean’s experiences plagued him upon return to the UK. His relief came when he was once again reunited with Calcutta Rescue, after discovering and joining a group fundraising for the charity in Britain. However, it stretched beyond the parameters of fundraising, ‘one of the things they needed was someone to edit their newsletter’, enticed by the opportunity, Sean volunteered. It was this first edition of the newsletter that led to Sean’s journalistic adventures and his application to the London College of Communication to study journalism. Eventually, he ended up writing for the Surrey Comet and he humbly concluded ‘I really do owe my career in journalism to my involvement in that charity’.

I raised my pen from my notebook to my lips in a moment of contemplation. ‘What are some achievements or contributions you’re most proud of, or changes you’ve seen?’ I more fluently enquired. Those changes were abundant and rampant. ‘We’ve probably helped about half a million people,’ Sean inferred, ‘some of that is actually saving lives and some of it is ensuring that children have an education and some of it helping people to get jobs.’ His example was a girl he wrote about a few years back. She had lived in a tiny shack, cramped in with ten other people and no electricity, relying purely on candlelight after the sun had faded and the moon had risen. Her tenacity and persistence, buttress by Calcutta Rescue’s support, allowed her to attend university. A testament to the charity’s transformative nature.

Coronavirus has also constructed vast difficulties for Calcutta Rescue. Sean illuminated that an estimated forty million people in India would be pushed back into poverty due to the economic impact of Co-vid. Calcutta Rescue’s purpose is to service and assist as many people as possible and Sean surmised that the impact of Co-vid in Britain had also made it much harder to fundraise, especially because Calcutta Rescue is so small and intimate.

However, when I probed further, Sean divulged that Calcutta Rescue’s modesty was an aspect that lured him to the charity in the first place because it was so easy to make a substantial difference. He felt the most eminent charity in Kolkata, run by Mother Teresa, had a multitude of problems and was far too religiously centred for him to support and so he turned to reinforce the encompassing compassion of the British doctor, Dr Jack Preger. Dr Jack’s whole approach revolved around a heart of impartiality – the complete irrelevancy of who you were and what you believed and the absolute relevancy of the support you needed and deserved, exacerbated by the chief executives of the charity who have been a Muslim, a Christian and a Hindu and Sean’s adoration for the ‘inter-cultural mixing that goes on in Calcutta Rescue’.

If my encounter with the Calcutta Rescue Christmas concert had marked me in any way, it certainly manifested the tangibility of Calcutta Rescue’s globalism and its ability to transcend across every curve of the world and the curtains of every continent. Sean also conveyed his reverence for the international aspect of Calcutta Rescue and indicated that there might be ‘a danger that people in Britain tend to focus more and more on our own country and there’s a danger we forget we are part of a family of man which drifts all around the world’.

The influences and impacts of Calcutta Rescue were boundless, but Sean’s most poignant point was his adamant encouragement for ‘young people to get involved in a cause like a charity,’ even if it’s just a few hours a month, ‘I know a lot of young people now are very focused on what they are going to do for a career’, he said ‘but I would also say commit yourself to something else which is helping other people and that can actually have a big impact on your life.’ With the appreciation that not everyone is venturesome enough to go backpacking across the world’s seventh-largest country, he determined that ‘it’s just finding something that touches you’ and not letting pass.

Sean could have stayed, sitting troubled, at his table in India, eavesdropping on the people next to him. But he didn’t. He acted upon his opportunity, he got up and walked over to them, he asked them about their conversation and his collaboration with Calcutta Rescue has admittedly changed his life. Sean underlined that the secret to his successes was being open the coincidences of his life, perhaps suggesting that serendipitous fate served to him the Swiss nurse’s conversation, but it would have been nothing without the choice he made. The choice, he concluded, enriched his life massively.

The impacts of the young people I spoke to who had been involved in some sort of charity work were tangible, just as Sean had promised. When I spoke to local student Matusha Sivakumar about her involvement in charity work she commented her personal experience had ‘taught [her] to appreciate everything [she] has’ and bestowed her with her ‘patience and good communication skills’. Alina Iqbal, who volunteered in a charity shop, gushingly said it was ‘rewarding because you see how people who don’t have as much as you do live their lives and it puts things into perspective and makes you realise you’re actually very privileged which allows you to be more thankful for the blessings in your own life as well as helping others.’

Sean was an editor at Newsquest for over fifteen years and he spoke of ensuring the balance in the stories he wrote. The charity work he did exposed him to a plethora of unique individuals and he was quick to definitively say ‘it definitely broadened my mind’ and ‘therefore I definitely got involved in lots of different causes when I was a journalist and I’m very happy about that’. His experience at Calcutta Rescue led him to embrace more causes than he imagined he ever would, sitting on a beach having abandoned his backpacking plans and so perhaps his most resonant comment was: ‘On the one hand it’s wonderful to be able to help other people, but you also don’t know how it will end up helping you.’