– Dr. Sonam B. Wangyal

It was towards the winter of 1995 in one of my customary visits to Professor Richard Keith Sprigg’s one-room books and journals lined apartment that I received one of the most fascinating surprises of my life. Dr. Sprigg, a retired professor of Cambridge University, is in many ways a man of many surprises but I was never prepared for the particular surprise that was in store for me.

Reaching Kalimpong early one day, and having plenty of time to ‘kill’ before picking up my daughter from the Convent, one of the many options open to me was a visit to the old linguist. A visit to him had always been profitable and this one was not expected to be any less. In most of my visits I would be the one to begin the conversation as I always had a stock of questions to which he invariably had ready set of amazingly scholarly answers. This time around it was he who commenced the proceedings and that too in a very extraordinary manner. He opened a cupboard, took out a fresh bottle of premium Scotch Whisky and asked that we celebrate. It appeared that he had been waiting for several weeks to find someone suitable to mark one of the most memorable days in his life. The problem was that it was just ten o’clock in the morning and at twelve I had to collect my daughter and the hum of alcohol in my breath would immediately erase the relatively good impression that I had cultivated, over almost a decade, with the nuns at the convent. Despite the great honour from the internationally respected linguist I was not prepared to annihilate my reputation, and in the process my daughter’s too, without having some extraordinarily compelling reasons. Eventually we hit upon a compromise: he would narrate the unforgettable event and if I found that to be worthy of a celebration I would wet my throat. In the meanwhile I had mentally planned to ask my friend to fetch my daughter should the unexpected had the better of me.

The old gentleman proudly informed me that he had received his third Doctorate a few weeks ago. The news just stunned me. I knew that he was working on a Balti dictionary but in my over half a dozen annual visits to his place I had never seen him working on a dissertation and all of a sudden this surprise. Knowing that he had a Ph. D. from London University and a Litt. D. from Cambridge I enquired if this one was from Oxford. The Professor was firm that this Doctorate was more valuable than what Oxford could confer and recounted the following story.

A few weeks ago he had been invited to address a Rai conference in Capitol Hall at Darjeeling. He planned out two speeches, a short and a long one, with the same introduction. While delivering the introductory part of the speech if the audience became fidgety and noisy he would follow it up with the short speech and if the public responded well then he would go for the longer one. The response was favourable and he continued with the lengthy lecture dwelling on the historical, cultural and other aspects of the Rais of Nepal and Darjeeling. The Rais, it must be remembered, have a most unique and colourful feature in their cultural milieu represented by the Bijuwa (shaman) whom they call Mangpa. It was natural that a good portion of the lecture had to do with the mangpas and at the end of the speech the mangpas present were so pleased with what the old man had to say that they went up the stage, put the mangpa attire on him, beat their drums, chanted mantras and officially ordained Professor Sprigg as an honorary mangpa. Thus Professor Richard Keith Sprigg, an Englishman to the boot, became the first and only European mangpa. The story ended there and he uncorked the bottle confident that I would now honor the event with a sip or two.

I was still not prepared to humour him and asked him to tell me about his third Doctorate instead of wasting time over a true but off the track story. He stared at me through his light blue eyes, almost apologetically, and remarked in a tone of disappointment that I had overlooked the story. He exclaimed with an unmistakable emphasis that he was now a mangpa, and that was a Doctorate because he had now become Rai witchdoctor. It was an unusual Doctorate but it was valuable and significant to him because it had come from the hearts of the simple people he had gone to address. He was overwhelmed and if he had won some Rai hearts with his speech the Rais had certainly gained him with their gesture. The Doctorate actually was an extraordinary one and certainly not something that Oxford University could bestow.

My mentor had won. It was barely 10:30 am and there I was absolutely dumbfounded not because of the Scotch in me but because of the story that led me to imbibe it.

Here’s an earlier article by Dr. Wangyal on Professor Sprigg.


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