Daktar saab

  • Social prestige is associated with being called ‘Dr’ even if the said doctors are not thus qualified
- Deepak Thapa
Daktar saab

Mar 11, 2015-

In the hit Hollywood comedy from a few years ago, The Hangover, among the many hilarious scenes is one that involves one of the characters insisting that he is a doctor only to be brushed aside by a medical doctor telling him: ‘You’re actually a dentist.’ That must have hurt the feelings of dentists all over. Of course, many would have earned post-graduate doctoral degrees, entitling them to the title, but not all do. Dentists really do not fall in the same category as the others involved in the care of the human body, but there is no harm either in addressing them as ‘Dr’, as convention goes, or in the scripwriter pulling off a laugh or two at their expense.

Three ‘doctors’

There are more egregious examples in Nepal of wrong claims to being a ‘doctor’. Take the strange quirk of fate by way of which three ‘doctors’ all related to the medical profession made their names in Nepali politics in the democratic interregnum of 1951-60. In order of seniority, we had Dr Kunwar Indrajeet Singh, or Dr K.I. Singh as he is better known, a flamboyant character from the 1950-51 anti-Rana uprising who had to be arrested with Indian help for opposing the Delhi accord. Dr Singh has the dubious distinction of being Nepal’s prime minister for the shortest duration, and is perhaps better known in Pokhara than anywhere else in Nepal for the simple reason that the city has a bridge named after him. I have yet to come across any definitive account of where he was trained in the medical sciences although one uncharitable, but probably true, story has it that he was a medical assistant in the Indian Nationalist Army (INA) raised by Subhas Chandra Bose to fight the British during World War II. Presumably, as is still the practice today, he began to be called ‘doctor’. The moniker stuck, and never did he do anything to correct that in-all-likelihood false impression.

The second was Dr Keshar Jung Rayamajhi, the leader of the Russian faction of the communists and, later, an unrepentant royalist. He was a Licentiate Medical Practitioner, a degree that used to be awarded in pre-independence India. It was of lesser prestige and rigour than an MBBS, and was actually done away with by the time Dr Rayamajhi began to make a name for himself in Nepal as a putative revolutionary. But he remained Dr Rayamajhi throughout the end.

The only real doctor among the trio was Dr Tulsi Giri, the Nepali Congress turncoat who went on to serve all the three post-1960 Shah kings. He had a medical degree from an institution in the Indian state of West Bengal (and which, incidentally, counts Pranab Mukherjee, the current president of India, among its alumni).

Humouring the ‘doctor’

Evidently, there is a lot of social prestige associated with being called ‘Dr’ or, in common Nepali parlance, ‘daktar saab’ or even ‘daar-saab’, even if the said doctors are not thus qualified. Walk into any rural Nepali village and you will find a ‘doctor’ in residence. This can be the Health Assistant (with three years of training), the Auxiliary Health Worker (15 months), or, even in some cases, the Village Health Worker (six months). Given the state of health delivery in Nepal, and the services these community health workers provide at grassroots, no harm done there either in acknowledging them as doctors, particularly as the real thing is something rural Nepalis have to travel great distances to meet.

There is something about doctor-hood that even those not entitled to the title routinely appropriate it, and with nonchalance, a fact that is truer for those in the auxiliary health services. Physiotherapists with a bachelor’s degree coolly call themselves Dr So-and-So, as do similarly qualified audiologists. The funniest experience I have of the latter breed was meeting one who prefixed his name with ‘dr’ in his email address. As the only one without ‘Dr’ adorning the nameplates on the doors of the hospital corridor where he worked, he seemed to be trying to make up for it in a way that no one could object to. Notwithstanding the ludicrousness of it all, when faced with such situations we all play along. After all, if it gets your work done, what is the harm in humouring the ‘doctor’?

Marker of erudition

Contrast this with the practice in England, where medical doctors actually drop the ‘Dr’ and adopt ‘Mr’/‘Mrs’/‘Ms’/‘Miss’ once they become a surgeon, in a nod to their predecessors in the profession—the barber surgeons. And, are none the worse for it in terms of their skills or the respect they receive.

This fixation on ‘Dr’, of course, extends beyond the medics, and is equally true for the academic world. Of course, in the latter field, apart from the occasional impostor, no one without a PhD or a similar degree would dare use the title. But, it is the manner in which it is wielded that sometimes makes it seem equally ludicrous. One sure place to find it is in newspaper op-eds and letters to the editor written by PhD holders, who unfailingly use the title (which, no denying, they are entitled to), even if it has to do nothing with the subject of their expertise. Hence, even comments about overflowing sewers or the rising incidence of road accidents or quality of fuel come with the weight of a PhD, apparently having cogitated over the issue deeply and thoroughly. It does not strike someone—whose specialty, say, is the mating cycle of the anopheles mosquito—that the hard-earned degree does not grant her the same authority to comment about any and everything; and, hence, no reason to brandish the PhD.

Perhaps it has become a habit to refer to oneself as ‘Dr’ and there are many who do that even while introducing themselves. Or, perhaps, no one has told them that there is no need to make reference to it all the time. Or, it could even be that people have no sense of the number of PhDs that Nepal currently has. Not exactly a dime a dozen but certainly many more than when ‘daar-saab’ was becoming popular in the 60s and 70s. After all, there were people in Nepal who used to suffix their surnames with ‘BA’ or ‘MA’ to indicate the level of education they had received. Not so anymore, because it is no longer a distinctive marker of erudition. Perhaps it is for this reason that the younger lot of our PhDs usually prefer not to use the title—just too many out there.

Published: 12-03-2015 09:26

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