Monday, May 19, 1997

Merchants of pain

My most favourite dentist is Dilip, and my most favourite anecdote is of the time a woman sidled up to him on the sofa at a party and began confiding her teeth troubles to him, opening her mouth very, very wide and pointing inside with a finger to illustrate. Dilip waited until she’d finished, said to her quietly, “Madam, thank goodness for both of us, and for everyone here, that I’m not a gynaecologist,” and got up and walked away.
Now one of the reasons Dilip is my most favourite dentist is that he is married to my dear friend Shashi, and the other is that I have never had occasion to be treated by him.
All of us in our family have dental problems: some with cavities (the ones who love chocolate and hate brushing their teeth), some with gum problems, and some with protruding teeth. I myself always boasted a singularly sturdy, though crooked and yellowish and therefore not particularly attractive lot. But one day, soon after I moved to Pune, I got a toothache.
Since we knew no dentist in town, we carried out our practiced scientific method of following the arrow on the most attractive-looking board which quoted a dentist’s name and address (um, Hippocrates, wasn’t there some promise you made them do?) and arrived at one which I have cause to remember all my living days.
Strapped in a high chair of the kind I had not experienced for thirty years, my fillings were fixed and it hurt, but not as much as when he wrote out the bill. As I crawled out, he suggested that I might want to get my wisdom teeth out. After all, what did I need wisdom for, hah?
Now my wisdom teeth had been a constantly erupting source of irritation for years. They would flare up and, just when I was beginning to panic, would subside and disappear. It was a bit like those glimpses of satori the meditators talk about – wisdom, you know?
“Hurt!” he exclaimed in answer to my question, as if he had never, ever heard anything quite so ridiculous before in his entire life. “Nah! These days, painkillers, you know? Twenty-four hours of discomfort, that’s ALL you’ll have, at the VERY most!”
I could live with twenty-four hours of discomfort, so I said Yes, and Thank You, and at the appointed hour turned up and allowed myself to be led in. Dentist number one had been joined by an oral surgeon and an anaesthetist, doubtless his wife since complementary occupations so conveniently attract each other as everyone knows. As the deed proceeded, I conjured thoughts to drown the blood-curdling sounds of teeth being sawed and what may or may not have been me screaming, and to prevent myself from being horrified when the oral surgeon had to wrench and wrench with all his might to dislodge them. These were mental pictures of the sequence in which I would cook my meal-for-eight when I got home. Pratibha, the dreadful wretch, had failed to arrive back from chutti as scheduled. But I had invited three old and lovable aunties-from-Mumbai who happened to be in town to lunch (the other five, of course, being family).
In an hour or so it was all over and no, the teeth were not diseased, they were perfectly healthy – even the oral surgeon was surprised to see this. He had after all, merely been contracted to come in, pull out teeth, collect fee, and leave.
I was presented my bill and it caused me to swoon as the sight of my blood in the basin next to me hadn’t. The oral surgeon now confided that he was recently retired from the army and was extremely skilled, or else how would he have performed this kind of operation so casually when in the USA they hospitalize you for eight days prior to it?
This was the first indication of the magnitude of what I had gone and done.
The team saw me to the door, advised me to apply packs of ice to my jowls, practice opening my mouth wide, and bade friendly goodbyes.
Here’s what happened next.
I managed to put together a successful lunch, and the aunties ate well so perhaps the ice condensing off my face, and the blood that dripped out of my mouth unexpectedly on occasion, didn’t repel them particularly.
Once the effect of anaesthesia wore off, pain dawned. Serious pain! I couldn’t eat any food and soon realized that I couldn’t open my mouth much anymore either.
The kids were deeply concerned as they realized that if I didn’t eat anything I might expire in course of time and then who would pack their dabbas and buy them nice-nice things on their birthday?
My cheeks began to swell in rage. Soon, I was all puffed up and, concern forgotten, Ekta gleefully suggested that I should go on the Zee Horror Show. It was funny but I didn’t laugh because it hurt too much when I tried.
I called the dentist to explain nicely but he wasn’t there. Someone said that he had just gone out to the bank or something like that.
It was twenty days before I could open my mouth to half of what I normally could before. Nearly seven months passed before the dull residual ache subsided.
The word “discomfort” became a sarcastic joke in our home, one to be used only as grossest hyperbole.
Wisdom was mine, too late.
first appeared in Maharashtra Herald on 18 May 1997

Monday, May 5, 1997

Boarding card

Ajay had strapped on his seat belt when a stranger came up, looked accusingly at him, and said, “My seat.”
It was the British Airways flight from Moscow to London, and Ajay was heading home on a roundabout route. In those days, it was easier to travel to the USSR via Europe; one method of avoiding the dread Aeroflot, which was by no means celebrated for its exceptional service. (I remember a flight once in which ample and sturdy stewardesses marched firmly up and down the aisle calling out sternly: “No bee-yer! No beeyer!” to the trapped and disappointed passengers on the hop from Delhi to Tashkent.)
The man flourished his boarding card, prompting Ajay to pull his out too. And both cards carried the same seat number. Ajay’s unease grew. Around them, seats were filling up fast. Surely the ground staff at Moscow airport weren’t expecting them to squeeze in together? Taking a closer look, he read, “A Aggarwal”, exactly what his own card said, and quite rightly too.
Alarm rising, he cleared his throat and leaned forward. “What’s your name?” he inquired politely.
“A-jay,” the man replied, with a curious foreign blurring of the j. Ajay turned pale, and the other man squinted at him, suddenly alert that something intriguing was in progress. With narrowing eyes, they stared at each other for a few moments. And then broke into laughter. Two people, booked on the same flight, and with the same name – not so surprising that the ground staff, referring to a hand-written passenger manifesto, had made this mistake.
Now you’ll say that there’s nothing so very unusual about this. After all, Air India on the Bombay-London sector routinely carries a score and more of Patels and it’s not at all uncommon to have half a dozen P Patels on board, with some, but not all, demanding Indian Vegetarian Meals at dinnertime.
The cabin crew now came to their rescue and settled the other gentleman in the seat next to Ajay so that the appellative doppelgangers could enjoy each other’s company for the rest of the journey. Whether or not all kinds of brotherly feelings, and an intense experience of the universality of all human beings arose, I cannot say. But the central curiosity of this episode is that the other Ajay Aggarwal lived in Paris. He was French. And he had not only never been to India, his range of acquaintances numbered a scanty few who could boast Indian descent. This man was totally astonished that his exotic, unpronounceable headache of a name had turned out to be so common in the country of his ancestors.

first appeared as What's in a Name? in Maharashtra Herald on 4 May 1997