By Devraj Singh Kalsi
I have been one of those unlucky fellows who occupy the dentist’s chair, with mouth wide open for harsh light to illuminate every corner and crevice, waiting for the dentist to tap and spot cavities. My habit of going to bed with a toffee in my mouth almost every night since teenage years was the prime reason behind this early dental crisis, much before wisdom teeth could stage an appearance.
When the first molar turned 70% darker than the chocolate I ate, I rushed to the dentist recommended by my tutor who was happy with his tooth extraction skills. I plonked on his leather seat and mentioned my tutor. He heard it all but continued unaffected, perhaps unable to recall the patient I was referring to. After he examined my troublesome tooth, he gave a smile and wrote a reference note suggesting a senior dentist he considered fit for performing root canal therapy.
Root and canal generated separate images in my mind. I was unable to link how these two came together inside my mouth. Anyway, I paid his consultation fee and walked out to buy the pain killers he had prescribed in case the damaged tooth turned troublesome at night. It was a relief that he did not uproot it but asked me to undergo the treatment to restore the crown once he was convinced looking at my branded watch that I could afford the treatment but could not afford to lose the tooth. When people the world over are losing their crown, I was thrilled to get one for myself. With fond hope, I traced the senior doctor (in pre-GPRS days) who had his chamber located in a somewhat dilapidated house with branches of a banyan tree providing shade to the crumbling façade.
The senior doctor looked younger in age to the bald dentist who suggested his name. He read the prescription and checked the tooth x-ray report. He gave me an appointment and his assistant shared the total cost of the dental surgery, assuring me that the tooth would not give me any trouble for at least fifteen years. I divided the total amount by the number of years and found the annual maintenance cost was economical. I proposed to pay through my credit card to convert it into easy EMIs but his staff declined saying no machine was installed to swipe any card.
I was nervous when I went the second time to undergo what he fondly called operation. I felt the need for a moral booster shot to ease my anxiety. With a small prayer on my chapped lips, I surrendered my mouth to his shining tools. The atmosphere was conducive as I found him jovial this time, chatting animatedly with his two burly assistants who looked like they were bouncers in a night club before applying for apprenticeship under him.
As the process began, I noticed good coordination among them. The first sitting provided an idea of what dental surgeons love to talk about. It was a session where they discussed film releases and star scandals.
One acolyte suggested abandoning this ramshackle unit at the earliest. It was a middle-class locality where people mostly preferred cheaper tooth extractions instead of costly cosmetic dental surgery and restoration options. It was obvious the dentist was interested in minting money, and he identified the areas in the city where such lucrative dentistry could be carried out successfully. Since he was young and ambitious, he had everything right to rake in the moolah.
It was a relief when gave me another date for the second sitting. I went again after a few days and sat through the operation while the trio discussed opening a swanky clinic in a posh area and the property rates in several upscale neighbourhoods. It appeared the dentist paid more attention to their plans and proposals instead of me. But when he said it was all done and fixed, I was surprised with his multi-tasking prowess. He said he was confident this job would keep me pain-free for twenty years.
Precisely twenty years later, I felt I should consult him once. When I went there, I was told the dentist had stopped coming to this place many years ago. So, I went to the dentist who had suggested his name, but he could not provide his current address as he had shifted to another city. My praise for the dentist who gave me a long-lasting crown stoked his jealousy and he said he was well-equipped now to perform critical dental surgeries. After checking my mouth, he did not comment negatively on the restored tooth but offered the breaking news that another tooth in the upper row would soon require surgical intervention. It was like a forecast that an elected government would soon get toppled.
I gave him the go-ahead to do the needful and he started to drill. But I did not feel any sensation. After a while he stopped drilling and asked me if I was feeling any pain. When I said there was no pain at all, he looked carefully and then apologised to me for drilling the wrong tooth. How could this happen? I looked at him carefully for the first time and noticed some defect in his right eye, something like squint. After the metal filling job was performed on the painful tooth, his assistant said the doctor suffered a car accident last year and his vision was affected. Since he had already apologised for the error and assured not much damage had been caused to the good tooth. I did not sue him, but I felt I should consult a dentist with the vision of a pilot for a second opinion.
This new dentist was a marketing genius of another kind. He made me sit with a big, fat album first. I thought it was some good stuff on nature, travel, and leisure. As I flipped through the pages, I found photographs of men and women of all age groups with mouth wide open.
It was an album loaded with photos of happy patients he had treated successfully. There were names, addresses, and contact numbers – these albums were used as testimonials from patients.
I had the freedom to contact any person and seek their feedback. I found a couple of beautiful girls who underwent dental treatment here and noted down their phone numbers. When I dialled those numbers, there was no response.
I was sure he would take my picture and add it to the album. What surprised me further was the fact that he was an inter-city dentist. He sat in his Mumbai clinic twice a week and three days in Kolkata. I told him I am travelling to Mumbai soon and would like him to operate on me there. He gave me the visiting card but looked doubtful when I said I would travel to Mumbai to get myself treated. Picking up one of the tools from the dirty box, I said your Mumbai chamber will have a much cleaner set.
I did not visit his chamber again and prayed to God to save my remaining teeth so that I can chew at least chapattis for the rest of my life without undergoing the harrowing experience of dental trips and flips. The sweet tooth craze still remains child-like although the habit of stuffing a toffee has been replaced by having an ice cream every night – just to test whether any tooth gives a tingling sensation or not.
 General Packet Radio Service
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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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