— Arko Bose
Having a dentist as a friend can be intimidating on rare occasions. I learned this the hard way. I remember, back in high school, when I first read Ogden’s Nash’s poem, it sounded more humorous than it did seven days ago, when I was actually planning to get into his shoes.
Bill – my dentist friend – did everything he could to put my mind at ease, sitting at his own clinic way away in Shillong. “You won’t die”, he assured me. And added, quite reassuringly and casually, that depending upon the type and severity of the case, as on the complications involved, it would take me anywhere between a week and a couple of months to fully recover. “Anticipate keeping your mouth open for a long time while X-Rays are being taken. There will be a lot of bleeding, stitches, pulling of the tooth with force. There are unscrupulous dentists who extract the second molar, just to get access to the third. Beware. Never fun for the patient, you know. Take a towel and ice with you. After the surgery, apply ice wrapped in the towel for thirty minutes on, thirty minutes off. Repeat three or four times a day”. And yet, I wouldn’t die. If we looked at the process involved, and not at the finality of it all, then I could bet a grand or two that dying would definitely be less painful an experience.
“And that I will never have to do it again is a hope that I am against hope hopen . Because some tortures are physical and some are mental, but the one that is both is dental.”
And the more I tried to keep Nash out of my mind, the more he insisted on tormenting my innocent psyche. This was definitely going to hurt more than just a little bit. The Allied Forces would not have counted their hours to D Day before they landed at Normandy, more than I was counting mine to survival. And yet, somehow, slowly but surely, I was pronounced a Grade I case of 4-8 partial impaction. Whatever that meant.
Not sure whether I would be able to walk out of the surgical chamber on my own or not, my father accompanied me to the hospital. Though there were notices to patients that no one except they were allowed inside the wards, my father’s paternal instincts were on an overdrive. He would shove himself in everywhere behind me. It made me more scared than I was required to be. The whole thing started to appear like some last ritual before a sacrifice.
I enter the room and find that I have quite a consolation awaiting me. My surgeon happens to be an attractive female with long black hair, who would generously admit to being twenty five if the patient happened to be a charming man like me. That is, if I decide to be gracious enough to ask her. No wait, I mean, courteous enough.
So I would get at least some chance and opportunity to distract myself from my dental hardship. What is her beautiful name? Wait… how do I know her name is beautiful?
Keeping her palm softly on my back, she guides me to a small chamber, guarded by transparent glass walls. I wouldn’t exactly mind if you held my arm, doctor, I thought. There is an assistant in blue uniform cleaning the tools and preparing the chair on which I will be seated. A female doctor – probably student of maxillofacial surgery (O.K., so I don’t know what this term means. I picked it up off the cover of the book I had just seen her carrying) – was overseeing the assistant. Oh well, I could come here everyday if they sent me such beautiful surgeons to work on my oral cavity, I thought with a grin on my face.
“Put yourself at ease, Mr Bose. Relax, and lie down on this chair”, said the assistant.
Sure…Relax? Relax. Relax as in relax?
Ten excruciating minutes of anxious wait later (or may be, ten anxious minutes of excruciating wait later; I cannot recall which), my surgeon arrives, her face masked. What the heck? I will have to stare at a pair of pliers and shiny crowbars poking into my mouth now for all I know, instead of tender faces working on me? Am I human or what? I decide to keep my eyes closed.
The surgeon prepares for the surgery. She gives me a little introduction to what I should expect. Yeah, like that’s what I need to know now, to put my mind, which is doing whirlpools, at rest. Spare me the trouble, Doctor, I wanted to say. I didn’t, of course.
“I am first going to give you local anesthesia that will make your right face numb. You will be able to feel touch, but not pain. Are you ready, Mr Bose?” she asked.
Am I ready?
“Doctor, is it going to be too painful?” was all I could say to her.
The surgeon looks at the student and they both chuckle. Did I say something funny? And then, I see her bringing a syringe full of some reddish fluid close to my mouth. I grab her hand. “Doctor, are you sure of that?” I ask.
“Oh yes, absolutely. Trust me”, she replies with a smile.
I want to tell her casually that this is my first time on a dentist’s chair. Two things prevent my confession. First, it is a lie. Second, she is a beautiful woman.
I feel the syringe penetrate my gum slowly and pour its contents into my oral consciousness. Not much painful, yes. Then, when I am quite relaxed and happy, another syringe of the same kind. What is it with me, doctor? I want to say. But I don’t. This one too goes straight into my gum and I feel the liquid fill up my tissues. Lesser pain, this time.
Now, the surgeon stops. I wonder what she has on her mind. If you want to give me a kiss to pep me up, doctor, please go ahead. I won’t mind at all.
“You should feel the numbness spreading to the whole of your right face in a moment. Tell me when that happens”, she says.
Oh O.K., so this is going to be like letting go of the guillotine after my neck has been paralyzed already. A minute on, I signal her that I am feeling enough numb now. And dumb too.
“Good to go”, she says, and picks up a tool. I don’t want to see what genre of tools it belongs to. I promptly shut my eyes, and clutch the armrest of the chair tightly. I am not going to let my body eject into the infinite space above, no matter what happens today. This airplane will devastate the Nazis and take me home safely.
I can feel a pointed tool gauging my impacted tooth, and the gums around it. May be that’s the crowbar. As if interrogating my tooth why and how it got there. I raise my left hand and give my surgeon a raised thumb. Goog ku go.
After having probed into my mouth for about five minutes, the surgeon instructs her student to turn the suction on.
I heard that. What is it? Should I open my eyes and risk catching the dreadful sight of a shining sharp tool presiding over my vestigial growth, or should I let an alien device called a suction trespass into my mouth without my written permission and clearance?
There’s no time to think. I have to act with dispatch here. The Allied Forces have landed already. The lives of tens of thousands of soldiers depend on my critical decision. France will be free now. There will be a fierce gun battle here at Normandy, I must stand firm in the line of fire. Give me my goddamned gun. I hear the rattle of Nazi machine guns towards our forces. I clench my fist, straighten my legs, and open my eyes.
France? What France? Oh, that tube. That is the Suction. A narrow tube at the end of a pump. Probably used to suck out the blood oozing out of my gums, as the crowbar tries to dethrone my 4-8. O.K.
Blood… Blood! What blood!? Whose blood? Oh! I can’t be bleeding, after all! This is way too painful. I raise my left hand. My surgeon stops.
“Yes, Mr Bose? Do you feel pain?”, she asks me.
“No, gockor”, I gesture to her to go on.
She takes that tool out of my mouth. Oh O.K. then, it’s over. I am happy now. I couldn’t even feel anything. I am going to thank the doctor. She is such a sweetheart. May be she would give me a hug. France is free now. All these years of inhuman Nazy atrocities, the massacres, the bloodbath, all is gone now. No more gas chambers, no concentration camps. Wladyshlaw Szpilmann will play at the Polish Radio again. History. And I was a part of it. I open my eyes with a smile. The machine guns have fallen silent. My surgeon smiles back and inserts a large pair of pliers into my mouth.
Wha…hhh? I gag my crying soul. No, gis can’k be.
“Mr Bose, open your mouth wider”, I hear my surgeon instruct me.
You want a gunship in there, doctor? I have been on this chair for two hours now. How long is this going to take? I open my eyes. Looking across the pair of pliers which is obliquely blocking my view, working its way on my 4-8 – i.e., my lower third molar – I see the clock on the wall. Ten minutes? Am I moving relativistically with respect to the frame of my consciousness?
As the left flank of my army advance further into Normandy’s woods amid resumed gunfire, I hear a strange sound inside my mouth. That must be our troops hurling grenades at the enemy.
Squeak, squeak. Squeak. And more squeak. A shudder runs down my spine. That’s neither the Allied Forces forcing open a trapdoor leading to a secret basement where Hitler is hiding, nor the sound of dropping grenades, that’s my 4-8 refusing to let go of my mortality against the stubborn pledge of a pair of steel pliers. Squeak.
“And your mouth is like a section of road that is being worked on, and it is cluttered up with stone crushers and concrete mixers and drills and steam rollers and there isn’t a nerve on your head that aren’t being irked on.”
With each squeak, I grip the armrest harder and harder. My whole lower jaw is rocking just the way Titanic would have rocked after being hit by the berg. Did Titanic rock? I don’t know. Kirsten Dunst looked beautiful in the movie. No wait, it wasn’t her. It was Winslet. And she posed naked… Somehow, there’s still no pain. But I must be prepared for the worst. There may be a grenade attack from atop that hill anytime. Hitler’s forces must have seen us advance to their quarters. History will remember us forever, and the day of June 6, 1944. As I watch the left flank disappear into the heavy smoke caused by a series of mine explosions, I find that sand has blocked the barrel of my M1918 BAR. My moment of truth has arrived. Our sacrifices shall not go in vain. The Longest Day shall… squeak.
I open my eyes slightly to capture what exactly is going on. My surgeon asks the assistant to hand her bigger pair of pliers. I can’t stand this anymore.
“Gockor, argh you sure of gat?” I ask her, pointing to the bigger pair of pliers she is now holding in her hand.
“Oh yes, absolutely. Trust me, Mr Bose”, she says, matter-of-factly.
As she inserts the new pair of pliers into my mouth, and arches my face backwards, gripping tightly my lower jaw with her left hand, I find it safest and most comforting to keep my eyes closed. Again.
“Gockor, is dere somting wong?” I ask her.
“Well, what appeared as a Grade I, has now become a Grade II. Don’t worry”, she narrates to me with the ease of Zidane dribbling past the Portuguese defense. What a goal that was. Henry was waiting at that spot inside the penalty area when Zizou came in. Who was the defender who fouled Henry? I can’t exactly recall. I think it was Deco. But Deco is not a defender.
“Igh dat a goog nyoos, or a bag nyoos?” I don’t know if I am getting my words through to her.
“Do you want to say something, Mr Bose?”, she stops and asks me.
I figure that hearing more bad news might hurt me more than Brazil’s loss at the World Cup hurt the Brazillians, among whom is the woman I am in love with. But then, Ronaldo looked older than Figo this year. And quite plump.
I raise my thumb to tell her everything is going fine. Good to go. Again. May be I am not so sure. I don’t know.
As my surgeon catches tempo, I hear a woman screaming behind my back as another set of dentists work to make a martyr out of her. She makes the whole thing sound more painful than it actually appears to me.
I hear my surgeon giggle with her student. What’s funny? My girlfriend must be having a sleepless night just over the thought of my undergoing this fun.
As I wonder what the Allied Forces did after where I left them, suddenly there’s a smile on my surgeon’s face.
“Yes, I think I got it. It’s out”, she declares.
I could have kissed her at that moment. I would have loved to kiss her without any excuses any time, anyway. Bill was right. I didn’t die. News has reached that both Hitler and his wife Eva have committed suicide. But my surgeon isn’t done yet. She has put the pair of pliers aside, and is now working with her gloved hand inside my mouth. Didn’t I hear that it was out? Anyway, a woman’s finger inside my mouth – never mind that it’s masked in rubber glove – feels a lot better than a steel pair of pliers.
And then, with a final twist, she withdraws her hand out. What does this mean, now? A larger pair of pliers this time? Is it out, or is it out?
“Mr Bose, would you like to see your tooth?” she asks me with a gleam. Would I?
“I gon’k know… wokay. You can show mwee.”
She holds the tooth between her fingers. The phrase “tip of an iceberg” seems all of a sudden an understatement in front of that leviathan bony tissue. This was inside my mouth? And had been refusing to tear my gums and come out for over six months? I am toothless with emotions now.
“Would you like to take it home, Mr Bose?” She asks me.
Do I look like I have a Louvre back home?
“No, gockor. Khank you for de honor, howeva”, I tell her as courteously as I can. I still can’t feel my right face. This is not the time to think of taking home souvenirs of gallantry.
As I come out of the hospital, having written my surgeon – oh yes, her first name is Jyoti, and the last name still eludes me (and I remember vividly that I forgot to ask her student’s name altogether. But anyway…) – a lengthy thank-you note which she found more silly than amusing, but thankfully not uncouth, I am feeling like Amélie Poulain who is out to be a universal do-gooder. Only, I can’t skip pebbles on water like her.
My father is waiting outside the hospital gate. As he sees me coming, he asks me how it went. Without speaking, I manage to get it across to him that I lived to see France freed of Nazi occupation, at last. It’s a pity that Tom Hanks didn’t win an Oscar for his part, though.
“So, it’s done. No more of this dentist stuff, eh?” My father says. What does he know? My 1-8, 2-8, and 3-8 are on the queue.
“And you totter to your feet and think, well it’s over now and after all it was only this once,
And he says come back in three monce.
And this O Fate, is I think the most vicious circle that thou ever sentest,
That Man has to go continually to the dentist to keep his teeth in good condition
When the chief reason he wants his teeth to be in good condition is so that he won’t have to go the dentist.”
Years from now, whenever someone asks me if Dr Jyoti – whose last name still eludes me (and whose student’s name I forgot to ask) – is a safe bet against a 4-8 impaction, I will tell them – with my surgeon fondly in my memory – the molar of my story: Oh yes, absolutely. Trust me.