Take a near-fatal dose on rising, of course. But take a near-fatal dose the night before, in addition. Then numbness descends on numbness. Then you are two distances away from your reality. Martin Amis.
Celebrated author Martin Amis’ sage advice to those who are viewing an impending visit to the dentist, particularly if dental surgery of any description is involved, is not to be taken lightly. Valium. That is what he is referring to in advocating that near-fatal dose. Not unlike the poet John Keats’ drowsy numbness paining his sense, as though of hemlock he had drunk. It is abundantly clear that the coruscating writer (Amis, that is) of ‘the London trilogy,’ Money, London Fields and The Information, had got himself into a blue funk on the dreaded prospect of visiting his premolar extractor. At this juncture, gentle reader, do not be under the false impression, that I am mocking this literary icon for his apparent, lily-livered aspect in facing his pre-ordained sitting at the dental surgeon’s deceptively plush, pneumatically powered leatherette chair, with all the attendant trappings. After all, flowing from his own pen, it amounts to nothing less than a brave confessional. He can be pitied and empathized with rather than censured, but by no manner of means, made fun of. Let’s be brutally honest, none of us likes to hear those dreaded, hushed words from the receptionist at the dentist’s waiting room, ‘Doctor will see you now.’ ‘Who me? I am in no hurry. I am still reading this excellent article in the Reader’s Digest, Take care of your large intestine, and your small intestine will take care of itself. Let this comely, young lass go before me.’
Well done on the pretend chivalry, but no dice. The receptionist is having none of it. It’s your turn to face the music. As the bell tolls for thee, you shuffle into the dentist’s room with an unsteady gait, your sphincter muscles beginning to act strangely while you try in vain to put on your best, insouciant Alfred E. Neuman’s ‘what-me-worry?’ face. The reference is to the now-defunct Mad magazine mascot. Your dentist, with a saccharinely cheery female assistant in tow, is all bonhomie and good cheer. Like Santa Claus on one of his better mornings. If not actually chortling ‘Ho, Ho, Ho,’ he comes very close to it. ‘Good morning, good morning, lovely day we are having, aren’t we? And what did you think of last night’s game eh? I thought the Royal Challengers had blown it, but no, they pipped the Mumbai Indians to the post. A real nail biter. What’s with the glum face? It’s only a toothache.’ He went on in this hail-fellow-well-met vein for a couple of minutes, my orthodontist Dr. Gupta, for that was the worthy’s name, but all that small talk was not fooling me. I was contrastingly saturnine and mumbled a weak response and sat down on the dental chair, and before I could say ‘gingivitis’ the chair, apparently of its own volition, leaned back to an almost flat, just shy of 180-degree horizontal position. I was flying first class, and getting no joy out of it.
Meanwhile, Dr, Gupta was busy studying some X-rays, presumably of my gone-case dentures and kept making ominous, clucking sounds. Clearly, his diagnosis was more than just a toothache. After much frowning and peering into the black chasm that passed for my mouth, he declared, ‘I am afraid four of your upper back teeth have severe cavities but I can fix that with some drilling and filling. However, four other dentures will have to be extracted and replaced with false teeth. I’ll have to construct a bridge to hold your upper dentures in place, and your gums have been shot to pieces. Some minor surgery will be involved there, failing which you could walk straight into one of those Pepsodent commercials. You know, the guy with unbearable halitosis whom the girls shun and he doesn’t know why? Yes, my friend, you’ll be that sad sack with bad breath and even your best friends won’t tell you.’ As a related aside, I am always tickled pink whenever I come across that Sensodyne toothpaste commercial. The model bites into an ice-cream bar, writhes in pain and howls, ‘Ouch, sensitivity.’ I can think of at least a dozen unprintable expletives that sufferer could have screamed, but ‘Ouch, sensitivity’?
By now I was beginning to get really rattled. I was struggling to frame some kind of cutting retort to this avalanche of caustic criticism on the condition of my teeth and gums but Dr. Gupta had struck a rich vein of form and there was no stopping his flow. Not to forget that I was helplessly strapped to this luxury, swivel chair with only the nurse smiling at me in a fixed, plasticky manner, unable to move in any direction. I was also tongue tied and bemused but faked a casualness I did not feel, ‘Tell me Doc, what is the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist? It’s not a joke question.’ His response was swift. ‘Not much really. What’s in a name eh? A rose called by any other name etc. We do pretty much the same thing, only the orthodontist charges much more.’
So saying, the doctor droned on. ‘In fairness, I must let you know that all this will cost you and before I start any procedure, I must get your nod of approval.’ At which point he stared at the ceiling and went into a reflective reverie of calculation mutterings under his breath, which I could barely catch. The nurse officiously added her two-pice bit with staccato, conspiratorial exclamations like, ‘Doctor, don’t forget the follow-up consultations that will be required, at least six of them.’ Dr. Gupta was pleased. ‘Well done Reena, I almost forgot. Yes, if I take into account all the procedures, dental reconstruction, false teeth, bridges and crowns, Chinese implant imports naturally, and the consultation charges, I think we should come in at about a reasonable Rs.85,000/- give or take, and that’s excluding GST. Cheap at the price, I promise you. By the way, what have you been doing to your teeth? Didn’t your parents teach you anything about dental hygiene?’ I grumbled to myself that if it wasn’t for patients like me, he wouldn’t be swanning around in a BMW.
‘Let’s leave my parents out of this. As to your estimate, I am strapped to this chair Doc. I have no choice. By your own admission, your speculative, proforma estimate makes it plain that you are an orthodontist. Next time, I’ll be more careful and look for a dentist. Go ahead, do your worst. I am told you recently migrated from London, leaving a lucrative practice there to start your dental outfit here in India. Why?’
‘Our fees were fixed in the UK and patients were all on the National Health. There were limits to how much we could charge the patients. Mind you, I miss the pubs, feeding the ducks at St. James’s Park and the fish ‘n’ chips.’ My heart bled for him.
I was now in a black mood. ‘You mean here in India, you can fleece your patients dry, live in a luxury apartment, maintain a chauffeur driven BMW for yourself and a cute Alpha Romeo for the wife? All at my expense?’
‘Now, now Sir,’ proceeded the still genial dentist, ‘I know you’re in pain, but relax. Once this is over, you will feel like a new man.’ He then gave a silent nod to his nurse, who handed him a deceptively innocuous looking syringe, and the doctor asked me to say ‘Aaaah’ and uttered those immortal words, ‘Now this won’t hurt, you’ll just feel a slight prick in your gums, and then you’ll feel no more.’ Prescient words. Not only did I not feel any more, my lips had turned to blubber. I could sense spittle trickling down the sides of my mouth and could do precious little about it. Shades of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean at the dental surgery. Every now and then the doctor would ask me to expectorate into a Styrofoam cup placed by my side. All I had to do was turn my face towards the cup and a gooey amalgam of saliva, blood and phlegm drooled out of its own accord. All kinds of procedures were taking place inside my mouth, but I was blissfully innocent. After about thirty minutes of this, my dentist triumphantly declared, ‘That’s it. We are done for now. Clean him up, Reena.’ I could see Reena performing wiping motions at my oral area, but I felt absolutely nothing. For all I knew, she could have been wiping the dental halogen lamp just above me.
I had a final question before leaving the room. I wanted to ask him how long it will take for the anesthetic to wear off and whether there will be any pain thereafter. Instead, what came out of my mouth was, ‘Hwwllllngg wiittkkfss anspthook to weffoff amph wib I fib ang fcckkhing thoofake and pheng?’ Accompanied by a copious flow of dribble. Obviously, Dr. Gupta was used to this. No interpretation was required. Smilingly he replied, ‘A couple of hours at the most, and you will feel no pain. I have prescribed some painkillers, just in case. See you next week.’
Despite all my misgivings, and the big hole in my bank account thanks to this dental visit, I had to admit that Dr. Gupta knew his dental onions. I cannot swear to whether he is a dentist or an orthodontist but, in the famous (if paraphrased) words of the late British comic genius Tony Hancock, ‘By Cuspid, he is a fine dentist, once he got his teeth into it!’