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Dentists I have known

The white coat, the soothing tone, the plastic glass of antiseptic rinse, the long chair, the presence or absence of music, the masked attendant- the stuff of nightmares!

Having just returned home after a lengthy session (painless, I must add and an almost pleasant experience in relation to the build-up of dread) I remembered the many tooth-pullers and brace-installers I have known.

A typical sign in suburban Delhi

Our family doctor, Dr Chunilal Sahni, had his surgery next door to his good friend Dr Kapoor, the dentist. In India all dentists have the honorific title of Dr. Our good family physician, I heard my parents say, only had the minimum of medical qualifications but “Oh what a diagnostician…!” He was a large, sleepy looking man who wore a light-coloured bush shirt in summer and had a benevolent, fatherly manner. He wore thick spectacles and never showed the slightest irritation even when provoked by my small brother’s imprecations “Ullu ka pattha! (son of an owl)” to my mother’s mortification. (“Doctorsahib, I don’t know where he picked up that foul language”). Dr Sahni made soothing noises, pouring castor oil or bitter orange syrup down our throats, placing his thermometer in armpit, examining tongue, asking ” Where is it hurting?”, or “Say aaaah”, dabbing calamine lotion on a rash and advising my mother to give the sick child plenty of lemon barley water and khichri (a slop of rice and yellow lentils) and take samples of his “stools”. Injections (and they looked like something in a vet’s surgery in those days) were the worst he ever did to us, which involved a lot of screaming and wriggling being held down and of course the horrible language from my brother.

His best friend, Mr M.L. Kapoor, also had his surgery in Parliament Crescent, a Lutyens inspired olde-worlde graceful arcade. Dr M.L Kapoor (Vienna plus lots of initials) was also benevolent and even more honey voiced. “There there baccha, see it’s all gone?” he’d say pulling out the offending tooth or drilling to fill a cavity with the now much-decried mercury filling. I can say we really adored our doctor-dentist team. Dr Sahni made house visits with his brown leather bag but for Dr Kapoor we would make the trip to Connaught Place and Parliament Crescent. It was always quite an occasion because we caught a glimpse of Jantar Mantar, the 17th century observatory with Royal palms in the gardens, drove past the Lok Sabha, and parked opposite the red Municipal head office. Parliament Street also housed my parents’ bank and my mother would sometime be in there for what seemed like hours, while we waited fretfully in the car.

I was taken to another dentist, the specialist Dr Khurana, who had even more letters after his name to correct my front teeth with a steely brace which came off at night and had to be cleaned with a toothbrush. Dr Khurana’s wife, Shanno, later became a very famous classical singer and scholar. When my mother was about to turn 90, we arranged a grand celebration at the India International Centre, with a concert to be given by Shanno Aunty. But the day before my mother slipped and broke her femur so that was the end of the planned jamboree.

A barefoot lady dentist in rural India

When Dr Kapur retired we went on to the most fashionable society dentist in Delhi, Dr N.N. Bery. He had a glamorous blue-rinse wife who moved in high circles and was said to have demanded of our Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “Panditji, why can’t the finance ministry make an exception for Kotex sanitary pads? The Indian makes chafe the skin.” He tender inner thighs could not endure the austerity no-import measures imposed by the socialist government.

Her husband was suave and looked a bit like Henry Kissinger. His bills were twice the amount anyone else charged and though his surgery was in the leafiest most privileged part of New Delhi, or because of that, we found the dental ordeals even more intimidating than normal.

Then I found delightful Dr Ajay Bhagat, who did an enormous amount of work to my aging teeth. But even his skilful hands and spotless surgery could not make up for the atrocious lack of hygiene and air pollution outside his denizen. Somehow something found its way into my new bridges and canals and then into my system and left me a complete wreck for over two years. I think the bacterial and viral intrusion may even have attacked my hip, now due to be replaced very soon.

It was a classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish: I am now with a wonderful dentist in Oxford where an extraction costs twice a root canal treatment in India, but I have learned my lesson. The mouth is fragile, vulnerable and prone to being infected and needs to be treated with respect.

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