Once upon a time I think I had a full set of 32 teeth, befitting a healthy, grown up specimen of Homo Sapiens. But gradually that prized ivory began to dissipate and disintegrate, mainly due to, I am convinced, the daily use all my life of a popular brand of toothpaste brought out by an international conglomerate.
Now, in the middle of the seventies of my life, when I am fast nearing the seventh age of toothless wonder that Shakespeare spoke of in 'As You Like It,' I am indeed embarrassed to have a hearty laugh in public, or have a good yawn when the occasion demands it. That is because one may find it hard to see there the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth. All that remains now of that impeccable array of 32 that I used to be proud of in the prime of my youth are just a few numbers of whole tooth, some of half-tooth and a handful of quarter-tooth. It goes without saying that having a loud mouthed hearty laughter may embarrass not only me but the onlooker also. With the many remnants of the teeth jutting down or jutting up like stalactites and stalagmites in an icy cave, it may even strike the onlooker as a second edition of Viswaroopa Darsana. God forbid.
I wanted to avoid that kind of embarrassment for, and consternation in, those who come into contact with me. That was why I considered many options to hide from public view what can be described as my geriatric deficiencies in the mouth.
The first option , of course, was a camouflaging moustache, a profuse hairy growth above the upper lip that some respected people of the past had, like nationalist leader Govind Ballabh Pant or Kerala press baron Kandathil Varghese Mappillai. The advantage of such a cascading moustache, I realized to my immense satisfaction, was that when you speak the missing links in the teeth array would not be visible to others. What a relief!
But, unfortunately, this was no guarantee against an abrupt display of one’s deficiencies in a burst of laughter or, worse still, an open mouthed yawn. For such eventualities some other method of concealment had to be devised.
I thought and thought hard. It was sheer luck that I zeroed in on what appeared to be the best and the brightest recourse. I remembered the guttural laughter of a senior army officer I had dinner with at New Delhi way back in the early 1970s. A Major General in the army, connected to my family in a rather roundabout way, he had a peculiar way of laughter, which incidentally was frequent in the course of the dinner time. The laughter was loud, attention drawing and pleasant. But what was extraordinary was that he never opened his mouth when laughing. The guttural sound seemed to come from somewhere deep inside his entrails. The first time I heard it I was spellbound. Each time I heard it my fascination for him increased.
But it was one thing to be fascinated by that army laughter and quite another to practise it oneself. I tried but was not at all impressed by my performance. Though I never claimed to have a manly voice, the sound I created in the fashion of the army officer was distinctly effeminate. I therefore gave up the idea altogether and concentrated on evolving a pattern of my own.
So, here I am. For the past several years I speak and laugh, while in company, in such a way that the mouth is not fully open and the head is slightly tilted downward. But there are occasional lapses, as when I met at a shop a Dentist couple known to me for long. I thought I had acted smart while talking to them, but it turned out that they were smarter. I had hardly said something when the doctor-husband told me: ‘Uncle, why don’t you come to the clinic one of these days, we will fix your teeth.’
I demurred and said fixing the teeth meant pulling out all that remained there, a prolonged and painful process I would like to avoid at this age. As for the artificial ivory set they fit in my mouth it is possible that it may turn out to be unfit for me. I recalled the classic case of my father. He had a set of dentures made for him but from day one he could not use them. He felt so uncomfortable when he wore them. Speaking was difficult, and self-conscious, eating was more so, if not impossible. He discarded the set forever in the second week, literally throwing it away with all his might.
As the doctor-husband disagreed with me and started to speak on the recent advances in dental management, I managed to find a gap in his monologue to make my unnoticed exit from the shop.
It was not that I was totally unfamiliar with artificial dentures. Much before my retirement when I had severe pain in the front gum for some days, I made myself visit a dental clinic. The dentist said the gum was severely infected and he promptly pulled out two front teeth. In a week’s time he graciously gave me a set of two teeth, not as compensation for the ones pulled out, but on payment.
I was happy for some years, then problems started. As a tooth near the denture got decayed the denture could not remain in place. The problem was more serious while eating as there was every possibility every day of swallowing the whole set along with the food.
So what I usually did was to keep the denture unobtrusively on the table while eating. One day I did the same and went to the wash basin for a hand wash. When I returned to fetch my precious possession, I was horrified to note that the housemaid had wiped it away along with the remnants of food on the table. After she left, I managed to retrieve it from the waste bin, thoroughly cleaned it and refurbished it for usage again.
One of my favourite quotes from Peanut cartoons is the sentence: ‘Learn from experience. Never commit the same mistake twice. Find new ones.’ Well, for the second time I committed the same mistake of leaving my denture on the table to be appropriated by my housemaid along with the food waste. But she did not commit the same mistake of keeping everything in the kitchen waste bin but found a new way of waste disposal. She dumped the waste in a garbage pit in a far corner of the house compound. So, adieu, my dear denture.
That was the day I decided not to visit a dentist again for making a denture. Proud to be what you are, with warts and all, which means you can even be proud to be toothless and be happy about it.
My attitude towards dentists in general was perhaps shaped by my experience at a dental clinic I visited for the first time in my life, in the late 1970s. My son needed an operation and before that he had to have all his tooth caries removed. That was the time when a reputed dentist from central Travancore set up a clinic at Thiruvananthapuram, giving it the tagline ‘cosmetic dentistry.’ The dentist, whom I was meeting for the first time, was at his affable, jovial best. He started examining my son even while talking incessantly, cracking jokes or recounting funny anecdotes. I couldn’t help laughing out loud at every turn of sentence. And then he saw it. He abruptly abandoned my son and came to me and said: ’Hey, let me have a look.’ He examined my mouth and said two of my teeth (looking so brownish because of my then habit of chain smoking) needed immediate attention if they were to be saved. Normally any dentist would see them fit for removal. But not he. He was all for saving teeth and not removing them. He said my son’s tooth caries could wait but my teeth could not. ‘Why not fix up an appointment for tomorrow morning?’
And the next day I went to his clinic at 8 in the morning. He made me sit comfortably in the reclining chair, inserted a plastic piece to keep my mouth permanently in an open gape and began to work on my rotten teeth. From 8.30 in the morning to 3.30 in the afternoon I remained open mouthed and he worked on my teeth without wasting even a single minute, patiently nibbling away the plaque and giving a facelift to the teeth by enameling them bit by bit. When at last he finished, I looked at the mirror and was quite impressed with what I saw. I had then a new pair of gleaming ivory.
But my happiness was short-lived. At a time when dentists normally charged Rs 15 for plucking a rotten tooth, the doctor gave me a bill for Rs 3,500 for saving two rotten teeth.
On occasions when someone mentions my teeth, or lack of them, I tend to put the entire blame for the present sorry state on the toothpaste making multi-national. Barring my childhood, when I used what we call ‘Umikkari’ (burnt rice hull), the universal tooth cleaning material those days, I have all along been using the multi-national’s most popular brand of toothpaste. Can I hold them responsible for the present state of my natural dentures and claim any compensation? Huge, by all means?
No chance. According to most scriptures and codes of the hoary past, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth did not mean retribution or revenge or retaliation, but a principle adopted to restrict compensation to the value of the loss, nothing more. If this is the criterion even now I may get the equivalent of the value of the teeth lost, which may include the cost of plucking and the cost of making the denture. It may not come to much. So, why bother?
There is only one person, a doctor relative, who occasionally pressurizes me to go in for a full set of dentures or even dental implant. I tell him, Unnikrishnan, that both are unnecessary as I am happy the way I am. I also tell him that in the current phase of my advanced life I have another Unnikrishnan as my role model, Unnikrishnan Namboodiri, that genial, jovial, elegant actor, that toothless wonder of Malayalam Cinema.