Smiling at strangers

It was a day like any other. At least, I had expected it to be.

Three decades ago, Shivaji Park was a star attraction for an eleven-year-old. I’d strike my leg instead of the ball, and was too clumsy for fielding, but I could swing like an acrobat on the dizzyingly high monkey bars. Granny disliked me ‘chiding luck’ and admonished me when I tried the stunts I’d watched at the cinema.

Child, you aggravate my vertigo”, she’d complain. I knew she’d leave me alone in a few minutes when it was time for her maintenance visit.

 

Granny had a perfect set of teeth. Even past sixty, none had collapsed, none had been evacuated and almost all were content, nestled in a pair of fleshy gums. Granny didn’t chew tobacco or smoke. In spite of that, perhaps because of it, she felt rather strongly for her pearly whites. Once a quarter we traveled across the arterial city to visit Cookie-man at Shivaji Park, who was responsible for dental maintenance. Although his disposition was ill-suited to that of a dentist, Cookie-man was one.

The best among the best!”, announced Grandpa, who’d been through four pairs of dentures. I routinely wondered whether he was joking or plain cynical.

Cookie-man was not a secret baker, nor did he ever offer me cookies. The dentist, I had come to understand, was a close friend of Grandpa’s. He played cricket and was an avid art collector. The walls of his foul-smelling room were as intimidating as him, chock-full of paintings that confused his clients and did little to alleviate their anxiety. I would’ve been happier kicking the earth at the park, but Granny worried I might suffer heatstroke.

Your mother will roast me like an aubergine if that happens!

That is how I came to sit in the same foul-smelling room and watch Cookie-man spend the majority of his day peering into people’s mouths. Watching him poke around inside Granny’s little mouth nauseated me, and I preferred to stare at the enormous window, which, if it weren’t for powder blue curtains, would’ve lent itself to a pretty view of the park.

 

Cookie-man is not the reason I harbour fond memories of Shivaji Park. When the dentist was satisfied that Granny’s perfect teeth were in fact, still perfect, Granny would buy me an ice-cream cone of my choice. Chocolate it was, chocolate it still is. I found it hard to grudge her. Each minute ticking by was a minute closer to ice cream.

This is not supposed to be a story about Cookie-man. This is an account of nine teeth that lay like wounded soldiers on a battlefield.

I’d finished school only a week ago. It was a warm summer day and the air was heavy with the scent of jasmine that Granny liked to weave into her low-bun. I had accompanied her on a maintenance visit to Shivaji Park and waited while Cookie-man hunted for non-existent cavities. Witty and sharp, the dentist was all smiles with sexagenarians. That day he’d been using a tiny instrument that was louder than a jet engine in his air-conditioned room. I feared for Granny’s teeth, her life, and for my own. As he finished doing what dentists do, my Granny proudly narrated to him that I had improved in math that year. I faked a smile, then noticed a fat tooth paperweight sitting stubbornly on his desk.

‘Cookie-man has poor taste in aesthetics’, I thought to myself.

He might possibly have heard me. Calling for me, he lowered himself to meet my eyes. I must’ve been trembling like a lamb at the slaughterhouse, for he laughed and said that he intended have a ‘little look’.

I turned to Granny, and she turned to Cookie-man.

Will be less than five minutes.

Five minutes are infinitesimal on the monkey bars, but in the olive green chair into which I sank, five minutes seemed 300000 milliseconds. Biting my tongue, I wished I hadn’t calculated that.

Snapping on a fresh pair of gloves, Cookie-man loomed over me, a bear of a man with his thick crop of jet-black hair. His hands cupped my jaws, then forced them open. He smelt of smoke, rum, and incense. I kept looking sideways to check for Granny’s reassuring presence.

Maybe she could have a turn on the monkey bars today”, a staccato voice suggested.

 

Eyes screwed shut, I felt something move inside my mouth. It could’ve well been an anaconda. Cookie-man’s fingers were surprisingly soft.

“WWWwwwooooOAaaaaarrrhhhhhhhaa!!”

I had managed to avoid dental check-ups at boarding school. As far as I knew, I had no cavities. What was the dentist doing then? Why was I in pain?

“AWwwwwwarrraaaaaaaahhh!!!!!”

My screams rang in my ears. I might not survive this. Cookie-man had me sit upright. My tears jumped into the glass of water he offered me. On the tray to my right lay nine teeth he had plucked. Picking up a fat canine, he pointed it at me.

Poor guys were struggling for space. They are free now”, he said matter-of-factly.  Granny nodded, then burst out laughing.

Three people in the foul-smelling room had tears rolling down their cheeks.

 

I had nine milk teeth fighting for room in my mouth. Had Cookie-man not retrieved them, our visits would’ve become more frequent.

That afternoon, Granny bought me a tub of ice-cream and let me watch an extra hour of television. I guess she felt horrid about laughing at my cheeks puffed with all the gauze the dentist stuffed in my mouth.

I never smiled at strangers thereafter.

 

 

 

©Devika Pandit 2020

 

 

2 thoughts on “Smiling at strangers

  1. A wonderful write, Devika. It reminded me of my own experience as a child when I went to the dentist and got 4 adult teeth removed because my mouth didn’t have enough space. I like how you describe the whole tension with bits of humor. Your writing is original.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, Marta, it’s only in retrospect that the fright and anxiety takes on a rather lighthearted shade of nostalgia. I’m glad my story resonated with you. May the years to come see lesser trips to the dentist, that’s a hope ahaha!

      Liked by 1 person

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