For me, a visit to the dentist is always a brush with mortality. I think of the gray wing and furred leg of Pappachi’s moth, Arundhati Roy’s chilling image in The God of Small Things, brushing up against the carapace of my death-denying ego and reminding me as I grow long in the tooth that it is up to me alone to face life with courage and an open heart.
Sitting in the chair this morning I found myself musing on the different cultural practices pertaining to dental care and oral health in India, Britain, and the United States. In India, my father’s daily teeth-cleaning ritual included massaging the gums, and I learned to do the same. I mentioned this to the dental hygienist and she was polite but skeptical. She gave me a rubber-tipped instrument that she said would be good for my periodontal health but warned that although it advertised itself as promoting firm, healthy gums, “the research did not support” the benefits of gum massage. Still, whether or not the research supports it, gum massage can’t do any harm, and it certainly feels good.
Tongue-cleaning is another thing that Indians do daily (or used to do—perhaps I’m out of touch). It has always seemed essential to me and I wonder why Americans, who are such clean freaks when it comes to bathing and such fanatical flossers, have not taken to it. A pink tongue seems to me to epitomize good health, and I frequently notice with distaste the close-ups of the unsightly white tongues of American Idol contestants, mouths wide open in song (if you can call it song).
In India, dental cleanliness is very close to godliness. Every school primer drills children in brushing their teeth first thing in the morning. (Incidentally, in the U.S. one brushes one’s teeth, while in Britain the one cleans them. In India—in Hindi, at any rate—(daant saaf karna) the operative word is also cleaning.) My Indian family will not let a drop of food or drink—not even their morning cup of tea—pass their lips until they have done so. When I was growing up—and again, things may well have changed with globalization—it was quite common practice to pick one’s teeth with a twig in company, something that in Europe and the U.S. is considered a social no-no, a practice that ought to be confined to the bathroom. I have always wondered why this is the case, finding it perfectly natural, not to mention health-promoting, behavior. Twigs from the medicinal neem tree were the instruments of choice in my childhood and, thankfully, are still used as natural toothbrushes throughout India, despite the growth in the promotion and sale of commercial toothbrushes. I remember that when he first returned to India some thirty years ago after completing his graduate studies in the States, my friend Ashok Jhunjhunwala started a campaign to encourage villagers to continue their indigenous practice of using neem twigs, despite the barrage of advertising exhorting them to take up the toothbrush.
White teeth are something which both Americans and Indians value; the British, not so much, fortunately for me. I was born with distinctly off-white teeth, and this natural disadvantage is deepened by my addiction to tea-drinking. When I return to India people regularly remark on the color of my teeth as a dead giveaway that I am not “really Indian”: apparently “real Indians” all have gleaming white teeth and they find mine distinctly untoothsome. Although this makes me wince, it is not rudeness on their part: there is just not the European–particularly the British—cultural taboo against “making personal remarks.” Still, it disturbed me enough that the last time I went to India I gave my teeth a home-whitening treatment beforehand; and sure enough, for the first time I received no comments about their color, to my relief.
When I first went back to India with Andrew after our marriage, we discovered Monkey Brand tooth powder—a coal-black powder in a bright red box claiming to be a healthy, Ayurvedic product. The idea of using black powder to achieve white teeth was appealing, and we still have a box of it on our bathroom shelf, but after a time we found it rather abrasive, wondered about its ingredients, and found ourselves switching to gentler toothpastes made of natural products. It may well promote dental health: if anyone can tell me more I would happily return to it.
One last toothy story: as recently as a generation ago, orthodontics was almost unheard of in India, except perhaps among the very wealthy, and it was quite common to encounter people with wildly protruding teeth, sometimes jutting out at near-ninety-degree angles. My parents told me a story of a relative of ours—or perhaps it was a family friend—whose daughter had protruding teeth, so much so that her parents had more-or-less given up on ever getting her married. This daughter, who was intelligent and spirited and wasn’t prepared to let herself be written off in this way, managed to get herself to the U.S. for further education, and once there, lost no time in having her teeth straightened. Marriage soon followed, as well as motherhood and a successful professional career. Today, looking at the perfect teeth of the younger generation and the celebrities and beauty queens increasingly prominent on the world stage, one would think that all Indians were blessed with naturally straight teeth as well as gleaming white ones; although perhaps economic status has as much to do with it as genetics.
In any case, the chill of my brush with mortality has now worn off enough for me to have consumed nearly half a packet of gummy bears, and I must go and brush my teeth before twenty minutes has elapsed—which, according to my cousin Jacky, is the grace period before tooth decay will begin to set in. Where is that neem twig when I need it?