Josna Rege

98. Oral Culture (so to speak)

In 1980s, 2010s, Britain, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on February 21, 2011 at 12:21 pm

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?

Tell Me Another

  1. Teeth bring back some scary visits to a dentist in Gauhati, Assam, whose only remedy in those days was to pull out the offending tooth. I remember my dad very bravely going with me one time for an extraction and he held my hand and stood behind the chair as the dentist with characteristic grimaces and exclamations went about the business of injecting the gum and then pulling with what seemed all his might to get the difficult tooth to leave it’s place in my jaw. The loud cracking sound and the dentist’s own dramatic exclamations seemed to get to my poor dad whose hand got rather slippery in mine and started to slip away just as I was releasing the tooth forever. It was touch and go for a bit and afterwards I think my dad had to sit down with his head between his knees for a while.
    I think that was the last extraction I ever had done in India.

    Dentistry in this country is much less of a problem because there is a much more calm and assuring manner by the nurses and destists generally, that I have met. Probably having plenty of the necessary drugs for a painless experience makes things so much easier as well. Also they go to much greater lengths to save the teeth rather than just pull them out.
    On the other hand if my dad could see the bills these days he might be back on that stool with his head between his legs again!

    • I love your comment, Marianne, although I sympathize with both you and your poor dad. What an ordeal! But you have told it so well that I couldn’t help laughing even as I grimaced (along with that dentist). Of course if it had been me I would have been laughing on the other side of my face.
      I have blanked out my earliest dentist visits in India–perhaps mercifully. I seem to remember that I had to go to Calcutta for one of them–not sure why. But despite the fact that novocaine seemed to be unheard of in India at that time and they seemed to use massive drills and drill out half the teeth before filling a cavity, my first really horrific experience was in the U.S. when I went–just once–to Andrew’s family dentist. He seemed to take a grim pleasure in causing the greatest amount of pain possible, and was the kind of man who gives dentists a bad name. After that I couldn’t bring myself to go to the dentist for a long, long time. And you’re right–then there are the bills. I am steeling myself to have a failed root canal removed and redone, and it promises to cost nearly two thousand dollars! That’s after havingf paid more than a thousand dollars for the original root canal.

  2. The range and choice of your topics amazes me.

    My teeth are my Achilles heel (now, there’s an image!). I had braces, fell on my face and broke my front teeth twice, and it’s been downhill from there. I envy old folks who have a mouthful of sturdy natural teeth, whatever the color.

    When living in England as a teenager, we went to NYC to see my sister over Christmas. On the plane, I discovered that my tooth was abcessed, as the change in pressure made abundantly clear. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever had. My sister got me an emergency appointment with her dentist the next day. He took one look in my mouth, saw a filling, and said, “Have you been in England?” Apparently, there are recognizable, even “signature” styles to making fillings.

    I notice in English movies, even modern ones, that the actors and actresses don’t necessarily have the perfect teeth that American stars are obliged to have. I love that. Terry Thomas without a gap? Even Glynis Johns didn’t have pearly whites.

    • “My teeth are my Achilles heel (now, there’s an image!)”! Yes, a foot-in-mouth one! But seriously, injuries to teeth are no laughing matter. It must have been traumatic to break your front teeth not once, but twice. My mother always told us the story of her best friend who wore a fashionable cape once and stumbled down the steps to the Underground in London without being able to free her hands to break her fall. She lost all her front teeth, according to Mum (although it’s possible that she exaggerated the story so that we learned the intended lesson; I did–I have never worn a cape).
      The pain of that abcess–on a plane, no less–sounds excruciating. But the idea of “signature fillings” is intriguing; it gives me an idea for a spy story in which nefarious dentists send coded messages to each other via their unsuspecting patients’ teeth!

  3. “a spy story in which nefarious dentists send coded messages to each other via their unsuspecting patients’ teeth!”

    That’s too good to let go. I think I’ll shop it around to famous mystery writers!

  4. One of the ways I broke a front tooth was when sleeping on the top bunk at weekend camp. I rolled over in my sleep, and couldn’t get my arms out of my sleeping bag to protect my face. I can hardly imagine the pain your mother’s friend must have been in.

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