One of the rituals of the kids’ homecomings is a visit to the dentist. Their insurance in the US is stingy where dental work is concerned and the co-pays are steep. They prefer to save it for emergencies and to get things done here instead.

Anand got a crown that would have cost him $1200 in the US for $100; Cathleen had eight tiny cavities filled for $75.

Of course, when you live here, the delights of cheap dentistry are less appealing. I have managed to go for many years without ever darkening the door of Dr Swati’s clinic and though I was encouraging and supportive of the kids wanting to get everything shipshape, it didn’t occur to me to follow their example.

Until, to my shock and horror, one of my molars broke mid-parantha. The next morning, I set out with Cathleen for my own session.

Dr Swati is a bit of a bulldozer. For her size (tiny) she has a formidable will and an uncanny psychological astuteness. I had only planned to get the molar sorted but she took a quick look around the place and determined that in addition to the crown, I also needed a bridge (absolutely true, and I’d been putting it off for over five years). She didn’t ask me anything – she simply set to work.

The next thing I knew she had shot me full of Novacaine – both upper and lower jaw – and then told me to go to the waiting room and let it take effect. Twenty minutes, she said cheerfully, turning to the next victim.

Novacaine is a disorienting, bewildering substance. The waiting room – such a tiny, cramped area – was making it worse. I decided to walk my twenty minutes off, reasoning that the activity would keep my mind off the fact that one side of my face felt like a numb and swollen beanbag, that my tongue was twice its normal size and that my throat was rapidly closing down on me and that I was about to die.

Out on the street, however, stumbling along and trying not to drool too much, what chiefly struck me was that EVERYONE WAS STARING AT ME.

It wasn’t my imagination either. Every single person I walked past stared. Took their time about it. Stopped to get a better look.

The side of my face had swelled to mammoth proportions. I felt the corner of my mouth drooping. This would never change. I was doomed to a life in which I looked like this. I pressed a napkin to my mouth to catch the drool that was flowing copiously (the napkin stayed dry, but that didn’t change my opinion).

Ten minutes out, I turned to walk back. Ten minutes later, I met Cathleen, waiting at the clinic entrance.

“How bad does it look?” I asked her.

“How bad does what look?”

“My face! Isn’t it all swollen?”

“No,” she said, looking carefully. “It looks fine.”

“Seriously, Mom,” she said, seeing my doubt. “I can’t see anything.”

Dr Swati called me back in then. While she drilled and scraped and had her way with me, I thought about what had just happened. People had been staring at me – of that there was no doubt. But nothing about me was visibly different. I was the exact same white foreign lady in a small provincial Indian town, walking down a road where most of the people I passed had never seen anyone who looked like me before.

The only thing that had changed was that I no longer felt comfortable in my own skin. My own skin was numb and unreliable and six times its normal size. Suddenly, I was aware that people were staring at me.

H-e-l-l-o! People are always staring at me! I just don’t usually realize it. Usually, I AM comfortable in my own skin. I stride through life and the streets of Dehradun, not realizing that for others I am always strange and foreign and not from here.

Novacaine brought me up short. It reminded me of the reality of otherness and of the absolute crucial-ness of being happy with yourself, no matter who you are, no matter how different or strange you may seem to others. My Novacaine experience reminded me that drooling and swelling and numbness are in the eye of the beholder and that the beholder has no power and no control over the person in question.

It was a powerful moment. In the wink of an eye, I understood and embraced a new truth: They – whoever they are – are not in charge. We are. Walk down the street happy and whole and NOBODY can convince you that you don’t belong.

Believe me. Shot full of Novacaine, aching teeth and all, I am still sure of this: I belong here. I am included. You are too. You are. You are. You are.





Showing 2 comments
  • Nicola Tansley

    This relates closely to a discussion I very badly want to have with you and others too about inclusion – what the word implies in terms of where inclusion comes from; how we have to burrow inside that word’s unspoken aspects above all if we’re going to change things.

    And maybe all of us should have some experience like this wonderfully clear example – of looking strange and different, or even just feeling that – to understand how many disabled people and their families can feel day in, day out. Appearance shouldn’t matter, we know that, but people with facial disfigurement know the reality is that it does. So we have to work to build self-confidence, recognition of real self-worth, a well-founded resilience, but for real inclusion to happen, the greater task is out there …

    Incidentally, there’s a reverse situation for some people too: experiencing a deep bereavement, feeling that their whole world has changed, that they must look different somehow and other people must surely be able to see that – and yet everyone ‘out there’ goes on as before. In its own way, as disconcerting as really looking different and being stared at.

    (Sorry Jo – all that probably sounds a bit OTT – but this story is so clear in terms of underlying issues as well as being very recognisable in personal terms!)

  • Jo

    Not OTT at all! This is precisely what I am talking about!

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