Saturday, November 25, 2006

The tooth hurts

This is a cautionary tale about how jetlag can cause twenty years of painful dental surgery.

When I was twelve, my family landed in Delhi after a sleepless international flight. That morning, in the course of excited horsing around with my cousin, I fell forward off her shoulders.

I wasn’t necessarily a great athlete in those days, but I had reasonably good reflexes, which just then failed spectacularly. Sluggish, confused, perhaps merely in denial, I clutched her t-shirt instead of putting out my hands to break the fall, and I hit the cement floor on my face. I don’t remember whether it hurt. I do remember stumbling to the sink and spitting a frightening amount of blood, and then a lot of screaming and panicked faces.

In about four seconds we were in a car, with my mother holding me in her arms and my aunt holding my left front tooth in her hand, root and all, which I thought was partly really cool and partly really not. The dentist poked me full of painkillers and re-implanted the tooth. In childhood, your body is more gracious about taking back any bits you’ve foolishly tossed out; the nerves grew back and the incisor continued to do honourable service.

But, eight years later, as I brushed my teeth in a college dorm, I noticed a weird rosy colour on the tooth. The next time I was home in Delhi, I visited another dentist (the first one had died). She gasped, took many pictures, and asked if I’d mind if she showed them at an upcoming dental conference, for this was her first case of pink tooth in twenty years of practice. Pink tooth is when the gum starts to reabsorb the tooth, which sounded pretty macabre to me, but she was very excited. She capped it and I went back to college with a less scary smile.

Inside of a year, it had come dangerously loose. The next summer in Delhi, I found myself in yet another dentist’s chair. This gent spent an hour shoving a metal screw into my upper jawbone while he hummed along softly to background music, like some highly-cultured psychopath. I don’t think he gave me enough painkillers. To this day I can’t listen to Enigma without whimpering.

The next year, the pin was loose again. By now my parents were in Malaysia, so in the summer a dentist there performed some horrible operation in which the benighted incisor was finally put to rest (bless its little enamelled soul) and a bridge put in. Further trouble was confined to a recurrent infection in the area of the missing root, which I kept swatting away with antibiotics.

By now I was in my thirties, living in Delhi, working for a magazine, and in the care of a very capable dentist who worries about my teeth almost as much as my mother. One bleary midnight in my dank basement office, I noticed a painful throb just below my nose. The x-rays showed an enormous cyst.

That resulted in a gum surgery so hideous that I can’t bring myself to talk about it except to say that the doctor removed the cap, opened up my gums like the flap of an envelope, dug out the cyst, cleaned up and sealed everything while I mooed with pain. Then he gave me another, nicer cap.

Eighteen months later, the cyst grew back. He called in a second opinion, who concurred that the right incisor, too, must be extracted, and a whole new bridge put in. For a full year I’ve pretended to be too busy to schedule the procedure. But it’s twingeing again, and now I know that my number is up.

Moral of the story: sleep on the plane, idiot.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

On beauty. Or something

Have you seen that one-minute video called ‘Evolution’ doing the rounds on the internet from Dove’s ‘Campaign for real beauty’? It shows a plain, slightly pudgy, sandy-haired woman walking up and seating herself in front of the camera and then being transformed, in fast-forward action, by hair, light, make-up and Photoshop artists, into a glamour doll whose finished face is pasted on a huge billboard advertisement.

The overt message, of course, is that it’s all fake—those flawless complexions, ideal proportions and perfect features that terrorise our self-esteem via all visual media, are just so much bumpf. Hurray!

The optional message is that it’s all fake—which means that the rest of us, too, can look like the million bucks it will cost us, for happiness is merely beauty at a price. Hurray!

Women are sending this clip to each other with a kind of avid fascination, but I’m not entirely willing to bet on which message is making the greater impression.

Like many introverts I grew up with my nose in a book, and so entirely missed the process that socialises people to take some care with their appearance. While this saved me much of the heartache and self-doubt—and boyfriends—of average teenhood, it also ensured that the real world came as a rude shock. (It also explained the mysterious maternal wailing that for years attended my every exit from the front door, which I mistook for parental devotion.) I was forced to amend my quite genuine belief that looks don’t matter, to the indignant position that they shouldn’t matter.

To say that, however, is only to cry over spilt milk. It’s too tedious to cite all the studies that show that the earth’s very axis is tilted in favour of better-looking people, who, despite the fact that they are often assumed to have fewer brains, get hired more easily, make more money, wield greater power, live easier lives, and have more fun. It’s a well-known fact that they rule the world just because the natural human affinity for beauty turns other people’s knees to water.

But this species hasn’t been honing its oldest survival skill throughout the interminable millennia for nothing. We are masters of adaptation, an evolutionary tactic scientifically known as ‘If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em’, which comes with the less-quoted but much-implemented corollary rule, ‘If you can’t join ’em, lick ’em’. Ever since the first cavewoman held a bit of shiny stuff against her skin, ever since an Egyptian noblewoman smeared green mineral paste on her eyelids and bathed in ass’s milk, we’ve been using brain to spruce up brawn, raising the beauty stakes ever higher and forcing the less attractive to play ever-more frantic games of catch up.

We are now at a watershed moment in the history of human hotness. Things are evening out. Between makeup, makeovers and surgery, the ugly and/or insecure have never had it so good, which is nice, because their ranks are swelling with every new magazine issue, television show and movie that comes out. Once upon a time it was sulphite of lead for a lick of kohl in the eyes; today it’s liposuction and Botox. Who knows, facial transplant surgery—now used only in the most extreme medical need—may one day become as casual as a haircut. That’s Evolution too.

I haven’t yet worked out how I feel about all this (though officially I’m appalled). We should know better than to fall for it, but frankly, as long as the world continues to reward style over substance, getting the odd lock highlighted or your nose straightened might not be such a bad option to flinging yourself off a bridge.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

We are never amused

It’s hard to single out one defining national characteristic for a country as vast and diverse as India. However, if I had to pick something truly pan-Indian that cuts across geography, gender, religion, class and occupation, it would have to be our totally humourless status-consciousness.

When Prince William and some friends were recently refused entry to a club class lounge on a ferry because the stewardess failed to recognise him, everyone involved just had a bit of a laugh, including the future king of England, who meekly took himself off to the cattle class bar. The ferry company, far from issuing a formal apology, pointed out quite rightly that if the man was going to travel incognito, he was going to experience a slice of ordinary life.

Things would have been so different had the Prince been one of ours. The stewardess would have known exactly who he was, she’d have thrown someone else out to make space, and she’d have fawned and hovered around him the whole time. If not, he’d have busted in saying ‘Do you know who I am?’, or maybe pulled a gun on her, and, having entered, called his father to fume about how he was snubbed; the stewardess would have been skewered and the company’s top management replaced; ingratiating politicos would have protested in the streets; somebody would have been transferred.

In India, any oversight, confrontation or criticism of public figures, especially if they rate a bust somewhere in the country, or a mention in a textbook, seems to be considered tantamount to insult. Any books, plays, sculptures, paintings, music, audiovisual works or embroidered cushion covers suggesting that they might be fallible are liable to be burned, banned, toppled, defaced, turned off or thrown out, as the case may be. We absolutely love to feel insulted on behalf of our luminaries; we have many sentiments, and they all hurt, and it doesn’t take a whole lot to hurt them.

A few days ago Sharad Pawar, union minister, leader of the Nationalist Congress Party and the president of the BCCI, was shown off the dais (no doubt with unseemly haste) by the victorious Australian cricket team at the Champions Trophy award ceremony; this, after one hapless player had said, ‘Hiya, buddy!’ while receiving his medallion. Unthinking Aussie exuberance might have remained just that, but that the media pounced on this fearful slight to our great civilisation. Was it a nudge or a push? Was it racist? Should they apologise?

Of all the donkeys debating this issue on television, I could muster sympathy only for the single four-footed specimen who also happened to be the only donkey not braying, despite being the only one who had real reason to because it had been painted in Australian colours by NCP members in Mumbai to protest Pawar’s ‘blasphemous’ humiliation. Pawar himself was the only chap who kept his head, and his dignity, brushing off the incident as a mere nothing.

All I can say is that in the outrage department we seem to be willing to work with very little. If you want a really good, old-fashioned insult to get exercised about, consider the case of the Persian ambassador at the court of Shah Jahan. Seventeenth-century diplomacy was an altogether more sophisticated battle of national wits. The entrance to the Emperor’s audience chamber was through a very low wicker gate, which forced any visitor to bow low into the exalted presence; the Persian ambassador, who was clearly chosen for his quick thinking, upheld the status of his own sovereign by entering through the aperture backwards. Now that’s worthy of a response.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

When TED talks, listen

The American higher education system is probably the finest in the world. Nowhere else can you spend four years dabbling in everything from econometrics to medieval architecture, and come out superbly equipped to shout answers to Trivial Pursuits questions from behind the huge pizza in your mouth.

No, seriously, a US undergraduate college is paradise for a non-specialist temperament. If you have no clue what you want to be when you grow up, you get to try out all kinds of fields for two years before choosing a major. And, if you charted your career plan when you were eight, it’s an excellent place to test your certainty. The idea is to broaden your horizons, and with the backing of the world’s best educational resources, it works.

Life being what it is, the degree you earn often has no bearing whatsoever on the work you end up doing. Majors in Victorian studies might end up on Wall Street, and Economics toppers make great radio jockeys. But as our then-President at Bryn Mawr College said, the point of your years there is to “make the inside of your head a more interesting place to be for the rest of your life.”

After my BA I never did apply to graduate school, partly because, in my non-specialist’s view, the ideal education would consist of several BAs instead. I figured I had time for maybe five more, before creeping senility made me unfit to play a decent game of Trivial Pursuit—but I never got around to another BA either. So every now and then I have a strong urge to run back to college as one of those ‘students of non-traditional age’ whom I remember thinking of as sadly earnest drips (I am filled with remorse and take it back).

Circumstances do not permit, however, so now when I have such an urge, I shuffle over to the keyboard and type in Then I put on my headphones, sit back, and enjoy the equivalent of sitting gape-mouthed in a classroom while a particularly brilliant professor presents a particularly fascinating talk consisting of cutting edge thought, in a concise twenty minutes or so. What I actually hear and see might indeed be a lecture by an academic, or else a performance by a virtuoso musician, or the account of a hair-raising journey of exploration, or a piece of interesting research.

The annual TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Monterey, California, curated by a Pakistan-born, India-schooled Brit named Chris Anderson, collects about a thousand interesting people for a few days during which they present and exchange ideas. They comprise some of the world’s most skilled and creative minds, and their contributions are recognised and supported with vast resources (like the $100,000 TED Prize, awarded this year to war photographer James Nachtwey, biologist Dr E.O Wilson, and President Bill Clinton).

TED, owned by Anderson’s The Sapling Foundation, puts the best of the talks on the internet as video and audio presentations for the rest of the world to enjoy, at the rate of two or three a week. They take a while to download, but they’re worth it. Listen to Malcolm Gladwell on the business secrets of spaghetti sauce; or teenager Eva Vertes, who is changing the course of cancer research; or professors Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz on happiness and choice; or Ben Saunders on his solo expedition to the North Pole; or Sir Ken Robinson on creativity…

If TED is new to you, as it was to me, you’re in for a treat. Watch all the talks, and keep track of new posts. If you’re going to be stuck with yourself forever, you may as well make it fun.