Most Everything I Needed To Know About India I Learned From My Dentist

“We’ve lived all over the world.  She’s the best dentist I’ve ever had.”

      “All the ex-pat’s adore her.”

 The profession of dentistry spends a lot of money to overcome its close association with oral agony.  Just the hint of a high-speed drill in a movie makes grown men crush the armrests of their seats.  To overcome this problem, dentists have been working hard on their re-branding themselves.  Maybe you’ve seen the ads that announce Pain-Free and Kid-approved under the grinning face of the dentist:  A.k.a. “Dr. Giggles”.   (Note to the Dental Community:  Your money would be better spent on good magazines.  The ads aren’t convincing anyone who still gets cavities.)

Yet people seem to adore Dr. Poonam Batra.  So with modest expectations I made my appointment and by the time I walked out less than an hour later, I had been treated to a short-course on India.

Finding her office was like a morning spent geo-caching.  The streets in her cluttered neighborhood are either unmarked or the signs were hidden because of the stalled school bus.  The map on the back of her business card looked as if it had been drawn by her young nephew on his Ipad.  Only after three stops to ask for directions, we found her address.

It was a waste of time to look for a respectable dental office complex.  That’s not the way it is done here.  The second floor of the four story joint-family building consists of Dr. Batra’s practice.  First floor is for her husband’s parents.  Number three is shared by her husband and her.  And the top floor is for their son and his new wife.  They are called “joint-family homes” and can easily include another brother with his family or an uncle or aunt as well.  In America we treat this as a rarity and a consequence of a sour economy. In India it is a badge that you’re doing your part to sustain the Indian devotion to family.  By the way, even in the age of Bollywood and love marriages as opposed to arranged marriages, the number of these joint family homes is increasing.  And whatever the street outside your house looks like, it is of little concern.  Only the inside of your home is what counts.

Once inside the dental office, it is reassuring in its familiarity.  Nervous children.  Distracted mothers.  The piped-in music consists of Broadway show tunes–iconic music hinting of New York sophistication.  No Car and Driver or Popular Science, though. The magazines are definitely tilted toward the feminine gender and primarily haute couture.  Like Femina, Women’s Era, and Elle.  The only exceptions are those dedicated to high brow design tastes like the splashy Prismma or Architecture + Design.  They all shout “We’re the new India; We’ve got exceptional taste…and we can afford it.”

The guy behind the desk who welcomes patients actually shouted out a different message.  He was deferential to me, but when the hovering janitor didn’t get his tea to him at the right time, he barked like a beagle.  The Dutch lady near me jumped like she’d been stung.  I could read her rolled eyes:  “What poor manners!”  Not in his mind.  He was signaling to the janitor and to us that he wasn’t at the bottom of the food chain.  He was in charge of this office!

That was until Dr. Batram entered the room like a returning queen.  She scolded her office manager with a scowl.   She didn’t need words.  The beagle had been beaten.  That task out of the way, she deftly made a circuit of all her waiting patients.  “So very, very good to see you…I was hoping you’d come back soon!…What a remarkable pleasure to meet you.”

I wanted to believe her, but old dental memories die slowly.  She invited me to follow her with a deferential, “I think we’re ready for you Mr. Oswald.  May I show you to our updated exam room?  I hope you will very much like it.”  Suddenly I wasn’t missing the breezy, first name California banter that I’ve come to expect from my old dentist:  “Hi, Phil!  I’m Wally.  How’s life treating you, man?”

And  I really wasn’t prepared for the waiting huddle in my exam room.   At the top of the pyramid was the good doctor.  Below her in status was a young dentist-in-training.  Bollywood make-up under the goggles and mask.  Her trademark white lab coat couldn’t hide her very fashionable scarlet silk curta and matching 3” heels.  It made back hurt.

Then there’s the guy whose job generally matches that of a dental assistant in other countries.  He was the middle manager.  The doctor didn’t speak in sentences to him, just clipped syllables.

After him came the guy whose whole assignment in life was to move the lamp over the patient’s head when Dr. Batra tells him:  “Up, down, over!”  That’s it.  Destined to fulfill very small assignments for miserly pay isn’t uncommon in India.  At the Hilton hotel just this morning, I was assisted by a restroom attendant whose job description must lead off with: “Reach over,  turn on faucet for patron to wash his hands.”   Besides being a little creepy, its also sad to think that here’s a guy who’s easily your intellectual equal living out his days twisting faucets for well-fed men who actually could use all the exercise they can get. And doing it all day for the cost of your tea.

And last, the young female stenographer whose job it was to make written records in my chart for the doctor’s observations.  It was watching the outlawed caste system still at work.

 The cleaning, exam, and overhaul were exactly as promised. Not only did Dr. Batra live up to her press with gentleness and precision, even her dental equipment would win Best of Show at any dental convention.  It was all so painless even down to the bill:  $21.00.  Would you like her number?




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