Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Nothing but the Tooth

The flash lunch we have at the Renaissance proves costly, since I succumb to the temptation of that well-known Indian delicacy, lardons, and crack a tooth. I should have stuck with idli-sambar, I realise now; the irony is not lost on me. By way of compensation, a whole new world of subcontinental medical care unfolds in front of me, today, and that has to be worth a molar or two, in my book.

It says on the wall outside, and on every piece of headed paper inside, that the Hiranandani Hospital in Powai aims “to be the preferred choice for healing and good health.” Thus inspired with confidence, I creep into the huge marble atrium masquerading as an entrance hall, where a uniformed receptionist directs me to the first floor - “Take this stair here!” (I obviously don’t look very intelligent, then...) There, another fleet of administrative accolytes waits, one eye on their flickering computer screen, one ear glued to a phone.

The waiting area outside the dental suite is busy, and I have to choose my slot along the row with care. What I think is an abandoned pile of rags turns out to be a lady in a blue and yellow sari, lying curled across three chairs. It doesn’t happen down the Queen’s Medical Centre, in Nottingham, I can tell you. Nor do you have to take your shoes off at the door, before you pad in, barefoot, to open wide and say “Ahh!” When in Mumbai, do as the Mumbaikers do, however. I kick off my sandals, leave them jostling cosily with all the flip-flops by the door, and enter.

There seem to be about seventeen people in white coats and green facemasks, milling about with patient files under one arm, or glinting surgical weapons in their fists. I am ushered into a chair by the desk. A long, low cupboard separates administration from treatment, so discretion is a matter of mutual politeness and goodwill. I haven’t met my dentist yet, but we’re already on first name terms. Ramona. She tells the man on his way out - in English then in Hindi - that he can’t expect to wear the same set of dentures for fifteen years, without causing damage. I think the English is for me, so I don’t feel left out. When he leaves, Ramona chats to a young disabled girl, who’s sitting by me, waiting for her mother to be treated. We like Ramona. She tells me her name and her qualifications, then asks, “Would you like to meet me?” I’m thinking, I just have, but agree anyway. I notice she’s left-handed, and has a particularly nice bangle on, so I relax completely.

I’m not taking such a karmic view of things, three minutes later, when the torture chair flips back and winches up. Over my head, Ramona finishes her consultation with the previous patient - he must use a soft brush, up and down, not side to side. (Please note, the dentally careless among you, it may save you Rs 265 later down the line, not to mention the odd canine.) She pings on her medical Marigolds and fills my mouth with prongs and mirrors. “Oh, you didn’t go for your check-up, last year!” she says, sadly. I hate to disappoint her. She tells me not to worry about twelve times, so I begin to wonder if she’s seen the first stirrings of some dread and possibly fatal buccal decline, but apparently it’s a cracked tooth. Even I knew that.

The entire gamut of enamelled retail possibilities is available to me, because, Ramona says, they don’t have dental insurance, here in India, and all pockets have to be catered for. So, I can have a crown made out of an old clothespeg and a bit of Blutac, for Rs 2000, or a full porcelain job for Rs 16000. Or an inlay, with gold inside the porcelain, for Rs 12000. (Since when has gold been cheaper than china? Someone should tell Hallmark to realign their wedding anniversary range.) I consider the rock and the hard place, and say, like I always do, that I’ll consult my husband. This is not financial dependence or uxorious subservience, it’s my get-out line. Then I have a dental epiphany, and treat myself to the best of the best – not quite such a paradable souvenir as a Mr Raymond suit, but hopefully longer-lasting.

Ramona and I make our farewells, wreathed in smiles, and I head for the door and my sandals. It then takes me approximately three times the length of the consultation, to pay. Shopping at Fabindia’s the same. I have ample time to read the industrial-sized flat-screen on the wall (I skip the Hindi pages), where I learn that everyone has a right to “uniform care, whatever the class of patient,” which presumably explains why I am allowed in, and to “personal dignity and privacy during consultation.” I can’t quite square this with the overhead chats I’m party to, while prostrate on the chaise longue of torture, but no-one else seems to mind, so how can I object? I’m more than tempted by the Body Contouring Clinic, but the screen flickers before I can write down the number to ring. “Anyone desirous of smoking,” it now advises, “may kindly use the open spaces outside the hospital premises.” I smile, because this is newly illegal: India’s public smoking ban will be a week old on Thursday. Monu’s danger-boss gets hauled over twice in a week, for infringement, Rs 200 a pop. (Monu and his mates, need I say, cartwheeling with joy...)

Queuing, still queuing. Fellow patients make and receive phone calls on their mobiles, to while away the wait. I offer the receptionist Rs 500, to cover the Rs 265 charge, but she can’t make change, so I have to pay £3 with a credit card. As I fiddle with my PIN number, she answers the phone, and, between one sentence and the next, dials out on a second phone, while tapping at her computer, and dealing with stray enquiries passing by, thrusting banknotes at her. Small wonder, that it takes forty minutes, to process my piffling account. A man comes to remonstrate – as in all hospitals the world over – that he’s been overlooked in the queue. I think he’s got a plaster on his head, and should be seen immediately, but on closer inspection, I see it’s a very fancy bindi, so he can wait his turn like anyone else.

On the way out, I spy the Mahesh Stores, in the glossy foyer, where you can buy flip-flops, or sheets, or t-shirts, or baby-bottles, or coca-cola, or sponge footballs, or shiny magazines. At the above-mentioned QMC, there’s a whole floor dedicated to franchises from Costa Coffee to W H Smiths, and here it all is, in a stall the size of the Tardis.

I can’t wait to go back on Thursday.