Bimal Babu weaved his way through the drowsy morning traffic while North Calcutta struggled to shake off its torpor, a hydra-headed monster, lazily swaying to and fro. Cradling his trusty black umbrella under his arm, he hurried towards the doctor’s chamber. The street shone like a lemon and the morning felt blue after ages, but Bimal Babu oblivious to it all, moved at a speed that belied his age. At last, he stopped outside the clinic to catch his breath. Running nervous fingers through his graying hair, scratching his neck and chin, touching his throat and forehead feverishly, he stepped inside to greet his old friend, the doctor.
“Why, hello, Bimal Babu! Is it already time for your monthly check-up?” The gentle doctor smiled. He was a portly middle-aged man, his round face forever red and genial. He was both accustomed to these visits and Bimal Babu’s customary (and half hearted) complaints of knee pain and a persisting cold. He was one of the doctor’s prized patients, duly handing him a fee of three hundred rupees fortnightly. It was just an elaborate charade, and the doctor liked to play along. He knew that Bimal Babu, like most elderly men was sorely in need of some company, a kindred soul with whom he could discuss the nitty-gritty’s of politics, football and fascinating ailments. Unlike most septuagenarians, up until now Bimal Babu had enjoyed perfect health and despite his regular grievances, he secretly believed that he was infallible.
However, this morning, the flustered Bimal Babu waved aside all greetings with an impatient sweep of his wrinkled hand. “I think” and he paused for theatrical effect, “Nay, I am sure that I am being poisoned.” The doctor’s broad smile turned into one of incredulity as he looked into his patient’s saucer-like eyes. “Poisoned, you say?”
“Yes! That too in my own house! You of all people realize how cautious I have been regarding my health. I ask you to single out one other man who could boast of perfect eyesight and a faultless liver.”
“You are absolutely right”, the good doctor humoured him. Clearly something had agitated the old man recently. Perhaps he had quarreled with his wife, or his son, or the ayah who dogged his steps throughout the day without any apparent reason. “Look, how I sweat today,” Bimal Babu whined, “Look, how my knuckles turn white!”
The doctor patted his thin bony shoulders and murmured words of comfort. Bimal Babu ranted on in his own inimitable manner, “It is the lead paint, I tell you. Flakes flying everywhere, and I can’t even begin to tell you about the dust. Oh, it chokes me, it does.”
“Are you repairing your house?”
“Not me, never! I believe my house is still in its prime condition, yes. Have you seen the old, grand arched entrance? My son, dear man, is a fool. He is redecorating, he tells me, redoing the place, and preserving its character. Liar!”
He spat out the last word with considerable venom, banged his fist on the table and winced. “They are digging up the old paint, and then applying a fresh coat. What’s the use of it all, I ask you? You have seen my house; it is a fine architectural piece. It needs no paint; it needs no colour to spruce it up like a harlot.” His voice softened and his eyes misted over; it was the bitter complaint of a man who could no longer manipulate or influence his present circumstances.
The doctor sat across the table and grinned to himself. Bimal Babu’s paranoia concerning his advancing old age was widely known in the neighbourhood. An erstwhile athlete, he refused to take matters of health lightly. One could even say that the man was terrified of growing old, senile and insignificant. Post his retirement he had opened an unassuming curio shop, tucked away into a nameless corner of his locality. There he spent his long mornings, reading books and solving puzzles. It was a room of his own, not meant for pecuniary dealings.
When he perceived that the doctor had become inattentive he growled impatiently, and mumbled something about his morning tea, and how the world suddenly turns its back on an aged man. The more the doctor reflected on the situation, the more absurd the conversation seemed. At last he intended to put a stop to Bimal Babu’s harangue. “My dear man,” he drawled, “Tell me your symptoms.” Bimal Babu looked puzzled for a while and said, “Why! There’s this congestion in my chest- right here”, he poked himself hard in the ribs with his thin fingers. “Stomach cramps, headaches.” He narrowed his eyes in deep thought and gravely said, “Oh and this tooth, it hurts.”
“Tooth?” The doctor repeated, genuinely puzzled. The rest of Bimal Babu’s hypochondriacal complaints were made-up, fabrications of an old man’s restless mind devoted solely to the study of books on medicines and physiology, but he had never heard of a phony toothache. “Why, let me take a look.”
Sure enough, he found one of Bimal Babu’s molars rotting away. “This, my friend, is not because of lead poisoning. You need to see a dentist straightaway.” Before the irate old man could interrupt him, he hastily continued, “As for lead poisoning, when was the last time you painted your house?”
“Sometime in the eighties, I don’t quite remember- late eighties, maybe?”
“Then you need not worry. I can assure you that the paint currently being peeled off your walls is lead-free.”
Bimal Babu glared at the doctor, unconvinced at the diagnosis, clearly hoping that the doctor would relent and administer a thorough check-up. Instead he was sent off to a nearby dentist to have his tooth extracted without further delay.
Unlike the doctor, the dentist was a silent, severe character. He asked a few direct questions, demanded straightforward answers and as soon as he had studied the panoramic X-ray, he started operating on his patient. Before Bimal Babu could moan out in protest, he grasped the tooth with forceps, twisted and turned it, and wrenched it out. Whimpering in pain, Bimal Babu realized the folly of complaining falsely. His bland life flashed before his eyes, and being a god fearing man, he murmured a prayer to the beings above, while he spat out blood in the cracked white basin. “Never, never again will I visit a doctor without reason. That tooth-” he stared at his molar that lay orphaned in a steel bowl, “That tooth was a perfectly fine specimen.” The dentist pretending not to hear his feeble protests, remarked, “A cut in the mouth tends to bleed more than a cut on the skin because the incision cannot dry out and form a scab. Bite on this piece of gauze for half an hour, and allow the blood to clot. Under no circumstance should you disturb this clot, or else, the bleeding might not get staunched.” His steely voice droned on monotonously, barking out instructions. Stealthily, Bimal Babu reached out for his abandoned tooth and slipped it into his pocket. Still whimpering in pain, and forcibly rendered mute, he walked out of the dentist’s cabin- a broken man.
Instead of returning to his house, he chose to spend the rest of the day at his small curio shop. The shop was indeed an old man’s fancy, a whim to while away the hours of the day. It was stocked with old, worm eaten books, jewelry that had long ago lost their sheen, antique watches, yellowed porcelain dolls and other such worthless possessions. To him, stepping into the shop was like slipping on an overused, frayed at the edges, comfortable coat. He let its old world charm, its soft velvety darkness envelop him for a while. For a moment reassurance burst afresh in his parched heart. He looked into the grainy mirror that hung lopsided beside the counter. His face was a stranger’s, with its ruffled hair and swollen cheeks. Bimal Babu dragged out his rickety chair and let the familiarity of the shop lull him into sleep. It had been a rather peculiar morning. He woke up to a lukewarm cup of tea, whose contents had been rendered inedible. A great flake of paint had peeled off his roof and landed right into his cup. The doctor had laughed off his anxieties, and the dentist had caused him unimaginable suffering. The whole world was conspiring against him, and at the helm of it all was his own son, with his insistence that the house be transformed into a modern monstrosity.
He fished out the tooth from his pocket and laid it on the counter, staring at it fixedly. For a while he was oblivious to everything else; he had found a metaphor for his life in that extracted tooth. I am old, he breathed out, I feel old and useless. His tongue prodded his injured gum gingerly. His mouth felt wet, and tasted metallic. Perhaps, I need to let go, let go of it all. Misery wormed its way into his heart.
A chink of sunshine poured into the shop unexpectedly. The painkillers had rendered Bimal Babu drowsy, and he scrunched up his eyes to look at the blurred figure that had entered his shop. He opened his mouth to speak when the pain shot through his nerves, renewed. His vision cleared and he saw a grizzled, old foreigner with sallow, sickly skin stretched right across his bones pottering about the shop. With his gangly, spotted hands, he picked up various artifacts and inspected them curiously. Bimal Babu’s eyes narrowed in suspicion- he was not used to customers disturbing his hour of meditation and siesta, in fact, he was not used to customers at all! As the cotton gauze, rendered heavy with blood, threatened to slip out of his mouth, he beckoned to the stranger and mumbled incoherently in English. The yellowish man craned his neck, and walked towards the shop-owner, when his sunken eyes fell on the tooth. With a manic grin on his face, he picked it up and turned it over on his palm. Bimal Babu gestured wildly to indicate that it was his tooth and not an article of curiosity, repeatedly pointing towards his mouth. “Toof! My toof!”
The stranger’s face clouded over and he clenched the tooth within his fist. He took out his wallet and fished out some notes. Bimal Babu shook his head vigorously to point out that the tooth was not for sale. He snatched at the other’s closed fist. The man stood still, bemused at the antics of the shop-owner. Exasperated, Bimal Babu signaled him to wait. He turned around to take the gauze out of his mouth, and by the time he turned back towards the counter, shop was empty. The foreigner had disappeared, along with Bimal Babu’s molar tooth. He was astonished, and wondered what else this strange morning would hold in store, when his eyes fell on some crisp currency notes that the shoplifter had left behind. Cautiously he counted the notes; he had been given five thousand rupees in lieu of his tooth. Clearly, allegedly valueless goods could magically acquire unexpected value.
Years later, Bimal Babu would fondly refer to this incident, as the Tooth-Fairy episode- the day when an old and graying fairy, had walked into his shop, and without speaking a word transformed his mundane, bleak worldview with a touch of pure, untainted optimism. Bimal Babu’s dulled memory had wrought fabrications of its own during various retellings of this event; sometimes, he swore that the tooth fairy had looked just like him, and had vanished into a puff of smoke before his own eyes, sometimes he said that the stranger looked unmistakably like one of his great grandfathers. However, the kernel of truth remained untarnished: his chipped soul had been wholly restored. The day he lost his wisdom tooth, Bimal Babu became a wise man.