Sohel’s thin, reedy fingers were shoved into his mouth up to the second knuckles. The closer I got to him the wider he pulled his lips apart, stretching them to his ears until I thought they would tear. Once I reached him, he relaxed, removed his fingers from his mouth, wiped his saliva-drenched chin on the back of his grimy hand and told me his tooth was ‘paining’. I reluctantly asked him to open his mouth wide once more and took a look inside. Hiding behind front teeth that look like perfect white chiclets were two gruesome black holes bathed in a pool of spit. He wiggled his dirty index finger in his mouth, pointed to the painful tooth and gave a quick wince to convince me to help somehow. I could feel his pain. I was scheduled to have a root canal the next day.
After my appointment, between the freezing and the fear of when the assumed pain would kick in, I inquired of Dr. Manish, a good-natured, efficient, reputable, professional (not always the case in India) dentist, if he would look at Sohel’s teeth. He insisted I bring him with me when I returned for my next appointment.
Sohel, who thinks he’s about twelve years-old, lives in a slum home surrounded by a moat of shit. If location is important in real-estate, his family of six live in a tiny hut with the worst re-sale value ever. Squeezed between a brick wall and another slum home it fronts onto a ‘patio’ of swamp water where the overflow from the block of squat toilets produces a toxic grey stew of stench that meanders perilously close to the door of his hut. Pin-pricks of daylight coming from holes in the roof pierce the dank, dust-laden air inside the hut in long, pointed strands. When I visited, the air inside his home left a lingering metallic taste in my mouth and dust clinging to my tongue long after I left. Sohel lives with his mother, father, and three siblings in this uninhabitable mess collaged together using tin, recycled wood, and the ubiquitous blue tarp used on the roof of nearly every slum home.
At the preliminary visit to assess Sohel’s situation, Dr. Manish prodded Sohel to open his mouth and quickly realized that both of his back molars, not quite through his gums yet, were rotted. Hoping to save Sohel’s teeth he decided on a root canal for each tooth, instead of pulling them out, with a plan to add caps once the teeth are mature. Todd, who accompanied Sohel and his mother to the appointment, felt as though he had just led a lamb to slaughter. Sohel has never been to a dentist. His mother thought he would have his teeth pulled then and there so they were happy to leave the dentist’s office that day with everything intact.
Sohel and Dr. Manish
Like falling through a rabbit hole into a world of unknown, Sohel’s dental adventure started with leaving the community in a rickshaw with us and travelling fifteen minutes to the alien neighbourhood of Hiranandani in Powai where Dr. Manish’s office is located. In the vast sea of crumbling buildings and rutted streets that is most of Mumbai, the streets of Hiranandani seem almost elegant. The wide boulevard-like foot paths allow pedestrians the pleasure of space to meander and check the screens on their mobile phones without looking up, confident that there are no live electrical wires or open gutters to trip over or into. There is greenery, manicured parks, and fancy condominiums with even fancier gates tended by sleepy security guards minding the business of the thousands of people who live in the formidable buildings. The architectural nod to grand European cities is by design. On the main avenue, uniformed employees from chain restaurants wield spray bottles and clean rags to shine huge glass panels that shield well-heeled patrons sipping lattes in air-conditioned comfort. Even the horns are less irritating here in this quiet business and residential enclave in the northern reaches of Mumbai. This is not Saki Naka.
Sohel in front of his home
Feral and cat-like, Sohel has survival instincts and he can’t be contained or coddled or, frankly civilized. On the way to his appointment he ran ahead of us chasing pigeons, swiping his hands along garbage cans and walking daringly into traffic, hand out and confident in his ability to make it to the other side. His eyes darted to shiny objects which he deftly picked up and chucked aside in an instant. He was stared at. He knew he didn’t belong and he was uncomfortable. He was grubby despite a quick wash in the rickshaw with a wet-wipe. While the streets of Hiranandani were foreign and somewhat alarming in their orderliness to Sohel, the dentist’s office was a haven of understanding and grace.
There are dental offices on every corner in Mumbai advertising everything from root canals to cosmetic enhancements to the promise of super white teeth. Choosing Dentech in Powai was a quick decision one day while we were there buying craft supplies for Indu’s Tuition Centre. Whether Sohel and I ended up as patients of Dr. Manish out of convenience or by divine intervention of the magical kind, we have decided that he is the Tooth Fairy.
Sohel, his mother and his sister in front of their home
With back-to-back appointments spanning a few weeks, Sohel got to watch me grimace and gag my way through a root canal through the open door and glass walls of the dental office. When it was his turn, both Todd and I were nervous for him. The mechanical chair, the overhead lights, a masked man and sharp instruments seemed like a real life video game to Sohel. He was wide-eyed and as fearful as a cat facing a rabid dog, when Dr. Manish gently took him by the arm and sat him in the dental chair. Looking on from the open door, Todd and I held our hands over our faces anticipating Sohel’s reaction to the first needle. What followed was Dr. Manish’s voice in a hush of soft, cajoling words and a long explanation in Marathi. This soothed Sohel, until the needle was inserted and he jackknifed out of the chair. His feet looked prehistoric as his toes curled up and down and around themselves in ways I didn’t realize was possible. Dr. Manish wiped Sohel’s brow and allowed me to come in to talk to him and only when Sohel was comfortable did he begin again. It’s an understatement to say we were grateful for this kind treatment of Sohel. Kids who live in dire poverty in slums are used to scrounging for attention, and respect is something few will ever know.
Sohel now runs ahead of us, down the street and up into the building that houses Dr. Manish’s dental practice. We find him happily waiting in a seat when we manage to make it up the stairs. He has one more root canal to go without fear thanks to the gracious Dr. Manish.
Along with a healthy dose of patient love and understanding, Dr. Manish also generously cut his payment for Sohel’s treatment in half. Sohel will get to keep his teeth and we will get to spread the donations from DWP supporters a little further. We are indebted to Dr. Manish and so grateful for everything he did for Sohel on behalf of the Dirty Wall Project.
Cost of 2 (half-price) root canals: 4000 rupees (CAD $76.92)
Medication for pain and swelling: 50 rupees (almost CAD $1)
Time on my mobile phone to play video games while Sohel waited in the office: