First published in Singapore Unbound: https://singaporeunbound.org/blog/2021/8/27/microcolonies-of-bacteria
The day after the Election Mian spends his entire afternoon on the balcony. The tangles of electric wires hanging low outside hide him from pedestrians and rickshawallahs. But he can see two dogs fighting each other and barking menacingly at anyone trying to come between them. A massive stray cow, indifferent to their fight, munches vegetable scraps and every other kind of rubbish. A one-eyed man twists her tail and fondles her udder. He narrowly misses a back-kick and calls the cow a street whore. Sitting in his favorite armchair, Mian would be amused by all this on any other day. A fresh defeat, however, has encroached on his right to snigger and enjoy silly misfortunes.
The day before the Election his wife reiterated her warning: that he would be crushed like an onion under his opponent’s feet! Mian’s lackeys were there in the drawing room, dunking Nabisco biscuits into lemon tea and chattering about their leader. For the last three months, they’d frequented Chameely House almost every day. They said they’d manage his online campaign, but they only took some selfies with him: a huge Mian standing like a gorilla among a posse of matchstick boys.
He asked Rebecca to hush her voice, but she ignored him, saying, “I can’t make more tea for these slum boys. If you want to put food into their maw, you better hire a servant!”
They were both in the kitchen. Mian hissed at his wife, “Don’t talk to me like that before the Election!” He would have hit her already—as he would have a year ago—but she looked at him like a snake-mother trying to protect her pit. Mian felt like an outsider in his own house.
“How can you go on like this, huh? Two girls yet to be married and you even mortgaged the studio! Has your father given you a golden hen so we won’t have to worry about anything?”
Mian couldn’t find an immediate reply. He wanted to say she shouldn’t be worried about anything, about food, shelter, or their daughters’ marriages as long as she had a loyal husband by her side, but to put things nicely was not his habit. It’d mean domestic defeat. He replied, “This house, the studio—everything is my property. You didn’t bring them from your father when I married you! I’ll consume everything I earned before I die. Not a single paisa will be left for you or for anyone in this family!”
Rebecca tsked and, with glaring eyes, said, “Suits a man without wisdom teeth of course! If you had your wisdom teeth, you’d never engage in politics.” She stomped out of the kitchen, making that final remark about his crushing defeat, and retired into the bedroom. Mian yelled after her— “You fat waddling duck!” —and smashed a teacup into many bits to let her know he was doubly enraged.
The jab about wisdom teeth rankles him so much Mian feels a strange void inside his mouth. It’s not that he hadn’t known he was going to be defeated in the Election, but he always hoped a miracle could happen. Now even after a third defeat, he thinks he has all the potential to be a commissioner of his ward. He has gone through so many dog days in the past decade that he always eagerly awaits the Election.
To cope with the expanded budget of the last Election, he even mortgaged the old, two-story house that he inherited from his father. Of course, Rebecca doesn’t know about it. He discards his wife’s image from his head and calls his younger daughter. She failed in the qualifying test for the HSC exam earlier this year. When the principal asked her to bring a guardian to the college, she approached an old tea vendor from Kattra Street and begged him to become her proxy-father. The principal was familiar with such ploys and made the old man divulge the whole affair. Result: she’s been suspended from college for a year.
When she comes to the balcony, Mian thinks for a second if he should go for another round of reprimands. On one hand, he imagines himself supporting his daughter’s failure before the principal. Only if she had told him all this in the first place! But such softness in his character would spoil the girl’s future, so he simply asks her to bring a mirror.
Once she tremblingly hands him the mirror, he pushes up the chair against the door to prevent anyone seeing what he’s up to. Cheek-by-jowl buildings on both sides of the street make it hard for the sun to reach the balcony. He repositions his chair once again to allow some light to fall onto his face. Finally, he lies back holding the mirror before him in hopes that the shame of not having wisdom teeth will be solved there and then.
What he sees inside the mouth disgusts him utterly. Countless microcolonies of bacteria—visible in the form of plaques and tartars—almost convince him to disown his own teeth. There are faint red-brown spots on his front teeth, vestiges of paan fluid and tobacco. He also notices the small bundle of flesh at the back of his throat—quite enlarged for such a cramped space. It’s hanging from the roof of his mouth and wagging back and forth and even sideways, oddly looking like a dog’s tail. He doesn’t recognize his own uvula and wonders what the hell it’s doing there. For a moment he feels choked, as though something large is stuck in his throat, but he overcomes that feeling and begins to count his teeth.
He knows an adult man is supposed to have at least thirty-two teeth and the wisdom teeth must reside somewhere in the back, helping him crush bones and generate bright ideas. Counting each tooth twice, he eventually concludes that he’s either missing two wisdom teeth or they’re invisible under his gumline.
The disgust for yellow teeth, coupled with the absence of wisdom teeth, spurs him to action. And for the first time in his life, he decides to see a dentist.
The roadside dentist’s chamber is only a bend away from Chameely House. Converted from two old grocery shops, the chamber has a big signboard displaying the business and the dentist’s name both in Bengali and Chinese characters. The Bengali words, flanked by a close shot picture of a woman’s pearl-white teeth, read: Dr. Li Kun, D.D.S. …
The next day Mian rides his Vespa to this only dentist’s chamber in the neighborhood. To make his presence known, he twists the accelerator fully. The twenty-five-year-old engine vrooms and putters in protest. He honks away the dog before the shop and parks right where it was sleeping. The dog barks violently, trying to make this intruder understand that it’s done the night-watchman’s job and now should be allowed its daytime sleep. Pity this rotund man with no civic sense and the poor vehicle that carries him! He must have been crushing the spirit and bones of this old junk! The dog mourns the loss of men’s territorial sense while slouching under a grocery shop projection, its second favorite spot in the street.
Haadi, a thinnish old man, greets Mian inside and asks him to sit and wait. The old man doesn’t seem to recognize him and scribbles away on a pad. He’s writing on a small desk, outside an inner chamber partitioned with glass. Though Mian can’t see what’s inside, he can hear snatches of conversations coming from that room.
After a while, taking his eyes from the pad to this new customer, Haadi asks the patient’s name and age. Mian, infuriated, asks him back, “Mister, do I look like a man who needs an appointment?”
Mian’s huge frame—crowned with a spangled toopi he’s especially worn for the visit—doesn’t frighten Haadi. A wry smile flickers across his face as he says, “Well, mister, in that case, your number is 15. Wait until it’s your turn.” The other attendees in the room take this cue and snicker at the old man’s bravery. Under his breath, Mian calls him a dirty leper.
As though to make the case even worse, he fishes out something from his baggy pants and hands it to Haadi. “Take this card and show it to the doctor. I hope you can read things!”
The old assistant casts a cursory glance at the card and flicks it across the table. But before it can fall off, Mian catches the card and flourishes it in a confused manner. For the first time in his life, he feels utterly insulted.
“Who is the assistant to the dentist here?” asks Haadi.
An automated reply drops from Mian’s mouth, “You!”
Some expletives would be more fitting, but it turns out they slink away right whenhe needs them!
“And who works here all day?”
“Then why are you making a fuss? Can’t you just sit and wait?”
Words gathered at Mian’s lips lose their wish to see daylight. He feels he should have brought some lackeys with him. At least they would have waged a verbal skirmish with this rogue! Luckily, at this time, a patient comes out of the inner chamber followed by Dr. Li Kun.
Dr. Li Kun asks, “Is everything alright, Haadi?” Her Bengali sounds as perfect as an old townie.
Haadi says, “Yes, I just gave an appointment to this gentleman. But he wouldn’t accept any wait.’
She turns to Mian and asks, “Is this an emergency, Mr. Mian?” Dr. Li Kun knows all the locals very well, especially the political aspirants.
Mian lies and nods.
“In that case,” Dr. Li Kun says, “you can come inside now.” Then, smiling at the other patients in the room, she says, “I hope you don’t mind one urgent case.”
With a triumphant face, Mian follows her inside. As she turns off the sucker and the overhead lamp, he asks, “Why do you keep such a layabout here? I mean—”
Mian sees the smile fade on Dr. Li Kun’s elfin face. She says, “Why don’t we get down to business, Mr. Mian?”
To compensate for her lack of warmth, he now smiles broadly and says, “It’s about wisdom teeth … you know what I mean?”
“What about them?”
“I used to have excellent teeth, you know. I’m sure you’re familiar with this, having lived the prime of your life here with us, though I hear you’re wrapping up your business and going to America to live with your daughter. I mean what I’m trying to say is I had excellent teeth when I was a child. Uncle Bacchu, what a fine man he was! God bless his soul. Used to pray five times a day! Anyway, Pearly, he used to call me, ‘One day, my dear boy, you will peel coconuts with nothing but your own teeth, because you’re born with a squirrel’s teeth!’ The thing that never occurred to him, despite finding my teeth in such excellent shape, that I might not have the most important ones. I mean the wisdom teeth. And you see, Uncle Bacchu or someone elderly in the family should instead have told me to throw the first baby tooth that came out of my mouth, to throw it into a rat’s hole, so those little beasts would be offered what they wanted. So, I could also go on to live with peace, knowing I have all the teeth a man of my age should have. You know, all this because—”
Before Mian could go on another tangent, Dr. Li Kun asks, “So, you think I can help you with your wisdom teeth?”
“Yes, in a way if you can! In a way—”
“Well, I’d need to see your teeth first. Please lie down here.”
“It’s nothing but just maybe two of them haven’t come out yet …” Mian insists while easing himself onto the chair with equipment crowding around it.
Dr. Li Kun asks him to open his mouth and lie silently. As she inspects the teeth, her forehead crunches and creases several times. She scribbles away a few observations, including decay and bruxism and concludes: long canine teeth (unusual).
She scrapes his back teeth, asking the patient if he feels any pain. Mian shakes his head, even though the plugger’s steel-tip causes irritation in his teeth.
Once he climbs down the bed and sits on a chair, she says, “Mr. Mian, I’m sorry, I can’t help you with your missing wisdom teeth. But it’s good they don’t appear at this age”’
“Then why did you waste my time?” Mian narrows his eyes.
“Please lower your voice. I did what any other dentist would do. You may consider a cleaning and a few other things, since your teeth—”
“I don’t need your ugly advice,” Mian says, looking truly belligerent. “I can go see big dentists in the city, you know. I have all the connections—”
“You need to lower your voice, Mr. Mian. A dentist can only deal with visible issues. Did I or anyone else I know ask you to come here?”
Mian hates her smooth, vernacular tone and prepares more arguments and volleys. But before he can run them out, Haadi comes inside and asks, “Anything wrong here, Doctor?”
“Not to worry, Haadi,” says Dr. Li Kun. “The gentleman is just raising some questions.” She is careful not to pass any worries to her old assistant. Haadi, looking at Mian’s crunched up face, decides to wait. Mian feels the old man’s breath on his nape and says to Dr. Li Kun, “Tell this leper to get out, will you?”
This time Dr. Li Kun flares up, “That’s it! I won’t allow you to talk like that in my chamber. You should leave now. And I wouldn’t mind your fee.”
Mian lingers— “Eh, are we finished …?”—but Haadi points him to the exit, saying, “You heard her, Mister! On your feet before the police come—”
Mian feels hemmed in. He grits his teeth and says: “You, your assistant, and your goddamned business will be history!”
He jumps on his feet, elbows past the old assistant, then storms out of the chamber.
When Mian returns home from the dentist’s, a stray cat with greyish fur follows him inside, and, out of an old habit, curls up by his feet. Mian watches her as she then meows her way into the kitchen, bellyaching perhaps about why the door was closed even when the clock’s greeting noon. But before she can reach the trash can, Mian kicks her from behind. She springs off with a start, then, growling and hissing, darts across the drawing room toward the balcony.
From the railing-top, she swivels her head back to see if the blob of a bozo was still after her. “Moonee get your mangy ass out of my house! Else …” shouts Mian, chucking one of his shoes at the cat. Moonee swiftly dodges the shoe, and, with a steady growl, jumps down onto the studio cornice.
Rebecca snaps at him from behind, “Else what, eh? You think you’ll glorify all of us by beating a poor cat?”
“Don’t meddle with me early in the day!” Mian glares at her and slams the balcony door in her face.
“Ha! Burn your hair off if you must,” she shouts from the other side, “but write down what I say in golden letters: You’ll never win in any goddamned Election! Now you can suck your thumb and think of what I just said.”
Mian finds it one of her stock remarks. She has been making such remarks in all her conversations with him for the past several years. Once her footfall fades, a contorted Mian drops into the chair, wishing to smoke for hours. Before he can fully realize its genesis, he hears a big crack. One of the chair legs has snapped. Then the mahogany arms—where he rested his elbows for the last eighteen years—join this revolt and fall apart. He hears a loud explosion as he collapses on the floor, destroying an old favorite with his own weight.
The sorrow and the absence of wisdom teeth, the series of unfortunate events peaking at the collapse of a damned chair—all eventually goad him to rise to his feet. For a moment, he fears the entire house would collapse on his weight. But he discards that feeling and chastises himself for being so silly.
He sidles up to the railing, careful not to burden anything with his weight. Leaning over, he calls into the studio below: “Hey Pappu! Come have some tea with me. Hey!” The one-eyed man rushes up to his landlord. His servile entry to the drawing room cheers him up. So much so Mian asks him to sit beside him when they’re done exchanging salaams.
Mian says, “Pappu, you realize Dr. Li Kun is a heathen, don’t you?”
Pappu, who doesn’t remember if he’s ever contradicted Mian, who hasn’t paid the past three months’ rent yet, replies to his landlord, “Sure, she is! I’ve always said, you can never fully know a Chinese mind, can you?”
Then seeing Mian’s face brighten, he adds, “This Neehowma is nothing but a quack.” In the neighborhood, Dr. Li Kun is known by at least half a dozen names, Chinese phrases Bengalicized and pronounced in distinct local tones, though never said to her face.
Mian says, “For you and me, I mean for everyone in our community, I have a favor to ask of you, Pappu …”
That evening some of the matchstick boys return to Chameely House. They vanished right after the Election results but when Pappu sent them some Flexiload money to recharge their phones, they couldn’t deny the one-eyed lobbyist’s request. They live in Jinjira, on the other side of the river, where it’s so peopled that on summer nights two or three members of a family have to sleep on the pavement.
With skeptical eyes, Mian sees these skeletal boys with skin-fade haircuts trickle into his drawing room. The ingrates, he thinks but welcomes them with an extended smile.
Once again, the matchstick boys sip lemon tea, but they look cheerless, perhaps due to a reduction in snacks and their own number. Mian delivers a speech over tea.
He cobbled this speech from cold-served spite and BPP pamphlets. In the speech, Mian strings together Chinese Dental Care and heathenism; infectious faithlessness and moral decay in society; invisibility of God and its ramifications on men’s wisdom. He fumbles for better diction but fails. However, he continues by adding outsider-influence and disruption of communal life, further theorizing about exploitation of local resources and Chinese Conspiracy. “Dr. Li Kun is a stinker and her Chinese Dental Care is a worm eating away you and me, I mean our beloved mahalla. We’ve got to fight this worm off before it turns endemic,” he concludes his speech.
The matchstick boys feel a strange tickle in their spines. They rise on their feet as though prepared to march in a procession. Now all the slogans, all the bhais rain down on Mian, followed by his name, followed by the motto of the Plow Party, and then followed by a wish for the country’s eternal life and youth. It charms Mian and he forgets about wisdom teeth, his injury from a wretched collapse, pestering him all day.
Although Mian feels charged up by his own speech, the residents of Old Dhaka feel otherwise. Men who have seen his video are heard to be saying, “What’s it to us that a dentist isn’t religious? This loser can go fuck himself!”
Then begins the praise for Haadi. People say his hair hasn’t turned white for no reason. Though Dr. Li Kun remains silent all through the gossip, the old assistant tells people about the origin of Mian’s gripe: that the commissioner-in-progress is missing something valuable inside his mouth. He also confirms that the dentist doesn’t wish to retire abroad. After that, even tea vendors, who are the prime sources of gossip in these mazy lanes, blast Mian: “This man and his old Vespa, you see, damn nuisance! Makes sense why he fails at the Election.”
One morning, when Rebecca is on the roof, clipping wet clothes on a clothesline, the woman from the other roof shouts, “Is it true your husband wishes ill to Mewanti?”
Before Mian’s speech it never occurred to her or anyone else what religion Dr. Li Kun practiced or if she didn’t believe in any known gods. When she set up her chamber forty years ago, there were no competitors in the area. In fact, there were only a handful of dentists in the entire country. People welcomed Dr. Li Kun and her devotion to dentistry, her monastic life, her singleness of purpose.
The woman, wanting a reply, now adds, “My man says your husband says she eats pork with noodles. Everyone says what a fine man your husband is!”
Rebecca eventually retorts, “Missus, why don’t you mind your own business?’
The incumbent commissioner, who has won the Election with the grace and symbol of the Outstanding Party, is also reported to have dismissed Mian’s speech, “Such a lame attempt, you know!” The matchstick boys have since returned to their shacks in Jinjira and never answered Pappu’s call.
When Pappu carries the commissioner’s comment to Mian, he says, “Tell that dwarf to zip his ugly mouth! We know how many brothels he runs, don’t we?”
Mian then dozes off on the new rocking chair. Pappu bought this clunky object from the Port area. The good thing is Rebecca didn’t ask anything about it. Has she even lost her interest in bugging me? Mian thinks before he begins to snore with his aquiline nose. After midnight, he wakes up to an acute pain inside his mouth.
First, he thinks the wisdom teeth have sprouted out of their own volition. But as he inspects them again in the bathroom, he doesn’t see any sign of the missing wisdom teeth. Rather, he notices two large pointy teeth with their long roots. The receding gumline has made way for the teeth to drop their pink garments. He can’t say how he missed it during the earlier inspection, but now the sight of them stirs him. And for a moment he imagines himself transformed into a wild creature.
The pain worsens in the morning and Mian feels a strange sensitivity in his teeth. He feels as though he wants to bite on something. He tries to remember if he ever had a toothache or gum disease, but he can’t. However, he imagines one and chastises himself for not taking enough care of his teeth.
When the sensitivity peaks in the afternoon, Mian surreptitiously enters the kitchen and finds some jaggery inside a plastic jar. Under his jaw, he crushes the shell-like piece and chews it. The need to bite seems to subside momentarily.
Just as he’s relishing his home-remedy, Rebecca enters the kitchen and, seeing Mian with a jar full of stale jaggery, says, “Why don’t you eat the whole jar? That’s what you need to grow some sense!”
Before he can open his mouth, Rebecca closes the door, as though giving him some privacy. Mian avenges her jab by rebuking the elder daughter again for her failure. When she comes to the balcony to water the potted bougainvilleas, Mian says, “All the time this and that. Flying in the house like a damn kite! I ask, when do you read girl, eh? Have you forgotten the scam you played for a damn test?”
The girl stands rigidly. She’s been waiting for her younger sister to return from English lessons. They are going to face off in Words with Friends. She feels trapped and vows not to come to the balcony again. Rebecca, hearing Mian’s voice rise, comes to the balcony and rescues her daughter. She says, “If it’s for your damn teeth, I say don’t meddle with the girl. A girl shouldn’t find her father acting like the police in her own house!”
Mian, grimacing, tries to dismiss both with a flourish.
The next day, seeing Moonee on the threshold, Mian croons the rhyme Uncle Moon.
The cat debates her instinct versus memory. Instinct: Ah, the toopi-guy has a rhyme with your name. Memory: Wait, didn’t this bozo kick you yesterday?
Meanwhile, Mian wags a severed fish-head and sings:
“I shall give you the paddy husk—after winnowing,
I shall save the fish-muro—after filleting …”
Instinct wins, the cat gives up, and, erecting her tail, she nuzzles Mian’s legs. Mian paws at the cat up on his lap, still crooning the nursery rhyme.
The cat eats the fish-head, her head tilted clockwise, keeping an eye on Mian, who now rubs her tail gently. When she gets busy on the greasy prize, when her feline instinct betrays memory, unaware of what’s to follow, Mian sinks the canine teeth into her tail-head. The cat, wanting to jerk her tail free of this mortal trap, desperately flings her legs. She tries to jump away, but Mian’s teeth dimple and bore into her flesh until the bones resist and block their entry. Seconds later, she finds herself upside-down, hanging in the air, a robust hand firmly gripping her bleeding tail. As she snarls and tries to scrabble at the cord of a hand that’s tormenting her, two faces appear from behind a pulled curtain. Mian’s two daughters fail to accept what’s happening with their wit. Finally, noticing his startled daughters, Mian says, “I’ve bitten the damn cat!”
When he releases the cat, Moonee shambles across the room toward the girls. Blood, fresh blood, dripping from a mauled tail, creates an atavistic rapture in Mian. He feels nothing for the cat. The idea that he’s capable of doing something as novel as this, that something so sinister has long been hiding in his teeth, overwhelms him. He denies any other feeling, even when a sudden fever attacks him at night.
In the following weeks, Moonee finds an asylum in the house. With disinfectant and bandages, Mian’s two daughters have taken care of her dragging tail. Meanwhile, Pappu nurses his landlord. It’s not obvious how the arrangement was made, but both men seem to enjoy each other’s company.
One day Mian says, “You see, Pappu, you’re here in a big house with all the nice things, but your own children won’t even come and ask how you feel!”
Pappu says, “That’s why I left the third. I fathered four girls with her, but I’m telling you each one was a fine brat! I knew they’d have killed me if I didn’t leave them. I knew for damn sure.”
The other day, when Mian seems confused between days and nights but is still refusing to see a dentist or a general practitioner, he says, “Pappu, ask your auntie to come here for a second, will you?”
He’s decided to tell Rebecca about the house mortgage and ask for her advice, which he thought would be the beginning of a truce. But when she comes to the drawing room, he forgets all that. The old bitterness returns, and he says, “Pappu, you’re a man on your own feet … you know everyone breaks down every now and then. Maybe you did some wrong. But you see how people treat you in this house? Tell me was there ever a woman who leaves her own husband dying. Just tell me!”
Pappu relishes such domestic dramas and now looks at Rebecca for an answer.
Finding Rebecca silent, Mian bets his hopes high and says, “Respect, man. When that is gone everything else—”
This time Rebecca snaps at him, “Tell your uncle, Pappu. He should’ve thought about it before biting the cat. Tell him to go to Newmarket and pack his bag with respect! He thinks he can buy anything with money, huh?”
Mian feels her words stinging and scuttling in his head, “You hear, Pappu, you hear! Write that down. Also write down what I say: A wife of today wouldn’t even speak with her man face-to-face, even when he dies. Yes, even when he dies!”
Since this short episode, Mian hasn’t spoken a single word with anybody. He takes up his tenant’s bed in the back office of the studio. Rebecca, though, sends his meals twice a day and Pappu sees to his other necessities. Mian seems pleased with both of their favors.