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Love is hard, may hurt

The metaphysical kiss of dentures

By Chandrima S. Bhattacharya

  • Published 14.02.20, 1:49 AM
  • Updated 14.02.20, 1:49 AM
(Representational image)
(Representational image) (Shutterstock)

This Valentine’s Day, let us celebrate a most unusual symbol of love: dentures. There cannot be a more inglorious object than dentures, less associated with tender feelings. They are a savage body part that comes unstuck at the slightest nudge, dripping with all sorts of body sludge, making us wince as we do not like seeing viscera or a body part outside the body.

Yet one of the most moving love stories that I have heard is about dentures. It was a scandal.

It was about a stern old man, a widower, who used to live with an old attendant of the family, a woman, also quite old. His family suspected that they were in a relationship, and it was obvious that they cared for one another, but nothing was ever said. The two stayed in separate rooms, officially.

After a long illness, he died. She died soon after.

After her death, the man’s family wanted to clear the house. In her room, next to her bed, in an enamel bowl, they found four sets of dentures, intertwined. They had not found the patriarch’s dentures after his death. Here they were, discovered, as it were, together with the woman’s.

This was a truly metaphysical kiss, however hideous. All the dentures were thrown into the Ganges with the woman’s ashes. A friend tells me that she read of a very similar situation in a novel, but could not recall its name. I would love to know. But as Satyajit Ray’s Lalmohanbabu was fond of saying, “Truth is stronger than fiction.”

The dentures remind one of another “metaphysical” conceit, John Donne’s famous symbol of love, the flea, another repulsive thing, and alive too, sucking body fluids. “Mark but this flea, and mark in this,/ How little that which thou deniest me is;/ It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,/ And in this flea our two bloods mingled be,” says the poet to his beloved.

“Thou know’st that this cannot be said/ A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,/ Yet this enjoys before it woo,/ And pampered swells with one blood made of two,/ And this, alas, is more than we would do.” Another merger of bodies, in a third body, and body fluids. The flea is also the marriage bed, the poet goes on to say, because in it the lovers’ blood has mingled, before the event has actually taken place. In one stroke, the poet realizes in an external object what is on his mind and makes the actual marriage seem redundant. What better way of seduction? But then is fiction stronger than truth?

To come back to dentures. The house I live in now is haunted with stories. A profound one is about dentures, and love, in another shape. In this house, which was once full of people, lived an old couple. The man, who was very learned, wore dentures, or rather, did not wear them. This infuriated his wife.

He had no trouble taking the dentures off and keeping them in full display at the dining table in full view of others. He was fond of eating “dim poach”, as fried eggs are called in Bengali, and before eating it, he would take off his dentures, place them on the table, hold the soft fried egg with both hands, suck in the yolk first with relish and then the remaining squishy white.

Perhaps another of his habits was more disturbing. If he liked something he had eaten, he would take off his teeth in the middle of a meal and start licking them for the tasty bits stuck in the recesses.

One day, in a fit of rage, his wife grabbed the pair of dentures sitting proudly on the dining table and flung them on the floor. One fell. But the other one was caught mid-air by a distinguished visitor who was just ambling in. A tragedy was averted. “Oh!” proclaimed the visitor, still holding one set of teeth, “See how much money I have saved you.”

The spot the other one had landed on was marked respectfully as the spot of fallen teeth.

Love hurts. It is a hard thing.

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