Seconds after Keshto squeezed toothpaste onto his toothbrush, the phone rang. For an instant he wondered what would happen if he didn't answer the call.
But that would be impossible. He knew it was his mother and ignoring her call meant hours of teary accusations and weeks of pouting.
Wiping his fogged spectacles quickly with his t-shirt, Keshto ran to pick up the phone and almost tripped over Ginger, who was lying languidly in the middle of the living room. The phone had already rung four times before he reached it.
Keshto cursed silently. Ma would be furious.
“Sorry, Ma, I took so long.”
“No, Ma, when have I ever ignored you? I was just—”
“Brushing my teeth,” he had been about to say.
“...was just... feeding Ginger,” he breathed out.
Ginger was Ma’s favourite cat and any talk of her always put Ma in a good mood. But the tactic was not working today. Ma was screaming down the phone: something about a bridge game, a player, and a bottle of rum.
‘Drink and the devil had done for the rest... yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!’ These lines whizzed through his head. “When will the rum do it for her?” thought Keshto before reprimanding himself for wishing ill of his own mother. What would Ma say if she could hear his thoughts?
“Yes, Ma. Of course I love you, why do I have to prove it all the time?”
“Sure, Ma, I’ll see you at six.”
Keshto washed out the old toothpaste and put on a fresh layer. He was just about to put the toothbrush in his mouth when Ginger started whining.
After a minute, she started scratching at the bathroom door. Keshto paused. He would have to feed her first. Ma had a way of knowing if he mistreated the cat.
Keshto washed out the toothpaste and went to the kitchen to pour some food into a bowl. He set the bowl near Ginger and patted her head. He put out some water in another bowl and stood watching Ginger eat.
By the time he refreshed his toothpaste, Keshto was very late for work and could only spend 20 minutes taking care of his precious teeth, as compared to the usual 45-minute routine.
His dad had been a dentist and had drilled in him the importance of protecting his pearly whites. Many girls complimented him on his shiny flawless teeth, but they usually walked away when he started explaining his usual regimen.
He always wondered why.
“Would have done them a world of good had they stopped to listen,” thought Keshto as he stepped off the bus and landed in a puddle of water.
This was not his day. First, he hadn’t been able to complete his oral hygiene ritual and now his carefully polished black leather shoes were ruined. Moreover, he would not be able to keep his evening appointment with Dr. Smith.
Dr. Smith was a world-renowned orthodontist, and Keshto's dad used to talk about him a lot. It had taken him months to confirm this meeting, but now he would have to cancel it because he had forgotten that this was Ma’s bridge evening and he was the fourth player.
Keshto wanted to kick himself. He had tried to explain how important the meeting was to Ma, but as usual she did not understand.
* * *
“Keshto babu, your toothache ointment worked wonders on my little girl,” said Sikandar, the canteen operator. “Can you also get me some of your mouth freshener? Chattopadhyay sahib swears by it and says it helped him win over his Mrs.”
Keshto nodded at Sikandar but kept walking briskly towards the staff room. His mouth was feeling weird and he wanted to reach the small bottle of mouthwash lying in his desk drawer. It was a special concoction, which Keshto had made himself, but even after several minutes of gargling the unclean feeling refused to leave his mouth. If only he could get to his toothbrush!
His dad had been a dentist and had drilled in him the importance of protecting his pearly whites.
He did not eat lunch that day. It did not feel hygienic.
Keshto was good at mixing simple ingredients to make effective oral cleansing products. His toothpaste, mouthwash, teeth whitener, gum strengthener were all homemade. It was a talent his dad had discovered and helped him nurture.
Being a chemistry professor’s assistant had also come in handy to procure materials and use the laboratory to conduct experiments in perfecting dental care solutions.
Dad had been so proud, but Ma, she did not even acknowledge his talent. On the contrary, she was disgusted that he wanted to spend more time with his molars and canines, than with his own mother.
* * *
Keshto sat at his desk and took a few deep breaths. He had to make the call to Dr. Smith’s office cancelling his five p.m. meeting.
“Hello, Dr. Smith’s office,” said the secretary’s familiar voice. Keshto had been hearing that voice for the past six months while he was trying to arrange the interaction.
“I understand, sir. Would you like to meet him at seven instead?” asked the secretary. “Another appointment got cancelled and the doctor is free then.”
Keshto could not believe his ears. Sure he would.
As he replaced the receiver, Keshto wondered how to resolve the other engagement he was supposed to keep.
* * *
Later that evening, when Ma opened the door to greet her son, she smiled, revealing smoke-stained, tartar-encrusted teeth. That was her first mistake.
Her second was when she agreed to her son’s suggestion of brushing her teeth. “It will make you feel fresh and play a winning game,” he had said. Ma was very superstitious when it came to bridge and would perform any ritual she thought could help her win. Keshto knew that. He also lent her a tube of his special home-made toothpaste that he just happened to be carrying on him. Ma did not have any at home. He knew that too.
As she walked towards the bathroom, Keshto said, “I will be right back with a bottle of your favourite Old Monk.”
He got a grunt in reply.
By the time the ambulance arrived, took Ma to the hospital, and the doctor declared her dead, Keshto had wrapped up his very fruitful meeting with Dr. Smith and was headed home.
He had just turned the key inside the lock, when the call came from the hospital telling him that Ma had suffered a cardiac arrest. The doctor did not think twice before stating the cause of death as ‘natural causes’. No one had bothered to notice the harmless looking toothpaste tube lying on the bathroom floor, where the body had been discovered by Mrs. Sinha, the second bridge player.
That tube now lay in Keshto's room. It had been so simple!
High concentrations of fluoride, commonly used in toothpastes, can be lethal. More so if a person's heart is already weak on account of downing copious amounts of Old Monk every day. Keshto smiled as he started his nightly routine of brush, floss, gargle, rinse, and repeat.
There would be no interruptions now.