Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Tin of Tobacco

It was a quiet night in the middle of a brutal war. It was a bitterly cold night, the cold so severe that it was as though the sound had been frozen out of the air, and all that was left was silence.

It was a cold so severe that for this one night, the two armies had decided not to fight, but to draw back their forces into the warmth of underground shelters, and to resume the fighting and killing on the morrow.

They left sentries out, of course, because neither side trusted the other not to break the de facto truce.

High up on a rocky mountain ridge, two soldiers sat in the darkness, in trenches a short distance apart. The soldiers were from the two opposite armies. One wore a grey-brown uniform, the other one which was sand-yellow, and they had differently-shaped helmets on their heads. It didn’t matter, however, because neither of them could see the other in the darkness.

One of the soldiers was called Kasen. He sat in the trench, his rifle propped beside him and his hands thrust inside his uniform coat in an attempt to keep them warm. He was missing the distant green plains of his southern home with a great yearning.

The other men in his unit had told him he was lucky to be given guard duty all night, because that would mean that he didn’t have to take part in the fighting in the morning, when it would start again with even greater savagery to make up for the night’s break. But he didn’t feel lucky. He felt merely cold, hungry and miserable.

Suddenly, he heard a sound. It wasn’t much of a sound, and if there had been any other noise he would probably have missed it completely. In itself it wasn’t much, and yet it made him jerk up and frantically fumble for his gun.

It was a clink, as of a rifle barrel lightly striking stone, not far away.

There was nobody on Kasen’s side of the line, close enough for their noise to be heard by him. Therefore, the noise must have come from the other side, where the enemy with their different-coloured uniforms and differently-shaped helmets were.

And even as his fingers flinched from the freezing metal of his rifle, there was another noise in the darkness. Quite unquestionably from the other side, it was a soft sound like a cough.

The darkness was so intense that he couldn’t even see the barbed wire coils outside his trench, almost close enough to touch. Suddenly every patch of night, every hump of shadow, now looked like an enemy soldier crawling across the ground towards him in a sneak attack.

His hand fumbled towards the whistle hanging on a cord round his neck, which he was to blow if he had to summon the other soldiers, and then groped fruitlessly for it. The whistle was no longer there. The thread had broken, and it had fallen off somewhere.

A shadow that he could swear was a man seemed to shift across his sight, and he raised the rifle, but the shadow had already disappeared. There was only the darkness.

And then the sound came again, the sound he’d thought was a cough, and there was no mistaking it this time. It was a sob, a liquid sob as might be uttered by someone whose heart was about to break.

Kasen listened to the sobbing and put his rifle down slowly. “You there,” he called softly, in the enemy’s tongue. “Can you hear me?”

There was a brief pause and the answer came back. “Yes.”

“What’s wrong?” Kasen asked. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t want to be here,” the enemy responded. “I’m freezing and hungry, and I’m frightened to death sitting alone on the mountain.” He sounded very young, perhaps younger than Kasen himself.

“What’s your name? I’m Kasen.”

“Nibrud.” The other soldier had stopped sobbing. “Are you alone?”

“Yes. Did your mates tell you you’re lucky to be up here?”

“Yours did too?” Nibrud was silent a moment. “Where are you from, Kasen?”

Kasen told him the name of his southern village. “It’s very far from here.”

“So’s my home,” Nibrud said. “Tell me about your village, Kasen.”

So Kasen told him about the village, about the thatched huts standing amongst the green fields, so green that it soothed the eye to look upon them, under a sky in which the thunderclouds gathered like crumpled sheets piled together. He spoke of the palm trees that nodded like royal courtiers before the wind, the river which flowed silver in the winter and brown and swollen when the rains came. He told Nibrud of the village girls, lissom in their flowing dresses, who danced at the harvest festival and livened the warm evenings with their song.

Then Nibrud told Kasen of his city, ancient and stone-walled, where the golden domes and spires rose towards the heavens, of streets paved with cobbles which were old when their two countries had not yet been born, of ancient halls where symphonies played music by composers long turned to dust. He spoke of universities so famous that people from all over the world came to study in them, and stayed back to teach and work. And he spoke of the dark-eyed girls who would disport themselves of an evening on the promenades and bridges over the river that never seemed to change, whatever the weather, except that its colour turned from sparkling blue to leaden grey and back again.

“So,” Kasen said at last, “it would seem that both of us are fighting in a place we hate, far away from where we live.”

“That’s so,” the unseen enemy from across the wire said. “What did they tell you when they sent you to fight?”

“That your side was looking to steal our land,” Kasen replied. “What did they tell you?”

“That you were out to take by force the lands that were always ours,” Nibrud replied. “And yet do you think this mountain is yours?”

“No,” Kasen confessed. “And I wouldn’t care if I never saw it again.”

“Exactly what I think,” Nibrud replied. There was a brief silence. “What do you want to do with your know...afterwards?”

Kasen was silent a moment, considering. “Once upon a time I’d wanted to be an scientist,” he said at last. “But now it seems to me that the only thing scientists do is prepare for war, to prepare even more destructive weapons. I would like to be a farmer, and grow things from the soil to feed the people.”

“And I,” Nibrud said, “wanted always, to be a lawyer. But it seems to me that the only thing lawyers do is prove, at any cost, that their side is the right one. Now I would want to be a teacher, and tell the children that there is nothing holy about a coloured piece of cloth called a flag, and nothing glorious about war.”

They fell silent a long moment. “If you could see me now, in your rifle sights,” Kasen asked, “would you shoot me?”

Nibrud was silent for even longer. “I don’t know,” he said at last, honestly. “I would try not to, if I had the choice.”

“I have a tin of tobacco,” Kasen said, remembering. “Shall I throw it across to you? Would you like it?”

“Please do,” Nibrud replied. “I’ll find it when it’s light enough to see.”

So Kasen took out the tin of tobacco and hurled it across the wire. He heard it clatter on the rock.

“I have nothing to give you in return,” Nibrud responded. “But if I had, I would throw it across to you.”

“I know,” Kasen said. “It doesn’t matter.”

They fell silent. “It will be getting light soon,” Nibrud said at last. “I will soon be relieved.”

“So will I,” Kasen said. “I suppose this is goodbye.”

“Yes,” Nibrud agreed. “Thank you for spending the night with me. Goodbye, my friend.”

“Goodbye,” Kasen mouthed, and tasted the words. “ friend.”

And so the dawn came, and Kasen went back to his unit, to the men with the same coloured uniforms and the same shape of helmet as he had. The battles started anew, and he killed men whom he saw in his rifle sights, men with the wrong-coloured uniform and the wrong shape of helmet on their heads. And blood flowed over the mountains. Kasen shot men without knowing whom it was whom he was shooting, and if perhaps one of them was Nibrud, or whether someone else had shot him. And he never knew from moment to moment if someone would shoot him, and if it would be Nibrud whose finger squeezed the trigger.

Then time passed, and with it the war finally ended. Perhaps the brown-grey uniformed army defeated the sand-yellow army, or perhaps it was the other way round, or perhaps the two sides decided to split the mountains between them. But the war passed.

And so Kasen returned home, threw off his uniform, put away his gun, and became a farmer. In time he married one of the lissom village girls and began a family, and even later he became a powerful voice in favour of farmer’s rights and the importance of the land.

And the years passed, and Kasen grew old, and then one day he began to yearn to visit the mountains again, where once, so long ago, he had fought and killed and seen his fellow soldiers die. He had seen them in war, and now, while he was still able, he wished to see them in peace.

So he and his wife and his daughter and her children travelled once more to the north, where the mountains were. Perhaps they had to cross a national frontier which had not once existed, perhaps not – it did not matter. And then one day, a warm spring day under a porcelain-blue sky, Kasen and his family stood looking up at the ridge.

“I’m going up there,” Kasen said. “You’ll wait here until I return.” And such was the tone of his voice that nobody attempted to argue with him.

So Kasen walked up the ridge, past the remnants of trenches and fortifications crumbled and filled in with the weight of the years, until he stood on the crest of the ridge looking across at the other side. And there was another very old man who stood there looking back at him.

“I’ve come back,” Kasen said to the other old man. “After all these years, I’ve come back.”

The other old man nodded. “I’ve brought you a gift,” he said, and held out something. “I told you I would.”

In his age-spotted, gnarled fingers, he held a tin of tobacco.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Not for Dentistophobes

Oh, hey, in case you forgot, I'm a dentist by profession. Yeah, I know, I don't like it any more than you do. But it pays Bill's bills - most of the time. After all, my writing and painting and cartoons are, in financial terms, a negative income activity. I spend on them and earn nothing.

So, I was placing an implant today. Implants, for those of you who would like to know, are titanium screws placed in the jaw in areas where teeth are missing so that artificial teeth can be attached to them later. It's like replacing a missing tooth with an artificial natural tooth, so that the replacement tooth acts just like the natural tooth, with chewing forces being transferred to the bone rather than distributed to other teeth like in a bridge or to the gum as in a denture.

Since I did one today, and I was in the mood, I photographed most of the procedure for your edification.

The specimen was a 35 year old male from Idaho, wherever that is, called RB. He was in good health, no vices, no allergies, and had had an extraction some six months ago.

In this case I first took impressions and made models on which I took measurements of available space, X rays in which I checked the bone height available, and I decided on placement of a 4 mm diameter implant of 16 mm length. 4 mm is about the minimum diameter that I could have placed for a back tooth, but given the space limitations I could not go for a larger size.

On the X Ray I found a broken root from the extracted tooth (circled).

The old tooth socket shows as a shadow. The bone hasn't grown back fully in it.

Then I tried on a surgical template I'd made from the model in the mouth. It's a plastic cover like a mouth guard which fits over the teeth. The hole (with red surrounding) is one I made after measurements on the model, to indicate the exact spot for drilling for the implant.

Here's the site in the mouth:

If you look closely you'll be able to see a tiny black dot on the gum. That's a puncture wound I made through the template with a graduated probe to mark the spot of the implant and to check the thickness of the gum.

Then with a No 15 Bard Parker knife, commonly called a "scalpel", I cut the gum to raise a flap to expose the bone.

This is the flap, just before raising. You can see where it is from the bleeding line.

Then I removed the broken root and began drilling the implant site. I am not going to show the sequence of drills since it isn't significant, but there are seven of them.

This is the depth guide pin in place, both to check the depth of the preparation and its orientation with the other teeth. In simple terms, I was checking to see if the implant preparation was deep enough and whether it was pointed in the direction I wanted, and not slanted.

I took an X Ray to confirm that it was fine.  Apologies for the blurred quality of this picture, but you can see the essentials. The pin is exactly parallel to the premolar, as planned.

Here's the implant preparation, readied for the placement of the implant. Its outline is distorted by the socket of the broken root impinging on the top.  You can also see the bone of the ridge and the gum flap folded towards the lip side.

Here we go. The implant loaded and ready for insertion. That silver grey screw thing is the implant.

Tightening the implant in place with the implant wrench.

The implant in place with the cover screw affixed and a bone graft analogue placed to fill the socket left by the broken root, which was causing wobbling. The implant is hollow; this cover screw is an object which fills the hollow of the implant and covers the top of it in this case. If I were doing an immediate loading implant, in which a crown were to be fitted on top of it as soon as it was placed, I would not have placed a cover screw. But because the bone around the implant is still weak, I recommend a minimum of six months before the crown's to be fitted. Hence the cove screw.

Here's the X Ray of the implant in place. The white wedge shaped bit sticking out to the left on the top of the implant is the bone graft analogue.

The flap stitched shut by a single black silk suture, which is to be removed in ten days.

Right, that's it for today. Until I disgust you next time!

Friday, 10 April 2015


I can barely express in words how much I love Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This is a book I read first back when I was a teenager, shortly after watching the movie (the one with Gregory Peck as Ahab). And that was after watching Jaws, which I didn’t, actually, like very much. After all, the shark in Jaws wasn’t exactly walking up on to the beach to eat people, was it? Why did they have to go into the water if they didn’t want to be eaten?

I’d better explain that though I watched both Moby Dick and Jaws in the movie theatres (in the same movie theatre, actually) that shouldn’t be taken as an indication of my age. That would have been quite a time-travelling feat, in any case, since Moby Dick was released in 1956 and Jaws in 1975. Until the mid-to-late 1980s, foreign movies usually arrived on Indian shores years to decades after they were released in their countries of origin. That is why I could watch both these flicks in the early 80s on the big screen. Not that there was any other option, TV in India being something which mostly came into existence in 1982, let alone such unimaginable luxuries as VCRs.

As I said, though, Jaws – though it was amazingly popular then, running in the theatre in town for something like seven or eight weeks if I remember – wasn’t a film I liked. I still don’t. Oh, the jump scares were nice – especially the scene where the shark surfaces in the wake of the Orca and Brody decides they need a bigger boat. You know the scene I’m talking about. But I was rooting for the shark.

Those of you who have been reading me for a while will be overwhelmed with lack of surprise that I was rooting for the shark.

One of the reasons that I rarely to never watch creature features is that I’m always hoping (usually against hope) for all the human characters to be eaten or crushed or otherwise finished off in as grisly a manner as possible. Especially the kids. There are few things in the movies quite as irritating as kids in creature features. Remember the two in Jaws who decided to snorkel along the beach with a fake shark fin?

Now when I went to watch Moby Dick, you understand, I hadn’t read the book. I didn’t know the story. I was actually expecting the whale to be killed off, like the shark was in Jaws, like any other Hollywood creature feature treated the titular animal(s). I go furious watching the Pequod’s  crew murdering the (black) sperm whales earlier in the film – yes, that’s right, furious – and I was hoping they’d at least get some kind of comeuppance before they “raised and killed” Moby Dick.

I did not expect that it was Moby who would kill them instead.

I still remember wiping my eyes furtively when the movie was over, and they were tears of joy.

To this day, a recurrent feature in my stories with animals (such a recurrent feature that it’s become pretty much predictable) is that the animal, inevitably, triumphs over the human. I’ve also written two stories which are sequels to Moby Dick – one from the viewpoint of Moby himself, years after the events of Melville’s novel, and the second set in modern days, where an immortal Ishmael still pursues an immortal Moby, to the detriment of innocents who get in the way.

But that was just the part about the hunted animal exacting full and satisfying vengeance on his pursuers. After a couple of rereading of the book, I’ve come to appreciate it on a much different level. I’m not talking about the alternate chapters forming a treatise on whaling, which I read the first time and then skipped on each subsequent rereading. I mean Captain Ahab’s insane quest after the White Whale, a quest of revenge for his missing limb...which was missing because he had gone to murder the whale in the first place.

Just think about this a moment. Someone sets up a situation that causes themselves suffering. They then go out for revenge for that suffering, pursuing that vengeance to the point of their own destruction – none of which would have happened if they hadn’t begun the cycle in the first place by doing something they had no need to do and no business doing. Even when given the opportunity, over and over, to pull back from the brink, they choose to pursue the course of vengeance, and that can have only one end.

Isn’t this all too like the course of a lot of world events of the last quarter-century?

One of the things about Moby Dick (the whale, not the book) is how rare peaceful pictures of the animal are. After all, Moby wasn’t hunted round the clock, seven days a week. Almost all the time, he would have lived a life much like any other sperm whale, swimming, diving deep to hunt squid, mating with female whales, echolocating in the depths, and the like. Yet it seems to be that all depictions of him focus only on his fights against the Pequod’s crew – as though he existed only as an engine of violence, nothing else.

And that’s why I painted this little picture of Moby: not lashing the sea in frenzy as in just about all the paintings I’ve seen online, but Moby as he deserves to be, swimming peacefully in the inky ocean depths as he goes about his life in peace.

He deserves it.

Title: Moby

Material: Acrylic on Stone

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015