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A jaw-dropping tale from Mumbai

Last updated on: August 06, 2009 10:29 IST

Back in our Mumbai office in Mahim, I am still in a state of shock. I have that sinking feeling after paying out Rs 1400 for four lines of advice.

A couple of hours ago, a dentist in the tony Malabar Hill area charged me this fantastic fee and I don't know how to react.

It was my mother who fixed the appointment. When she told me that her dentist charges Rs 500 for consultation, I reluctantly agreed.

My mother reasoned that if you open your mouth to diagnose your problem you have to pay Rs.500 for it. Since my wisdom tooth had been paining I thought it's okay. Since the doctor was right next door I thought I would save the taxi fare for going to a doctor in any other part of Mumbai.

I entered the dental clinic, which looked like a redone garage, on time. I could see the nameplate of the husband-wife dentist duo. Two nurses were around. One 50-plus woman was at the reception table manning a computer.

I thought quickly, Rs 500 consultation fee is all right because the three women's salaries will amount to Rs.20,000-25,000. In such a posh area, what else can I expect?

I was asked to fill up a form giving details of my address, and past history of dental problems.

Along with the form a small chit was clipped which said: consultation charge Rs.1200-1400! My heartbeat went up.

Till the last month consultation charge was only Rs.500. So why such a steep hike? How come my mother is unaware of it? I wondered what happened to the doctor couple. Before I could retreat in dignity, my name was called out, I was asked to remove my shoes and enter the main area.

The doctor was young, around 30 years of age. He was wearing thick black frames and I could not make eye contact. I am not afraid of talking, sharing my feeling with him etc, but there was no time.

I stretched out on that dreadful dentist's chair, unhappy. Rather, disturbed. I wanted to tell him, doc, this hefty fee is vulgar.

I could just not tell him because before I could start the conversation he asked me to open my mouth wide. I remained silent but agitated, a thousand words rushing through my mind.

"Hey doc, do you know people who read and write for some 8-10 hours a day for some 40 years of their life get just Rs 2500 for their expert commentary on complex subjects? Yesterday, a lady came to cook rotis at a relative's home. For some 14 hours of terrible hard work and sweating it near the stove she got paid just Rs.250, in Walkeshwar area! A maid comes home everyday and she gets just Rs.1500 for 30 days of hard labour."

Before I could converse with the doctor he finished checking out my complaint. I think it took some 55 seconds or maybe 60 seconds.

I know I have a problem in my wisdom tooth. It may have to be extracted because there is no space for it to grow. Now the young, smart, good-looking consultant (I dread this word when I have to deal with Mumbai's medical world) opened his mouth. He said, "Your wisdom tooth should be extracted. Your next tooth needs root canal and may be a cap."

"I know, doctor. What about the rest?"

"You should fill up the gap by doing an implant."

I hated the advice because I had read in daily that in Mumbai, doctors charge upward of Rs.25,000 for an implant. I thought of my Rs.1400 for three minutes of consultation. How could I just give away Rs.1400?

The doctor asked me to open my mouth again and took an X-ray of my wisdom tooth. In one minute, everything was over.

No more advice. No more consultation. I was asked to decide what and when I want the treatment. I left the clinic in five minutes. Flat.

The lady at reception table said consultation charges were Rs.1200, and Rs.200 extra for the tooth X-ray.

I paid Rs.1400 and asked for a bill. The lady just did not expect that I would ask for a bill. She took out a computer printout of a badly drafted voucher. That too in the name of the doctor's wife who I did not set eyes on. The lady at the computer wrote on it 'first consultation'.

One doesn't have to be an expert to realise that my post-tax money has turned into black money.

I rushed out of the clinic, feeling cheated. But I consoled myself: it takes the hell out of oneself to study dentistry. It takes one's entire life to buy a clinic in Mumbai but still, the figures don't match. My calculation of the doctor's drudgery and my hard-earned Rs 1400 don't reconcile in any manner. There is no level playing field.

I came home. I screamed. I told my mother that her dentist has raised his fees three times. Then my wise mother gave me her expert opinion, for free.

She said without any agitation in her voice, "Oh, it's okay. He can't help but charge more. Our neighbour was telling me that this young dentist couple has bought a flat above their clinic for Rs.3.5 crores. Obviously he has to recover this money from his patients. Where else he can make money?"

I then calculated. If he continues charging Rs.1400 for consultation he will have to "consult" 25,000 patients to recover the amount spent on his new home. If he does some 2300-plus dental implant only then he will recover his Rs.3.5 crore for a mere two-bed room flat near Teen Bhatti in Walkeshwar.

I cooled down a bit but now; I am blaming the land-hoarder-builder-political nexus for manipulating land prices so high in urban India that no developer can keep the price of apartments low.

The doctor was sinfully wrong in charging me Rs.1400 (I would bargain and settle for may be Rs 650) for that terrible five minutes. But,  I must add that the people responsible for the inflation of housing prices in Mumbai are worse than the vile characters I have read about in mythology.

I really hate those few hundred people known as builder-developers and landowners who exploit upwardly mobile Indian families yearning for their own home.

The high cost of housing is the worst thing to happen in post-1992 India that Manmohan Singh heralded as finance minister. However, I am still thinking of the Rs 280 that I paid for a minute's consultation. Very few professionals in India earn that kind of money to pay it happily to their dentist.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Sheela Bhatt in Mumbai