Sunday, 5 July 2009

Wheels on fire

What do you get if you cross 17 Indian teenage girls, 10 do-gooding foreign volunteers, 27 broken bikes, 100 villages, 70 schools, 800 kilometres, 4,800 trees, 2430 plates of rice, a few tonnes of curry and unspecified numbers of head lice? A big fat crazy beautiful, filthy dirty, tragic-comic Indian adventure - and here are some of my personal highlights.

On the 25th of May the Odanadi cycle jatha streamed through the gates of the Mysore Police Commissioner’s office, a peddling snake of sparkly white t-shirts with enthusiastic smiles, cheering and waving to the flash of a hundred journalists’ camera phones. The yellow silk Odanadi flag fluttered proudly from the window of our Jeep escort.

We felt invincible, confidant, bursting with a sense of purpose – but no more than seven seconds later the first girl went headfirst over handlebars and into the gutter. “Oh my god Anitha!” The team of concerned volunteers wailed. “No problem sister,” the Odanadi girls reassured, heads wobbling, “she has never ridden the cycle before isn’t it.” NEVER RIDDEN A CYCLE BEFORE? “How many other girls have never ridden a bicycle before?” Hands shot into the air. I felt sick, but Anitha casually peeled herself off the tarmac and swayed off into a stream of heavy traffic without looking and a lively ‘ding’ of her bicycle bell. Then I remembered: this is India. No rules, no brakes, no expectations, no need to worry, isn’t it?
Not exactly the most auspicious start to the cycle ride, but as we left the crowded highways of Mysore behind us and recovered from the first five accidents and a motorbike crash, we really began to get into our stride. Apartment blocks, belching lorries and supermarkets were replaced by green coconut groves, paddy fields and lumbering ox carts.

The lack of brakes, gears, general fitness and experience proved no obstacle to the resourceful Odanadi girls, who found time to stop at the bottom of every hill, chat to everyone we passed and still take a keen interest in the wellbeing of the foreigners. “Sister your face is red, but your body so white, why?” Because I’m hot. “But before cycle you looking so nice, now a little no-nice. Why?” BECAUSE WE'RE DESPERATELY TRYING NOT TO GET KILLED. On the first day the Volunteers learned that if you want to stay alive on an Indian road you have to follow the Indian ‘Highway Code’, which goes something like:
• Cows are God;
• Overtake everyone, especially on blind corners;
• Never ever check your wing mirrors, unless you are combing your hair and;
• Beep your horn loudly and often, especially if you have one of those fancy ones that plays a tune.

25 kilometres later we arrived at our first destination, just outside the village of Bilikere: two sheds in the middle of a building site. It wasn’t exactly the Savoy, but there was a (sort-of) roof and two barrels of cold water with unidentified bits floating in it. Undeterred, the Odanadi girls screamed, punched the air and jumped around in celebration of their month-long slumber party, while the volunteers looked a little stunned and began tentatively dipping jugs into the scummy ice-cold water for a ‘shower’. “Is this water filtered?” Definitely. “Mosquitoes?” No way. “And toilets?” Al fresco: in the left hand corner of the field where that piss-smell is coming from. As the sun went down over our rustic encampment, we ate cold chapattis with coconut chutney, lit a bonfire and the Odanadi girls sang and danced under the stars to the latest Bollywood song (“move ya move ya move baaaadey, shake ya shake ya shaaaaake ya baaadey”).

“Sister, now you do your country song and dance OK?” said 17 pairs of imploring eyes. At which point most volunteers made their excuses and collapsed on yoga mats, under thin cotton sheets – and prayed for their faces not to get eaten by mosquitoes, rats or cockroaches during the night.

But I don’t want to bore you with the gritty minutiae of every day – or it could start feeling like a month-long episode of Indian Big Brother, minus the booze and the big posh house. The first few days went by in a blur of sweaty cycling on pink bikes through lush paddy fields, remote villages and dusty towns, dodging herds of goats and trains of camels.

None of our cycles had gears – and most of them didn’t have brakes either, so there was a lot of stopping in the shade to recover from minor road accidents, broken chains, to dip cheap glucose biscuits in sweet cups of chai.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner (rice, rice and rice) was provided for us by supporters as we made our way through Karnataka: temples, monasteries, schools, community halls, NGOs, tribal organizations and government hostels. In return, we planted mango trees, performed songs and distributed leaflets to raise awareness about human trafficking.

We were hardly inconspicuous. Groups of skinny boys on motorbikes would zoom past smacking their lips at 30 female arses struggling up a hill. “SISTER!” the Odanadi girls would whine, “Those boys are ragging us!” In India “ragging” isn’t an Eighties paint-effect, it means someone taking the piss out of you. “Just ignore them,” I would say in my best do-gooding, stoic volunteer voice. But when you’ve been cycling uphill for 30 kilometres in 40 degree heat with a plastic saddle wedged up your arse crack and a greasy shitbag in a vegetable lorry starts blowing you kisses all you really want to say is ‘GO AND FUCK YOURSELF YOU FUCKING PERVERTS,’ but then I remembered we were NGO ambassadors and we had to set a good example and kept reminding myself that the closest most of these men have come to a Western woman is in porno mags and Fair and Lovely TV commercials. It’s not their fault TV has taught them that all Western women are whores.
Strange rumours about the cycle team would circulate in each village where we stopped. People would stand in doorways pointing at the “AMERICANS”. They were convinced that we were either Hollywood actresses or worked at The White House. “AFRICAN?” they would stage whisper, wagging their fingers at the black (Belgium) volunteer. “No Belgium,” she would explain. “No, you African,” they would insist. “And she - CHINESE” they would stage whisper and point at the Korean-American college student. Even the local Indian newspapers started running stories based on our group of Chinese, American and African Hollywood actresses and White House employees, with grinning photographs of us taken on mobile phones.

And it wasn’t just the locals who were bewildered. Over the course of 30 days Volunteers and Odanadi girls had a lot to learn about each other from each side of the cultural divide. For the most part we were one big happy family, but a few things were bound to get lost in translation. “Why you country peoples no marriage? Why toilet paper? Why red skin? Why pimples? Why reading book? Why no good cloth washing and dirty t shirts?” Some situations got pretty awkward. Like when one of the older female volunteers got stomach cramps, crouched by the side of the road to get water from her bag – and found that her emergency sachets of chocolate glucose syrup had exploded all over her hands. “Oh my god oh my god! Canadian sister has made loose motions, all over her hands!” whispered 17 girls, eyes bulging, cycling up and down the line making sure everyday knew just what was going on. The whole cycle ride was in uproar. “DO SOMETHING SISTER! Come quick, Canada Sister’s monthly-problem is coming all over her hands, she needs to take bath!” No, no don’t worry Canada sister has just got chocolate… oh never mind.
Bathing was another big issue on the cycle ride. Apparently the volunteers didn’t do it enough because we were determined to Rough It (“Sister please at least body washing? They would plead), while the Odanadi girls did it as much and as often as possible because most of them have Roughed It for their entire lives and the novelty had kind of worn off.
But bathing wasn’t the most comfortable experience for Western volunteers, used to mod cons like ‘taps’ and ‘privacy’.
About ten days before the end of the cycle, we were all allocated village families to stay with.

After a cosy night spooning in bed with two Odanadi girls, Sindhu, Ramya, the mother, daughter and their two mates from next door, the girls were keen to get me clean. “You first sister, ok?” They pointed to the corner of the dimly lit hut, where I could see a small concrete wall, surrounding a plughole and a bucket of water. “Where do I wash though?” It all suddenly became clear: I was going to have to crouch naked in the corner of a room full of strangers to wash in a bucket – while they all watched.

I tried not to look fazed as I casually took off all my clothes behind a small towel. How was I going to do this without offending them, without confirming all their worst suspicions about slutty Western women? Two heads poked around the concrete wall. “Sister, what is this?” they asked pointing at the towel. “Go a-way” I said, panicking and hastily splashing jug fulls of water under the soaking towel. My washing method wasn’t very convincing. Suddenly four more pairs of eyes joined them to watch the poor pale skinned prude desperately trying to save her battered dignity with dishcloth. “FINISHED!” I laughed, “it’s traditional to wash like this in England, we’re a very private nation.” When it was time for Sindhu and Ramya to wash, they simply took off all their clothes and stood naked while the mother of the family poured warm jugs of water over their hair. Then I felt really stupid.
Very little seemed to get under the skin of the Odanadi contingent, most of whom have been through a lot worse than hard floors and dirty toilets. Like when the entire cycle ride became infested with head lice.

“AAAAGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!” came the scream from down the corridor of a seedy government hostel where we were staying. It sounded like a Greek tragedy out there. “SISTER! American sister has head lice, she very crying,” explained an extremely bemused Shamala. “She is telling she has disease and she wants to go back to America. Why?” Every volunteer started panicking. “No one told us the girls have head lice, how could this have happened?’ came the cries. We gathered everyone in a room. “OK, who here has head lice?” I asked the girls to raise their hands. “ME SISTER!” came a chorus of seventeen voices.

In India, death, disease and head lice are always pretty close at hand. There’s no escaping the harsh realities of life, as the team of plucky volunteers discovered one Saturday morning when we woke to the scream 20 goats being sacrificed in the temple next door to our hostel. In a matter of seconds everyone crowded around to watch the next quivering victim, rope tied round its neck, flailing desperately in a bright pool of blood. “THAT’S DISGUSTING!” the volunteers wailed, as a couple of dogs started nonchalantly lapping at the pools of gore on the temple steps. “Yes sister,’ agreed the Odanadi girls, unconvincingly. “Look sister, knife is coming,’ said Anitha, who is perhaps the most unflappable girl on the planet. The butcher held a huge rusting machete over the goat’s neck and tapped it slowly. “One, two, three…dead,” said Anitha calmly, as the knife came down and sliced its head clean off. I stared transfixed as the headless body of the goat twitched violently and tried to make a run for it. “Don’t worry sister,” said Anitha, “body still moving, but goat is dead”.
But unlike the goats, the Odanadi cycle jatha made it back into the city of Mysore with bodies, bikes and sanity (almost) in tact. The last afternoon was never-ending. Struggling against monsoon wind and rain we cycled around the busy ring road with punctures, broken pedals and a missing saddle.

But finally at about 6pm, as we rode across the dusty scrubland with the pelting rain in our eyes, the white roof of Odanadi came into view. My legs were jelly and my nerves were in tatters, but as we got closer, we heard the sound of 60 Odanadi children screaming and cheering from outside the gates, “welcome home sisters!”

Afterwards I felt like the goat: body still moving, but dead. I didn’t even cycle for the full 30 days, but for those that did I was amazed that despite rainstorms, heatwaves, accidents, injuries, cold floors, cold buckets – everyone survived. The volunteers who had never been to India before, the Odanadi girls who had never ridden a bike before; victims of brothels, pimps, gutters and worse – they all made it. In fact it was such a success the Odanadi founders are thinking about doing a cycle ride for the mentally ill residents next year. Any takers?

Friday, 29 May 2009

My first brothel raid

Last week, on a humid afternoon in Mysore, Odanadi rescued 12 female sex workers from two windowless dungeons, no bigger than toilet cubicles. They had been kept crouching in the dark for more 14 days, hidden behind false walls in the back of two roadside restaurants on the Bangalore to Mysore highway. I want to describe to you what I saw there so you can understand a bit more about what Odanadi is fighting against – and the reasons why your support is so crucial.

By the time we arrived late on Monday the raid was over; secret trapdoors had been smashed open and the girls released: seven from one hiding place and five from another. Two police vans were already there. Khaki-clad officers stood shouting into mobile phones and questioning the crowd of restaurant employees milling in the dusty forecourt.
The place didn’t look anything like a brothel to me: no red lights and seedy boudoirs, just two nondescript restaurants sitting on either side of the highway, with the usual corrugated iron rooves and cheap plastic garden furniture. These are the kind of places you stop for a lukewarm Coke on the way to Bangalore – not the kind that place you’d imagine to be the centre of an illegal sex trafficking ring.
We were there just in time to see the 12 girls, mainly from Bangaldesh and Calcutta, filing out from the restaurant, squinting in the daylight and clutching grubby shawls to their faces. Some of them were crying. Others just peered blankly through the back window of the police Jeep, looking at us with a mixture shock and shame.

Somewhere during the mayhem of the girls leaving, Odanadi founders Stanly and Parashu ushered us through the maze of filthy bedrooms, corridors and kitchens at the back of the first restaurant. We came to a disused room with a small trapdoor set into the wall at knee-height. Outside a tangle of clothes lay amongst dirty plates, high-heeled shoes and discarded condom boxes. We had just enough time to stick our heads into the dank 6 x 4 foot hole. It stank of human bodies, piss and old food. Dark stains splashed up one wall and the odd, sad item of clothing lying abandoned on the floor. There wouldn’t have even been enough room for more then one of them to lie down and sleep.

We left the first restaurant and had just enough time to run over the road to see where the other five girls were being kept, before the police noticed we were gone. Up a squalid, urine-stained staircase and along a corridor of empty, unmade bedrooms, we arrived at the last room to find a bright blue trapdoor positioned under a shelf. Inside was a dirty squat toilet in a cubicle barely big enough for two people to stand up in – and yet it had been home to five grown women for more than two weeks. It was like something out of a horror film.

Just as we ran back down the stairs, we saw a man who had been sleeping in one of the bedrooms dragged outside and thrown into a police Jeep. The owners of the restaurants were nowhere to be seen.
Since then we have found out that most the girls travelled to Mysore willingly, under the instructions of a pimp or ‘agent’. They had been secretly working as prostitutes at the restaurant to earn some fast cash. One of them had been thrown out by her husband for having a miscarriage; another girl’s husband had sold her into prostitution himself. Many more of them had families to feed – families who believed them to be working as domestic servants and nannies. They had come from Bombay, Calcutta and Bangladesh with the promise of a generous monthly ‘salary’. They saw between five and eight customers per-day who would take them out to a hotel for an hour and then bring them back. In reality the girls received no money from the restaurant owners, but were given a small budget to adorn themselves with new clothes, cheap imitation gold and brightly coloured nail polish.
As the situation stands, the five Indian girls have had counselling and are being transferred to another rehabilitation centre in Bangalore. Odanadi is still working for the release of eight Bangladeshi girls from jail, where they are currently being held by police for not having passports or the relevant immigration documents.
So far there aren’t any happy endings or quick solutions for these girls, but just being allowed a glimpse of what they went through was enough to remind me just how important the work that Odanadi does is.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Softly, softly catchy snakey

Today I’m going on a snake hunt with a man who looks like a cross between Ron Jeremy and Crocodile Dundee. He is the famous Snake Shyam of Mysore, the tattooed legend who rides through the city on a motorbike with the wind in his hair, a golf club strapped across his back and a bag full of snakes attached to the handlebars. Like most action heros, everyone in town knows and respects him – but only a lucky few of us are granted the honor of riding with him.

When I arrive at his house the minivan parked outside says it all. Wildlife isn’t usually my thing unless it’s a programme about elephants having sex or hermaphrodite slugs, but something tells me that a morning catching cobras with Shyam is going to be a lot more exciting than a suicidal afternoon in front of the BBC with David Bellamy.

The 42-year-old conservationist (original name Balasubramanya) strides down the front path wearing his trademark bedroom slippers, outsized fanny-pack and a tight white vest, golf club held aloft in a fistful of knuckle-dusters. We are leaving immediately for our first rescue operation: a snake stuck in an underground water tank on the outskirts of the city. This is just the first of up to 20 emergency calls Shyam receives in a day from people with vipers up their drain pipes, cobras coiled underneath air conditioning units, fridge freezers and plasma screen TVs. Some of them pay him by ‘donation’, most of them don’t – but Shyam doesn’t do it for the money or the fame, (‘In nature, hero means zero’ he is fond of saying). If he doesn’t rescue the snakes then people will kill them, so he makes up the extra cash by doing daily school runs for local kids in the Snake Van, who all call him ‘uncle’. All fired up, we start loading the van with snake catching gear.


• Snake Bag: a badminton racket (strings removed) attached to an old red pillowcase with bulldog clips.
• Snake Hook: an old golf club with a large steel hook welded to the end. This piece of equipment was developed after he was bitten by a cobra for the first time. Before that he just used to grab it around its neck with his bare hands.
• Reused plastic muesli container: now more likely to be used in the capture of Vipers. Their 2cm fangs are too long for them to be safely stored in the cotton pillowcase along with the others.

And we’re off. Judging by the fang marks all over his hands, life hasn’t always been kind to Snake Shyam. Not only does he not get paid, but he has been bitten and injected with anti-venom so many times that he has now developed an allergy to it. But he assures me ‘courage’ is the best anti-venom‘ and explains that God gave him this job 'without application form', and if he didn't rescue the snakes then who would? Good point. Just to prove I’m really pretty relaxed about things, I throw out a few casual questions about the exact deadliness of a cobra’s venom and what happens just before you die from a cobra bite (swelling, nerve damage, black deadened flesh), the approximate distance to the nearest hospital and where exactly are you going to put it once it’s caught – on the backseat right next to me – and can snakes smell fear? To reassure me, Shyam refers to Newton’s Third Law of Physics (also pasted on the back of the van). ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,’ he explains, ‘Sarah if I punch you in the face, you will punch me in the face, isn’t it? If I kick you in the stomach, you will kick me in the stomach, isn’t it?’ Maybe. ‘But understand one thing: snake has no fist and no leg, only bite. So if you step on a snake he will bite you. That is his reaction’. A bit of an overreaction, if you ask me, like brutally murdering someone for accidentally stepping on your toe, but then ‘Adventurous life is always dangerous,’ Shyam chuckles darkly. He is no doubt reminiscing about the time he got bitten by a cobra and had to take a six-hour bus ride to the nearest hospital while vomiting and losing his eyesight as his nervous system slowly shut down. ‘I showed courage, so nothing could happen to me. I was out catching snakes again after three days in hospital,’ he adds.

Forty minutes later the van pulls up in a dusty street on the outskirts of town. It’s the kind of place where people having nothing better to do than rearrange their balls and appear at the site of minor road accidents, fights and any other public incident – such as a snake being caught in the water tank of the local bank, for example. I don’t think most of them even knew why they were there, just lost themselves in all the excitement and climbed up on the wall to stare at the water tank because everyone else was. It’s one of the miracles of India, how quickly a crowd can materialize over the most seemingly trivial thing. Compare that to London where you might be lying in the middle of Oxford Circus having been run over by a double decker bus and no one would offer you so much as a Kleenex. Not in India. People appeared from nowhere to come and witness the famous Snake Shyam at work, expertly probing into the depths of the water tank with a golf club, I mean Snake Hook.

We all hold our breath as first he pulls out a plastic bag. Then some old crisp packets. The suspense is almost too much to bear, so someone from the local corner shop brings out a tray of chai to soothe our nerves. After some more poking in the murky depths, Shyam wipes the sweat from his brow and gives me a look that says ‘let’s cut our losses and run’. Apparently snakes don’t like crowds. ‘This is why humans more difficult than snake,’ Shyam mutters crossly under the brim of his bushman’s hat, as we piled back into the van and headed to our next appointment.

Secretly relieved that I wasn’t sharing the backseat with a great fat slimy water snake, we quickly made our way to the site of our second rescue operation at the Mysore City Steel Works. When we arrive a big crowd of panicking men with sooty faces are shouting and pointing in the direction of the reception, making the snake sign with their hands (raised arm, fingers cupped into a cobra’s hood). I run in the opposite direction, whilst maintaining the appearance of cool professionalism. It turns out, after some tactical ‘tapping’ on various walls, drawers and cupboards that the snake has slithered into a doorframe. The door is then unscrewed with alarming speed and laid out on the tarmac while Shyam starts gently probing inside the frame with the Snake Hook. (Don’t make it angry, don’t make it angry).

One of the steel workers solemnly holds the red Snake Bag at the ready.

Lucky for us, the actual snake was more like an earthworm than a python. In a matter of seconds it whips out of the doorframe and into the red sack. Back in the office, the manager gives us two warm cans of Diet Coke as a reward. Shyam takes out an old notebook and jots ‘Snake No. 19,564’ in blue biro. No money then? He sighs and throws out another one of his favourite sayings: ‘we come into this world empty-handed and we will leave this world empty-handed. In the middle we are just drama artists.’ What a guy.

Back at Shyam’s house he introduces me to the latest addition to his cobra collection – one of 40 he keeps in a fluorescent-lit glass case above his house ready to release back into the wild. He pulls the 2m long Cobra out of its box with a hook in one magnificent flourish, while I run backwards for the doorway, tripping over mice cages. He stands in the centre of the room waving the cobra on the end of the hook, where it sways gently from side to side, moving its head in time with mine. Suddenly I feel a bit like when you start queuing up for the really scary ride at the fair and then you change your mind at the last minute and just really fancy the Teacups instead. I really, really can't go home without touching one, so I go for the slightly smaller option.

This little guy seems so much nicer than the cobra, all soft and cool like the inside of a thigh after a cold swim. I feel so green, so close to nature. It's been one hell of a morning. On the way back to my apartment, squashed into the back of the Snake Van again – this time with 20 teenage schoolgirls – I tell Shyam how glad I am to have experienced a different side of India. I don't tell him that I am also glad that I never have to experience it ever again. He pulls the van up outside my house and informs me that I am lucky I like snakes so much because there are also loads of cobras living at the back of my building. 'But please don't think these snakes are trespassing on your land, you are trespassing on their land OK? If you see one, no need to be scared, just give me a call and I will come.' My hero.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Bloody Valentine

Celebrate Valentines Day in India and you could end with a bald head and a donkey for a husband. Read all about it in this piece I wrote for Vice...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Vikram Smile

This year I didn't make any new year's resolutions. Making it to India in the first place seemed ambitious enough for 2009. It's almost like the mere effort of being here, pissing in a hole, doing some yoga and coming home with a tan and telling people at the pub that you've been to 'Injiah' in a loud braying voice, is enough change for most of us. A bit like Superman in the stationary cupboard, you can get on the plane a pasty office manager with a beer belly and about as much spirituality as a potato – and six months later you've got a tanned dysentery six-pack, a sexy Israeli girlfriend who doesn't know any better and the uncanny ability to climax for 48 days solid while in handstand.
I haven't mastered the orgasms yet but last week I embarked upon a dramatic transformation of my own - and decided to have my teeth seen by a dentist for the first time in four years. In case you didn't know, dentistry tourism is all the rage these days. Root canal is like the new ayurvedic massage. There are dentists popping up on every street corner prepared to drill your teeth for about the same price as a dirty chicken korma in Brick Lane. It seems like every Om, Deepak and Hari is putting up a laminated sign outside his house and calling himself a dentist. And those framed diplomas on the wall from the University College of London Cambridge Central Oxford Miami look totally kosher.

Om: Hari you can using the drill isn't it?
Hari: Oh yes, I am using drill to putting up those shelves - todally easy isn't it.
Om: Oh todally eazy, you is having drilling, chair, torch light and one small mirror and ve are making vun dentist buziness isn't it? Now I am just needing diploma isn't it...
Deepak: I am having a very good specialising photocopying machine printer. Everything will be ready by tomorrow only. Todally professional quality only...

And here in Mysore the local hippie contingent are lining up in their droves to have their canals rooted and molars drilled. Take my word for it: crusties aren't quite as laissez faire about personal hygiene as they used to be. They still wear the same terrible clown trousers, but now their dreadlocks are clean and they spend their rupees on new crowns, laser whitening treatments and the latest tooth reconstruction methods from the United States. It's like a revolution. The next thing you know they'll be washing their feet and eating dairy products.

But I'm not one for dodgy backstreet ‘Deentists’ and ‘Cusmetic Surgeoneries’ which is why I headed to the best place in town: the Vikram Perfect: Shape, Skin and Smile, a modern monolith shining from the dust and cow dung by the side of a dual carriageway on the outskirts of Mysore. It felt more like a spaceship or luxury hair salon than a dentist, with its gleaming fluoride-white air conditioned corridors, plush leather sofas and smiling white models leap frogging about in fields with Vikram Perfect teeth, skin and boobs beaming down from every wall.

I was hypnotised. I stopped thinking my own thoughts and started thinking about fixing my boobs, belly and possibly lips and promptly forgot all those stories in Pick Me Up Magazine about the botched foreign cosmetic surgeries where your nipple ends up on your cheek, goes black and falls off and you end up with a tit on the back of your head... Nothing like that would happen somewhere like Vikram Perfect, I reasoned, and trotted off down the hall to see Dr Anita in one of six high tech consulting rooms. After all, there was nothing wrong with my teeth and I was really excited to see a plasma screen TV above my chair...

But like most seemingly perfect things, the Vikram dream soon turned into a Vikram nightmare. Dr Anita looked sweet enough, but as soon as she slipped that mask over her perfect smile she turned into a more violent, female Freddie Kruger – with drills for hands and fewer morals.

Me: What? But Dr Anita I clean my teeth religiously, like twice a day [except when I'm too drunk and fall asleep with all my make up and clothes on] and always use an electric tooth brush [until the batteries ran out about 6 months ago] and always brush for about 4-5 minutes [usually just before I come to the dentist] and have never felt any pain or sensitivity [except when I eat very hot or cold foods or sweet things or when I bite down too hard and then it realy hurts]... Surely it can't be that bad?

Fortunately my memory of the next few minutes is slightly blurry from the shock of hearing words like 'pulp', 'decay', 'nerve endings', 'tooth', 'dying', 'root' and 'pain' come cooly out from behind the mask. Apparently Indians don't mince their words when it comes to dentistry. Wimpering under neon lights, dry mouth wrenched open with Dr Anita's torture tools, I began to feel homesick for the cuddly incompetence of my NHS dentist Mr Heinz who talked teeth in soft Scots using words like 'won't hurt a bit' and 'just a wee sting' and smelled like warm porridge oats and never did anything that took longer than 15 minutes. But like a big brave girl I gave Dr Anita the go-ahead and she started maniacally drilling at my molars.

Me: aahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhHHHHHHHHHHH!
Dr Anita: 'PLEASE DON'T MOVE, or I may injure some part of your body with my drill unintentionally, isnt it (HA HA HA HA!).
Me: But it hurts and I'm bleeding. If I remember correctly the leaflet said 'the solution to your dental problem will be painless, bloodless and amazingly quick'.
Dr Anita: Vell don't believe everything you read. I may have to drill deeply inside cavity close to the nerve so there will be pain. Ready?
Me: No, Can I have an anesthetic?
Dr Anita: No.
Me: Why?
Dr Anita: It's best not to have. And it's too late.
Me: OK. Sorry I'm being a baby.
Dr Anita: Yes you are like baby. Always crying and wanting to know 'will it hurt?' (HA HA HA!) Yes is going to hurt isn't it. NOW OPEN WIDE.

Apparently Dr Anita doesn't have time for cry babies. In the end she only gave me three fillings and I had to make another appointment for the rest. But before I even had a chance to spit out the blood and wipe my mouth Dr Anita got all chummy and started sweetly dangling a strip of yellowing teeth in front of my mouth. 'Your front teeth is quite yellow isn't it Sarah comparing to these? Better you have some laser whitening and some nice braces for you to straighting out those crooked front teeth you are having. I vill be doing the very most excellent job and you vill be telling all your foreigner friends about Vikram Perfect isn't it?' Oh yes Dr Anita, I will tell them all it. But not before I go home and weep quietly into a piece of bloody tissue and wonder why the hell anyone would bother getting their mouth excavated by a grinning drill-wielding psychopath when they're supposed on holiday trying to relax. Come to think of it since when did a dentist make anyone smile?