Chew On This: Why Do We Indians Love the Humble Toothpick?
The desi love for a toothpick!
The desi love for a toothpick!(Photo: iStock)

Chew On This: Why Do We Indians Love the Humble Toothpick?

I've come to the conclusion that you know you're old when you start to use a toothpick after a meal.

10 years ago, I was introduced to this rudimentary tool by my husband who’s nearly a decade older. He would ask for one after any meal either at a restaurant or a friend’s place. As the years went by, I was intrigued to see one friend after the other starting to do the same. Contorting their mouth and prodding their teeth and gums with a toothpick, they’d forget to reply to a comment or participate in an effective way in postprandial conversations.

Sophistication took on a new meaning, when the same friends started covering their mouth with one hand while the other frantically still prodded and poked, vainly trying to dislodge the last remnants of mutton or chicken stuck somewhere in the mouth.

Now, I too have joined the bandwagon of those who demand this ubiquitous object and are thoroughly flustered when a host is unable to supply one. The fear of not being supplied one in times of need, has led to many friends my age carrying their own supplies tucked into the crevices of their wallets.

How the Humble Toothpick Works

And this is undoubtedly justified. When a tiny food grain manages to lodge itself somewhere in the cracks of our teeth, it slowly takes on the nature of the Pea under the Princess’ mattress.

The first unobtrusive step which one can take is sucking saliva in through the gaps of your teeth, which explains the kissing noises made usually by middle-aged Indian men post-meal. It acts like the jet-spray against dirty car tires. If no one is watching, we flex and sharpen our tongue muscles and send the tongue on a snake-like mission hunting around for the offending particle. Mouths bulge unbecomingly but peace of mind still eludes us.
(GIF: Tenor)

The finger takes its place next. And those who grow an extra-long fingernail are liable to meet with more success than the rest. (The handy matchstick sharpened to a point was my father’s implement of choice. We weren’t familiar with the toothpick back then.)

Anthropologists have found what appear to be toothpick marks on the fossilised remains of our earliest known human relatives, the Neanderthals, who lived between about 1,30,000 and 40,000 years ago. So we now know we are in august company.

I've seen movies where brawny men chew toothpicks, pushing them from one side of the mouth to the other and managing to make it look super cool. I never thought it odd, and naively justified the action thinking that the actors were substituting a cigarette for a toothpick.

But whoa, to any person post 50, the toothpick becomes an absolute necessity! In other words, a toothpick is to a middle-aged person, what a stick would be to an orangutan fishing for ants. An innocuous, most pleasurable pastime born of sheer necessity.

(The author is a fifty-plus academician who's worked in schools for 24 years but has given it up to pursue her passion of travelling and writing. She has always been called the 'cool Ma'am' and now the ‘cool Aunty’. She hopes it's true. Tweet to her @sumitaatimus)

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