As ‘‘A Devoted Son’’ opens, Rakesh’s family is celebrating his academic triumph. The morning papers report that he has earned high entrance exam scores for medical school, among the best in India. Rakesh comes from a humble background—he was ‘‘the first son in the family to receive an education’’— and his family and his neighborhood rejoice at his success.
Varma, Rakesh’s father, is particularly proud because of all the family has sacrificed economically and personally for his son. Varma is also happy because Rakesh bows and touches his feet just after seeing the results; the gesture is a sign of respect. When Varma tells the gathered crowd about Rakesh’s act of respect, they are impressed. Yet some of Varma’s neighbors and friends are envious as well, remembering that Varma never attended school and his father worked as a vegetable seller.
Rakesh’s star continues to climb. He writes a thesis for his medical degree that brings him prestige among his peers, then wins a scholarship to study in the United States. There, Rakesh works in prominent hospitals before returning home. Not only does Rakesh come back to the ‘‘increasingly shabby colony’’ where his family has long made its home, but he returns to his father’s yellow house at the end of the road. When Rakesh returns home, he again bows and touches his father’s feet. His mother is quite pleased to learn he did not marry an American woman.
Rakesh agrees to marry an Indian woman his mother has selected for him. His mother chooses Veena, a fleshy woman from her native village who has not been educated and is somewhat passive. Rakesh’s wife moves into his father’s house and does not suggest that they set up their own household. The couple has children and remains in Varma’s home.
Rakesh becomes a success over the course of his lifetime. He works in the city hospital and becomes a top administrator. After serving there as a director, he leaves and founds his own clinic. He proudly drives his parents to the clinic while it is being built so they can see his name and many qualifications on a sign outside. By this point, Rakesh is the best and richest doctor in the community.
By the time Rakesh founds his clinic, Varma retires from his position at the kerosene dealer’s depot where he has spent the past forty years. Around the same time, Varma’s wife dies. Rakesh cares for his mother until her death, ‘‘pressing her feet at the last moment—such a son as few women had borne.’’
Everyone notes that Rakesh is a good man to his family. He is polite and kind to friends, and he is an excellent doctor and surgeon. Desai writes, ‘‘How one man. . . . had achieved, combined and conducted such a medley of virtues, no one could fathom, but all acknowledged his talent and skill.’’
Despite this recognized ability, over time, Rakesh no longer comes to be regarded as special by those around him because his success and high status have become familiar. His father also begins to suffer after he becomes a widower. He becomes repeatedly sick with illnesses both real and imagined. Varma spends most of his days in bed, often lying so still that the family members who gather around him are concerned he might not be alive. Varma then abruptly rises and spits out betel juice (made from betel seeds and which produces a brick-red saliva) ‘‘as if to mock their behaviour.’’
During a big birthday party at his home for one of the family members, Varma plays dead in bed. Veena finds him, seemingly without a pulse, and the party is broken up immediately. The family and some remaining guests gather around Varma, who sits up and spits a red gob on the hem of Veena’s new sari. This incident changes how the family treats him. Because they believe he might be faking it, no one becomes bothered what Varma does anymore, except his eldest son.
Rakesh continues to care for him, though all Varma does is spit at them. Rakesh brings him tea in bed in the morning in his favorite tumbler and reads the newspaper to him. When Rakesh comes home from the clinic at night, he convinces his father to leave his room and spend time out in the garden. Under Rakesh’s orders, servants take Varma and his bed outside on summer nights so he can sleep in comfort.
Although Varma appreciates Rakesh’s care, he soon begins to resent his son because he takes charge of what his father eats. Varma is actually sick on occasion, and on one such day, he wants his daughter-in-law to make him a sweet dish, soojie halwa, and cream. But Rakesh tells him he cannot have halwa anymore. Instead, Rakesh offers, Veena can make a lighter dish with some sweetness, kheer —rice and milk.
Varma cannot believe what Rakesh is saying. It is incomprehensible to Varma that his son is not allowing him to eat what he wants. When Rakesh turns around to clean up the medicine shelf in the room, Veena leaves the room wearing a smirk only Varma sees. Varma despises the smirk and knows that he will see it again.
Over time, Rakesh eliminates more foods from his father’s diet. First he limits all fried foods; then all sweets. Over time, anything that Varma really likes to eat is eliminated. The two meals he eats per day are simple and consist of bread and boiled lentils, vegetables, and chicken or fish. He is not allowed extra food for fear that overeating or rich foods would cause more illness.
Varma bribes his grandchildren to secretly buy sweets like jalebis for him at the local bazaar. When Rakesh and Veena find out, however, they punish the child and scold Varma for encouraging the child to lie. Varma sinks into his bed like a corpse, but no one cares.
Varma no longer regards Rakesh’s attention in the morning as positive. Instead, he only values visits from other elderly residents of the neighborhood. Such visits do not happen often, though Bhatia, who lives next door, communicates with him more than the others. Bhatia is more mobile than Varma and comes outside to bathe at the garden tap. If Varma is outside, the two talk loudly over the hedge.
Every once in a while, Bhatia walks to the gate and enters the backyard where Varma lies on his night bed. Bhatia and Varma discuss their situations. Bhatia is sick too, and says he is envious of Varma’s unlimited access to a doctor. This suggestion upsets Varma, and he reveals that his son does not feed him enough and weighs the amount of food he is given. A horrified Bhatia responds, ‘‘Is it possible, even in this evil age, for a son to refuse his father food?’’ Varma continues his tale of woe, telling Bhatia that his daughter-in-law once refused him a piece of fresh fish. Varma also tells his neighbor that his son will not give him anything fried or cooked in butter or oil. Varma complains that his son—for whom he sacrificed immeasurably— treats him horribly, and he realizes he has come to see his son as heartless and tyrannical.
Although complaining to neighbors makes Varma feel better, he soon becomes genuinely sick. As a result, Varma receives less food but more medicine, powders, vitamins, and pills to attend to his many conditions. Sometimes, he has to be taken to the hospital where his stomach is pumped or he receives an enema. Whenever Varma feels pain or fear, his son produces new pills for him to take. Varma does not want them, telling Rakesh ‘‘Let me be. Let me die. It would be better. I do not want to live only to eat your medicines.’’
Rakesh tries to reason with his father to his face, but Varma insists he wants to die. Outside the door, Rakesh makes fun of his father, emphasizing father’s life. Varma responds by screaming that he is not allowed to eat and that Veena and his grandchildren do not care. Because he is weak, the words come out in grunts, croaks, and cries of pain. During one visit with Bhatia, though, with his family in earshot, Varma is able to say, ‘‘God is calling me— and they won’t let me go.’’ In reality, however, Rakesh’s treatments keep his father alive and in fact ‘‘gave him a kind of strength that made him hang on long after he ceased to wish to hang on.’’
On one summer night, the servants take Varma and his bed outside on the veranda so he can take in the evening air. Veena puts many pillows under his head so that he is propped up to a sitting position. Though Varma begs to be allowed to lie down, Veena says Rakesh wants him to sit up.
Varma’s grandsons play cricket in the yard, and Varma is scared he will be hit by one of their balls. When his son arrives home, the doctor ignores his wife’s questions about food and drink in favor of attending to his father. Rakesh presses Varma’s feet and asks about his condition. In contorted pain, Varma tells his son, ‘‘I’m dying. Let me die, I tell you.’’ Rakesh dismisses his feelings and tells him about a new medicine that ‘‘will make you feel stronger again.’’
In response, Varma tells his son he does not want the tonic or any of the other medicines. He knocks the bottle out of his son’s hand, breaking it. The brown liquid spills all over Rakesh’s white pants, and he jumps up. The noise attracts the attention of the family. Varma is able to push away the pillows that prop him up and lies down again. Closing his eyes, he moans, ‘‘God is calling me—now let me go.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Anita Desai, Published by Gale Group, 2010