In a review of Anita Desai’s short story collection Diamond Dust and Other Stories novel Fasting, Feasting , Edward Hower comments, ‘‘In Anita Desai’s fiction, home is both a prison and a refuge. Those who escape face isolation from their families and society, but those who stay risk suffocation. Family tensions make her characters’ attempts to transcend domestic lives into personal triumphs or tragedies.’’
Much of what Hower says can be applied to ‘‘A Devoted Son.’’ The story focuses on the relationship between Varma and his son Rakesh, and is set primarily in Varma’s home. With the support of his father, Rakesh becomes an overwhelmingly successful doctor and in Varma’s old age, takes over control of the household. While Rakesh remains respectful of his father at all times, the home, indeed life, becomes a prison for Varma, who is suffocated by his son’s attention. Varma’s personal life essentially becomes a tragedy.
One way to examine the situation between Varma and Rakesh is through the filter of respect. In this context, respect means to be obedient (acting to please parents), regard highly, and hold and act in admiration. Rakesh repeatedly offers gestures of respect to his father that are quite meaningful in Indian society. While there is no doubt that Rakesh respects his father (and his mother, for that matter), he nearly respects Varma to death in his father’s old age—and the nature of the respect is quite suspect. In fact, it is unclear if Rakesh really respects Varma or puts on the fac¸ ade of respect as required by his society. The elderly Varma does not feel respected because his wishes for his life are ignored, not always respectfully, by the son who uses his medical knowledge to keep him alive.
Throughout ‘‘A Devoted Son,’’ Desai repeatedly refers to respect and gestures of respect as she sets up this heartbreaking situation. The first paragraph of the story has Rakesh looking at the rankings of test results in the newspaper, then finding his father on the veranda where he ‘‘sat sipping his morning tea.’’ Before saying anything, Rakesh ‘‘bowed down to touch his feet.’’ This gesture of respect establishes the fact that Rakesh is an obedient son who appreciates all the sacrifices his illiterate parents have made to give him an education which includes medical school. Rakesh works hard and receives top test scores as well, bringing more honor to himself and his family.
The importance of Rakesh’s gesture is emphasized during the celebration that follows. Varma responds to all visitors who say that his son ‘‘has brought you glory,’’ by telling them, ‘‘Yes, and do you know what is the first thing he did when he saw the results this morning? He came and touched my feet.’’ Desai then reports that both women and men were deeply affected by what Rakesh did, so much so that women cried and the men ‘‘shook their heads in wonder and approval of such exemplary filial behaviour.’’
Rakesh’s rise continues as does his respectful behavior towards his parents. When he returns from his educational experiences in the United States, ‘‘the first thing he did on entering the house was to… bow down and touch his father’s feet.’’ Rakesh also does not take a wife in the United States as most Indian men who travel abroad for their education do. ‘‘Instead, he agreed, almost without argument, to marry a girl [his mother] had picked out for him in her own village.’’
Over time, Rakesh becomes a local bigwig. He first works as a doctor at a hospital in the city, then he moves through the ranks to become a top administrator and director, before finally opening his own clinic. All the while, he, his wife Veena and their children follow tradition and live with his parents in ‘‘that small yellow house in the once-new but increasingly shabby colony.’’ When his mother is on her death bed, Rakesh cares for her ‘‘in her last illness’’ and ‘‘sat pressing her feet at the last moment—such a son as few women had borne.’’
Through these events, Desai makes clear that ‘‘Rakesh was not only a devoted son and a miraculously good-natured man who contrived somehow to obey his parents and humor his wife and show concern equally for his children and his patients.’’ She also acknowledges his intelligence, ‘‘good manners,’’ ‘‘kind nature,’’ and skills as both a host and a doctor. Yet over time, Desai adds, ‘‘It came to pass that the most admiring of eyes eventually faded and no longer blinked at his glory.’’ With that statement, Desai shows a crack in the sheen that has covered Rakesh for the whole of his adult life. It is a clue that perhaps Rakesh has been living for adulation and hides his true feelings behind his respectful behavior.
After this point in ‘‘A Devoted Son,’’ the relationship between Varma and Rakesh starts to change. Shortly before the death of Varma’s wife, Varma retires from the kerosene dealer’s depot where he had been employed for four decades. He soon falls apart and spends most of his days in bed. Desai explains, ‘‘He developed so many complaints and fell ill so frequently and with such mysterious diseases that even his son could no longer make out when it was something of significance and when it was merely a peevish whim.’’ Varma also begins to essentially fake his death, then rapidly sit up and spit betel juice. The act brings the attention of his family every time until he does it during a birthday party at the house. Varma ruins the party as well as his daughter-in-law’s new sari, causing everyone in the family except Rakesh to ignore such behaviors from that point forward.
Varma’s actions can be seen as a precursor to his desire to die, which becomes a major issue by the end of the story. However, Rakesh continues to be the respectful son. No matter what Varma does, Rakesh brings him tea in the vessel preferred by Varma, reads the morning newspaper to him, and compels him to spend his evenings outside on the veranda. Desai writes of Rakesh, ‘‘It made no difference to him that his father made no response apart from spitting.’’ Yet there is no evidence that Rakesh tries to understand what is wrong with his father. Varma is faking his death over and over again—perhaps to get attention but perhaps because he is miserable or for some other reason that is unclear—but the doctor does not use his training to find out the source of his father’s misery. Rakesh merely uses his skills to keep his father alive. While this is a gesture of respect, it is also fraught with a lack of real interest in his patient, if not the desire for control.
When Rakesh begins to control what Varma eats, their relationship is forever transformed. After Varma eats soojie halwa with cream, ‘‘Rakesh marched into the room, not with his usual respectful step but with the confident and rather contemptuous stride of the famous doctor.’’ With this statement, Desai makes clear that Rakesh no longer really respects Varma nor cares about what his father wants. Rakesh seems like he respects his father because he does all he can to keep his father alive—a gesture of respect to many. But he does not listen to Varma, instead acting like he must keep his father alive to prove his abilities as a doctor and to seem like a dutiful son.
Varma is startled by Rakesh’s first dietary restriction as ‘‘he stared at his son with disbelief that darkened quickly to reproach.’’ Refusing his father the food he likes is disrespectful, even if the food is harming him in some way. Varma is the father and Rakesh is his son, and Varma believes, with tradition on his side, his word should rule. Instead, nearly every food Varma likes is removed from his diet and replaced by limited portions of bland fare. Varma misses his wife’s cooking, and his attempts to bribe his grandchildren to get him sweets from the local bazaar only leads to more rebukes from Rakesh. The son admonishes him for sending his children to a part of the city where there are diseases and having them lie to their parents. Rakesh also reminds him that the sweets are not good for him. Rakesh is only deferential in that he keeps up a respectful appearance to his father and keeps him alive; Varma, however, sees only contempt.
Varma’s opinion of Rakesh is supported by his elderly neighbor Bhatia. Though Bhatia is initially jealous that Varma has unlimited access to medical care through Rakesh, Varma sets him straight. Bhatia is appalled at Rakesh’s dietary restrictions as well. Underscoring the key to the conflict between father and son, Desai notes that respect seems like only a superficial emotion for Rakesh by this point.
This situation grows worse Varma becomes ill and weak. Rakesh treats him with various medicines, tonics, vitamins, and powders. Such items ‘‘became a regular part of his diet— became his diet, complained Varma, supplanting the natural foods he craved.’’ Varma tells Rakesh he wants to be left alone and to die but Rakesh dismisses such feelings with the statement ‘‘I have my duty to you, Papa.’’ That is the key point to the problem in Varma and Rakesh’s relationship. Rakesh is outwardly dutiful to his father. In Rakesh’s eyes, Varma has everything an elderly man could want: a caring family, food, shelter, and more. But Rakesh continues to treat Varma without regard of his feelings. Varma even overhears Rakesh mocking his complaints about the way he has to live. Rakesh does not want to understand Varma or the misery he feels at being kept alive, in effect, artificially.
For his part, Varma does not want to be kept alive by Rakesh’s medicine and supplements, but that is exactly they effect they have. Varma is also pained by being carried outside by the servants to take the night air, with Desai noting that Varma expresses his ‘‘agonized complaints’’ to them. In the last scene of ‘‘A Devoted Son,’’ Varma tries to get Veena to understand his pain but she insists that he be propped up by pillows on the veranda despite his protestations. His grandsons play cricket nearby though he might be hit by the ball since he cannot dodge it with his limited mobility. Varma lives in fear now, a fear his son has refused to see or understand.
When Rakesh arrives home that night, he continues to be the attentive son that he believes himself to be. Ignoring his wife and children, ‘‘he went first to the corner where his father sat gazing, stricken.’’ Rakesh also made a gesture of ‘‘reaching out to press his feet.’’ By this point, Varma sees the emptiness of gestures of respect as well as questions about how he is feeling. Rakesh, Varma has concluded, is not really a devoted son but an arrogant doctor who does not really care about him. Rakesh may have ‘‘smiled at him, lovingly’’ as they talk, but Varma does not buy it anymore.
Petruso .A, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Anita Desai, Published by Gale Group, 2010