Respect and Devotion
One of the primary concepts explored in ‘‘A Devoted Son’’ is the often complicated nature traditional Indian family relationships. Varma works for forty years, and he and his wife make sacrifices to ensure their son Rakesh can receive the education they did not. Rakesh rewards them by excelling at school, becoming a doctor, and turning out to be a wealthy, highly respected doctor and member of the community. Varma and his wife are even more proud that Rakesh treats them with deference and respect. Respect for one’s parents is highly valued in traditional Indian society. When Rakesh’s first division triumph is announced in the local paper, Varma proudly tells those who come to celebrate ‘‘do you know what is the first thing he did when he saw the results this morning?. . . .He bowed down and touched my feet.’’ Rakesh continues to give this gesture of respect to both of his parents throughout their lives. He even allows his mother to select his wife, instead of choosing a wife when he lived in the United States. This is also a mark of Rakesh’s respect for his parent’s and his cultural traditions. He clearly is a ‘‘devoted’’ son.
However, the shape of Rakesh’s devotion changes over time. After the death of Varma’s wife and his own retirement, Varma begins to complain of illness all the time. Sometimes these sicknesses have a basis in reality and sometimes they do not. He also begins to lie like a corpse in bed and after everyone gathers around in a tizzy, he sits up abruptly and spits out betel juice. When Varma does this during a birthday party at his house, it breaks up the party, and he spits on Veena’s new sari. After this incident, ‘‘no one much cared if he sat up cross-legged on his bed, hawking and spitting, or lay down flat and turned grey as a corpse.’’ Rakesh remains the respectful son, but everyone else cares out of duty. Varma sees Veena smirking when she thinks no one can see her, for example, and Varma believes his grandchildren laugh at him.
Rakesh begins to control his father. While remaining respectful, Rakesh will no longer allow Varma eat anything sweet or fried or anything he likes to eat. Over time, Varma actually becomes ill and Rakesh imposes more limits as he cares for him and keeps him alive. Rakesh treats his father as he believes a devoted son should, but he ultimately fails to show his father the simple courtesy of respecting his wishes. Ironically, the devoted son becomes his father’s tormentor. Desai seems to be calling into question whether all the exchanges of respect and devotion between Rakesh and his parents make any of them happy.
The Indignities of Old Age
‘‘A Devoted Son’’ looks at the high points and low points of Varma’s life and his desire for death. In a number of ways, Desai’s treatment of Varma and his relationship with his son and family can be seen as reflecting the struggles many people encounter; as they age they may feel useless and burdensome to their families. The story opens with Varma at the height of his adulthood. He has a house outside of a city, a job working at a kerosene dealer’s depot, and a wife and family. He works very hard to take care of his family. His son Rakesh does much to make him proud, by doing well in medical school, earning a scholarship, traveling to the United States for more education, returning home to start his career, and, most of all, honoring and respecting his parents. Rakesh is an ideal son who becomes a rich, respected doctor and upright citizen.
But as Varma reaches the end of his working days, he finds his enjoyment of life and his personal freedom slipping away. His wife dies around the same time, and he finds himself being cared for by his son and daughter-in-law with help from servants and visits from the rest of the family. While Rakesh continues to care for his father as his health declines, Rakesh restricts his diet and feeds him more and more medicine. Varma feels utterly helpless. He cannot control what he eats. Eventually, he cannot even talk intelligibly. The one thing he can control, he feels, is whether he lives or dies. Varma does not die before the end of ‘‘A Devoted Son,’’ but he feels dead inside, and Rakesh cannot, or will not, understand his father’s distress. Desai writes of Varma near the story’s end, ‘‘It was as though he were straining at a rope, trying to break it, and it would not break, it was still strong. He only hurt himself, trying.’’
A secondary theme of ‘‘A Devoted Son’’ is communication, often related to perception and pride. While Varma and Rakesh seem to talk, they do not communicate, especially in Varma’s old age. Varma tries to emphasize to his son how out of sorts he feels, but Rakesh does not listen and treats him the way he perceives a respected father should be treated. Rakesh dismisses his father’s spoken desire to die. During one such exchange, Rakesh says ‘‘Papa, be reasonable.’’ Varma replies, ‘‘I leave that to you. Let me alone, let me die now, I cannot live like this.’’ After he leaves, Varma hears Rakesh mocking his words, for Rakesh cannot see the pain his father is in and how miserable his life, such as it is, has become. The situation becomes worse in this scene because Varma tries to verbally express how he feels, but ‘‘he was very old and weak and all anyone heard was an incoherent croak, some expressive grunts and cries of genuine pain.’’
In the last scene of ‘‘A Devoted Son,’’ Varma communicates his point to Rakesh by tucking his feet so that Rakesh cannot touch them in a gesture of respect. Varma again expresses his desire to die, but Rakesh dismisses him again. Rakesh does not listen to his father but listens to his pride as the dutiful son; he keeps giving his father medicine that extends the life that he does not want. It is only when Varma knocks the bottle out of Rakesh’s hand and Rakesh’s white pants are covered by the liquid that Rakesh might finally understand what Varma has been trying to communicate. The story ends with Varma expressing the depths of his pain: ‘‘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