Aphelion Issue 238, Volume 23
April 2019
 
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Heart of a Robot

by Deepti Nalavade Mahule




"Laila, you haven’t met a Robo-Maid yet, have you?" Siya asked me, her face shining with excitement, like a child eager to show off a new toy.

"No," I said.

She flashed a grin at me and said, "Prepare to be amazed."

I thought she was exaggerating, but I was about to be proved wrong. In a few minutes, I would be in her house and my reaction at meeting Vimla would be just as Siya had predicted. We were walking up to her apartment on the tenth floor. Siya had moved there eight months ago with her husband Gautam and they had got Vimla, the Robo-Maid a couple of months after. Now it was just Siya and Vimla living there, as I had learned earlier that afternoon when I had run into Siya at a wedding.

"Gautam’s gone," Siya had said. "He got up one morning two weeks ago and left."

Her tone was flat and matter-of-fact, as if she were speaking of someone else’s husband.

"Oh my God!" I said loudly and then lowered my voice when two people in the wedding hall looked at us in alarm. "What happened?"

The muscles on Siya’s jaw worked up and down and her eyelashes batted furiously, unwilling to let tears ruin her makeup. She wiped her nose with a tissue and looked away.

"Our big fight the day before was the last straw. We were having fertility issues and were exploring options. He wanted one thing, I another. We were lunging at each other all the time. Only when he closed the door on me, did it hit me that it was all over for real."

Tiny camera drones, dainty as fireflies, hovered over our heads capturing images and videos of the ceremony. The pitch of the priest’s chants rose high and I raised a limp hand to throw a few grains of colored rice and flower petals in the direction of the couple that was tying the knot. The wound Siya was showing me was red and raw. I picked at the rose-colored embroidery on my dress, searching for a soothing balm of words for her injury, but I couldn’t find any.

Instead, I asked her, "Have you talked to him since then?"

"Yes," she replied, her crimson mouth twisting into a bitter smile, "We spoke about when to start the divorce proceedings."

Later, during lunch at the wedding reception, I told Siya that I was immersed in my recent project working for a biomedical company specializing in disease-prevention, with hardly any time to relax. I was also traveling a lot.

"I came here on business two days ago and decided to attend this wedding at the last minute," I said. "I’m supposed to fly back to Bangalore tomorrow."

"Let’s pick up your stuff from your hotel," she said. "You’re coming to my place for the night, no excuses."

When we first became friends, Siya was fifteen and I ten. She was an orphan and was raised by an elderly aunt. Soon after Siya began her first job as a well-paid technical writer, her aunt passed away. We had not visited each other after that. Now, both of us in our thirties, we were meeting after many years.

Siya stopped in front of a blue door and drew her face close to the eye-scanner to unlock it. The scanner swept over her brown eyeball and beeped once. She pressed down on the door handle and held open the door.

I stepped inside into an entryway and caught a whiff of jasmine in the air. Next to the front door, a mirror above the shoe rack reflected our bent heads as we slipped off our footwear while its left corner displayed the current date, time and temperature: ‘Saturday, February 10, 2086. 4:33 p.m. 36 degrees Celsius’.

In the living room, cream-colored sofas and armchairs sprawled around a glass-topped table. Souvenirs from around the world crowded the surfaces of gleaming metal shelves in two corners of the large room. An oval window, sweeping from one end of a long wall to the other, presented a bustling view of twisting noodle-shaped roads and highway ramps in the distance. Behind them, the orange sun dipped into the mountains bordering ever-expanding Mumbai city, which continued to inch outward like a slow wave, with new construction sprouting up every few months.

"You have a lovely home," I said.

Siya didn’t hear me. She was scrolling through the Window-Scene options, with her laser-plucked eyebrows furrowed in irritation.

"Vimla forgot to change it again. She knows I want nature scenes."

Siya selected something, and the window pane turned dark. A gentle melody of flowing water rose up, followed by a magnificent view gradually revealing itself through the window -- a cascading waterfall surrounded by lush greenery. A bright red bird flitted across the pane and disappeared into the foliage.

"Vimla," Siya called out, "we’re here."

At the door of a passageway, a figure appeared as if it had materialized out of thin air. Vimla came towards us holding a tray with two glasses of water, the ice cubes inside them clinking softly against the glass with each step. I stared at her as if she were a goddess offering holy nectar from her own hands.

"Hello," I managed to say.

"Hello, and welcome," Vimla said in a clear voice, devoid of any accents.

If she had passed me on the street, I would hardly have glanced at her, never guessing that underneath all that natural skin and hair were mechanical body parts and a "brain" made up of artificial components plus all the human consciousness uploaded into it during its genesis.

"Thank you," I said, leaning in to pick up a glass.

Sweet jasmine fragrance rose in an invisible mist from Vimla’s body. She was middle-aged, about five feet and five inches tall, slim and pleasing to look at. Her skin was light brown and her black hair, streaked with a few greys, was tied back in a neat bun. She was clad in a loose blue cotton kurta and beige trousers, with a round, red bindi adorning her forehead. Her shiny black eyes moved feverishly from my face down to my feet, with her bindi trained on me like the fiery red dot from a laser gun. I was glad when she moved on to Siya to offer her water.

Looking thrilled at the amazement written plainly on my face, Siya took her glass and sipped some water. She frowned and turned to Vimla.

"Two ice-cubes, not three next time."

"Yes, Siya madam."

Vimla’s nose quivered, and something darkened her face, like the shadow of a cloud passing over a smooth plain. She turned around in one swift motion and marched stiffly down the corridor leading into the kitchen.

Siya was studying me with a twinkle in her eye. "I’ve had her for around six months now," she said, grinning. "Isn’t she something?"

"Unbelievable," I said, shaking my head. "Truly amazing."

Siya cocked her head to one side. "Do you remember Swati bai -- the maidservant at my house -- when we were little? No, wait. That was before we met and became friends, so you might not know we had a bai once.”

“You’re right. Also, we never had one, even before I was born. My mother told me that hardly anyone had a bai back when she herself was young. Yours must have been one of the last few doing that sort of a job."

Then I laughed and said, "Mother will be tickled to hear about a Robo-Maid. I can’t wait to tell her all about Vimla."

"Oh, you’ll have a lot to tell her, you’ll see," Siya said. "I’m glad you decided to stay over, even if it’s only for a night."

Afterward, Vimla ushered us into a spacious dining room, seated us under a lotus-shaped glass chandelier hanging over the table, and served us dinner.

"Everything's perfect, Vimla," I said, eating a large mouthful of chicken curry and rice.

"Thank you, Laila madam," Vimla said, putting a second helping on my plate.

"Reminds me of your aunt’s cooking," I said to Siya.

Siya beamed at me. "It is her recipe."

Vimla moved forward to serve Siya again but Siya placed a hand over her plate and shook her head. "Not tonight. My stomach has been queasy since morning."

Vimla hovered over Siya’s plate with half-opened lips, to urge Siya to eat a bit more. Siya looked up sharply and Vimla spun around, withdrawing into the kitchen without a word.

Siya turned to me. "She mothers me and I don’t like it. The other day, I told her off about it. She had asked me three times that morning before I left the house whether I had put on enough layers of SunProto."

I gave a short laugh.

"Oh, you find that funny? It can get irritating sometimes." Her face was still pinched together in irritation, but a half-smile played on her lips.

"Sometimes you like the attention, don’t you?" I asked, grinning.

Siya nodded. "You’re right. I don’t know what I’d do without her around. With Gautam gone, she’s all I have. But when I’m in a bad mood, I snap at her. I don’t mean to be harsh with her but with all that is going on recently, I can’t help it."

She closed her eyes and rubbed them with the palms of her hands. She looked worn out. Just then, Vimla came in from the kitchen carrying two bowls of warm carrot halwa topped with nuts and raisins.

"Ah!" Siya said, perking up, "Somehow, I can always make room for dessert."

She ate a spoonful and chewed slowly with half-closed eyelids. Vimla stood to the side, brimming with expectation. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and waited. The silence between them thickened and stretched.

Finally, I cleared my throat. "Vimla, this dessert is out of this world."

Vimla bowed her head. "Thank you, Laila madam."

"Hmm," Siya said and continued eating as Vimla carried herself sullenly back into the kitchen.

I was about to say something about Vimla’s reactions when Siya’s iBand began to beep, notifying her of a call from a colleague. She spoke briefly and then we went into the living room.

The view outside the window was framed within greenish-gray palm fronds in the soothing light of dusk. An owl hooted far away, the sound carrying over gentle ripples of water on the surface of a lake. Stars cast a pleasant glow all around, concealing the fact that behind this beautiful mirage lay the reality of skies teeming with air traffic, a bustling city filled with monotonous squiggles of road networks and, tall skyscrapers shining with harsh lights.

"Does she sleep?" I flicked my head in the direction of the dining room where Vimla was clearing everything up.

Siya shrugged. "If you can call it that. She lies down on a bed in her own room. The manufacturers recommend it unless she’s required to work throughout the night. I think her system does housekeeping work during the time she’s napping or whatever. You know about the ‘human consciousness’ component inside her, right? Maybe that part requires some downtime."

Vimla came in to wish us good night and after she left for her room Siya started to talk about upcoming models of Robo-Maids. All the while, something gnawed at the back of my mind, like a furtive sharp-toothed rat. Vimla was obedient and ran the house on well-oiled wheels. She provided a helpful presence in that empty apartment so that Siya never felt lonely. And yet, something was not quite right. It was more of a feeling than a fact that could be pointed out, like looking at an abstract painting that was incomplete. I had to say something, even if the collector of the artwork might dislike it.

However, before I could broach the topic, Siya yawned and suggested that we turn in for the night. Perhaps it is for the best that I have to wait until morning, I thought. I also wasn’t sure of what I wanted to say. Sleeping over it would help me voice my opinions better.

Siya showed me the guest bedroom before retiring to bed herself. I settled myself under the covers and flicked through the Window-Scene options on the remote until I found what I was looking for. The rain sound effects that I put on were similar in frequency and rhythm to what I was used to at home. Water drummed steadily onto a tiled rooftop for some time and then petered out to a soft dripping sound before it picked up again into a shower, making me drift off into sleep.

The vision that sprang up behind my closed eyelids was that of Vimla lying on a bed like she was on an operating table. Her eyes were wide open and unblinking. She was staring at the ceiling as if something that required intense focus was happening there. The scene made my skin crawl like it did when I was inside hospitals, making me want to get out of there as soon as possible.

I woke up with a start and checked my iBand. It was 1.32 a.m. I groaned. It was going to be one of those nights. Unless I got up, drank water and walked around for a bit, I wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep. Opening the bedroom door quietly, I headed for the kitchen. As I was passing through the living room, I stopped in my tracks and a gasp escaped my lips.

A figure was sitting by the window, which no longer had an artificial setting obscuring the exterior world. Thin gray clouds in the night sky spread over pinpricks of stars that seemed to be waiting for something with bated spatial breath. Vimla turned around as soon as she sensed my presence. Her bindi, now maroon in color, stood out starkly on the shadowy contours of her face.

"You gave me a fright," I said, my hand over my chest.

"Sorry, Laila Madam." Vimla scrambled to attention.

I blushed as if I were the one who had been at fault and had invaded her privacy.

"Nice night outside," I said, trying to make small talk.

I walked over to the window. A passenger drone, easily identifiable among other air vehicles by its bright pink and purple lights, blinked lazily and moved in a steady path across the night sky. Beneath it, the mountain range at the outskirts of the city huddled together like the humps of some strange animal that was lying down to rest.

"Is the Robo Sanctuary behind those mountains? Where they say the rogue androids and some of the automatons are fleeing to?" I asked.

"Yes, madam. It is that very place, over there."

A sly smile dawned over my face. Let’s see if this Robo-Maid is capable of humor, I thought.

Aloud, I said, "So, are you thinking of running away to the Robo Sanctuary? If I hadn’t found you now, you would have been off to god-alone-knows-where!"

Vimla’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets.

"Madam, how did you know?" Her voice was trembling.

She’s clever, I thought to myself and suppressed the urge to blurt out ‘I’m joking’.

"Never mind how I know. Why do you want to run away?"

"I am looking for something, which I cannot find here. But do not tell Siya Madam."

"I was just joking," I began to say and stopped.

Vimla had moved closer, her jasmine fragrance strong as ever, and was glaring at me. The faint light coming in through the window behind us illuminated the creases around her stern mouth.

I cleared my throat. "I’m not going to say anything to anyone," I said, "and I’m going back to bed. You do the same. Good night."

I started walking back to my room. Vimla followed me. Her room was in the same section of the house as mine. The hair on my arms rose as I walked, with her following close behind. I was sure that her bindi was trained on me. It was bearing down, triggering a strange sensation on the nape of my neck, as if my skin there expected a sharp blast from the barrel of a gun. Sweat trickled down between my shoulder blades and my breath came out in rapid bursts. I couldn’t wait to reach my room and shut the door.

As I neared my room, a crying sound came to me from somewhere. It was barely audible, floating up from within mysterious depths that lie behind closed doors. I strained my ears and waited. There was silence. I kept moving, certain that it was a figment of my imagination.

I entered my room and Vimla followed me inside. I began to work up the courage to ask her to leave but the thudding of my beating heart kept distracting me.

"Madam, I want to give you something," she said. "Then I will leave".

From her pocket, Vimla took out a folded white handkerchief with an embroidered yellow flower in one corner of it. With a sudden yet smoothly executed movement, she drew me close to her and pressed the handkerchief to my nose. The fumes from whatever was on it rushed into my nostrils and I found myself falling into a pitch-black, bottomless pit.

When I woke up, the room was bathed in sunlight. I jumped out of bed and threw open the bedroom door. Tearing down the corridor, I burst into the living room, calling for Siya in a hoarse voice.

I caught a glimpse of the Window-Scene that was playing there on the oval window -- a rolling green pasture, with two cows and a calf grazing contentedly within it – before my eyes fell on Vimla. She was bent over the center table, rubbing at it with a cloth, making squeaky sounds as she went back and forth over the glass surface. She straightened up as I came in.

I took a step back, colliding with the door frame behind me.

"Where’s Siya?" I asked.

"Madam is not here. She had to go to the doctor. She is on her way back and will be reaching home in approximately five minutes. She said to make sure that I serve you breakfast after you woke up. Do you prefer tea or coffee? We also have orange juice, mango juice and--"

"The doctor? Did you do something to her? Is she ok?"

"She’s fine."

"I thought you were running away last night. Why are you still here?"

"I decided not to. I have found what I am looking for."

I wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand. My skull was filled with hundreds of cotton balls. A torrent of anger roared into me and gushed down my insides.

"You drugged me last night," I screamed.

Vimla hung her head and kept wringing the dusting cloth in her hands. "Please forgive me, Laila madam. I was cautious with the drug dosage, but I regret giving it to you. It was a shameful error on my part. I’m sorry, Laila madam."

Vimla folded her hands and kneeled down, head still bowed. Her light brown scalp shone within the straight line of her hair part.

"Please accept my apology," she said in a small voice.

"I don’t know if I can. I need to talk to Siya." I turned to get my iBand from my room to give her a call. Before I took another step forward, I remembered something and whirled around.

"Wait a minute. I hope that you’re telling me the truth and that Siya is fine. I heard someone crying last night. Was it her?"

Vimla rose to her feet. "Yes," she said.

"What happened? Tell me everything."

"As soon as I came out of your room last night and shut the bedroom door, I decided to leave for the sanctuary at once. I was on my way to the front door when Siya madam came crying into the living room. There were tears rolling down her cheeks, but she was laughing. I had never seen her so happy."

"Why? What did she say?"

At my questions, Vimla brightened up as if a light had been flicked on inside her. Her eyes twinkled as her lips curled upward. It was the first time that she had smiled in front of me.

"She said that I was going to become a grandmother," Vimla said in a tender voice.

Footsteps approached the door to the apartment from outside and paused. There was a beeping sound as the scanner did its job. Siya had come back.

I really did hear Siya crying then, I realized.

The door began to open and Vimla turned her head towards it with a dreamy look on her face. My head was spinning.

"You said that she’s pregnant, right?" I asked Vimla, unsure of whether I had heard her correctly before.

"Siya madam said that I will make a wonderful grandmother," Vimla repeated.

The smile didn’t leave her face.



THE END



kurta - a loose collarless shirt worn by people from South Asia

bindi - a decorative mark worn in the middle of the forehead by Indian women

bai – a female maidservant

halwa - a sweet Indian dish consisting of carrots or semolina boiled with milk, almonds, sugar, butter, and cardamom



2019 Deepti Nalavade Mahule

Bio: One of my short stories was highly commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 1999 and others have appeared in print and online, the most recent one being in Flash Fiction Magazine. Originally from India, I currently live in California, where I spend my time writing software, reading aloud to my four-year-old daughter, submitting my short fiction and fretting about what to put in my biographical sketch.

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