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
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
"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
"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
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
“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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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?"
"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
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
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
The smile didn’t leave her face.
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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