The House Robot
A free short story
by Siri Paulson
Priya’s house was the last one on their street in Jaipur to get one of Reenu Mehta’s house robots. By that time, everyone knew how many things house robots were good for. You could order them to do your laundry – cheaper in the long run than paying a washerwoman. You could teach them to cook basic curries and naan faster than you could do it yourself. Some of them would even diagnose female complaints and tell you what medicines you needed. Only a woman engineer could have thought of that, the aunties said approvingly.
So Priya talked her mother into putting aside some of Priya’s teaching salary, little by little, until they could buy a second-hand house robot. It was just as useful as advertised, and, even better, her mother was able to boast to her friends about what a good deal they had gotten.
During this time, Priya’s uncle drove in from the village once in a while to see how they were getting on after the death of her father. At first he had brought money, but that had stopped after Priya’s mother turned down his offer of marriage. It was only right, he said, that he should marry his brother’s widow and so look after her. But Priya had seen the way he looked at her, and she knew it was not her mother he wanted. Since then, he only came by to issue vague warnings, or make insultingly low offers for the new house robot or her father’s old car that sat idle outside the house. He always left empty-handed and angry, and Priya worried.
Priya’s mother pooh-poohed her worries, but sighed with sadness. Priya hinted and probed, and finally asked.
“It is nothing. I only wish I could visit your grandparents in the village again. They were always kind to me. Uncle used to drive me, but I will not accept his aid now, and we cannot take our little scooter out on those roads.”
Reenu Mehta, the creator of the house robot, would not have let any man intimidate her, Priya was sure. Perhaps there was a solution.
She started asking the robot to drive the car alone on errands, as an experiment. It always returned safely. No policeman called her to say that this was not allowed or that the robot had been in an accident. Sometimes she followed on the family scooter and watched. Of course she could not drive a car herself, but as far as she could tell, the robot was an excellent driver. It even knew how to use the car horn properly, to say “Watch out, I’m squeezing through here” or “I am behind you and I’m faster, move over.”
So eventually, Priya got in the backseat and let the robot drive her around the city, a little farther and then a little farther. Her mother always insisted on coming, just in case. It was strange to be driving in their car again, without her father behind the wheel. But slowly it got less strange. Slowly, her mother relaxed.
And one day, several months later, the robot drove them out of Jaipur, to the dusty little village where Priya’s father had been born and his brother and parents still lived.
The robot pulled up to the family compound and stopped. Priya’s uncle came up to the car window and stared, and said, “What are you two women doing out here alone?”
Priya had been so pleased with her cleverness that she had forgotten how conservative the village was. She glanced to her mother, who, under her filmy veil, seemed to be frozen.
“We’re not alone,” Priya said, keeping her voice soft and looking down modestly, as a good girl should. “We have a driver.”
Her uncle snorted through his moustache. “It’s a robot, not a man.”
“It’s doing a man’s job.”
“Isn’t that a house robot? It does women’s work.”
Priya’s heart sank. He was right. But…did that make it a woman? Her father had cooked once in a while. Still, he did mostly men’s work; the house robot did mostly women’s work. But hijra did women’s work, too, and they were third-gender, not women…
“Yes. But now it is doing a man’s work,” Priya said slowly, thinking her way along. “It is driving and escorting us. Therefore, it’s the same as a man, and we’re not alone.”
Her uncle backed up and stared some more, shook his head, and finally muttered something about telling the grandparents and wandered off.
Priya looked at her mother apprehensively, but her mother was nodding and starting to smile through her veil.
“Daughter,” she said, “my friends need to know about this. The widows, and the ones whose husbands are working overseas, and the ones whose husbands are ill. Everyone who is suffering without a man to accompany them wherever they need or want to go. All of them will know.”
“And the young women who are adults but aren’t married yet,” said Priya.
Her mother shook her head and made a disapproving noise. “Let’s not get carried away. There is a family’s honour to think of.”
Priya just looked at the robot and grinned. Together, she and her mother got out of the car and walked into the compound, heads held high.