Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3509 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014


by Rudy Ravindra

Ten years after Sheila was born, Anu got pregnant again. Her dreaded mother-in-law, Subbulu, was furious. “I’m getting old, you need to take care of more duties. I can hardly walk from my bedroom to the living room, this arthritis is killing me. I can no longer supervise the servants, plan the daily menu. I don’t know if you can cope with all this and a new baby. Now you can’t do any house work, and I can’t carry the heavy burden of running this household all by myself. And when the baby comes, you’ll be too busy feeding, changing diapers, and all that. And then you’ll be tied down with raising the child. We should have a one-child policy in this country. Look at China, how progressive they are. Only one baby per couple, that’s it.” She banged her fist on the dining table to emphasize her point. “That’s the way a country should be run. With an iron hand. We need a strong dictatorship in this country. To stop corruption and overpopulation.” She looked at Anu’s belly accusingly.

Anu was mad at Subbulu’s monotonous monolog. But to her credit, Anu showed utmost restraint, didn’t say a word.

But, in the privacy of their bedroom upstairs, Anu cried her heart out. “What’s the matter with her? Why can’t she be happy with a new grandbaby? My mother and grandmother are ecstatic.”

Santosh took her into his arms and kissed her tears away. “She doesn’t mean any harm. That’s the way she is, always wants her way. And if things go in a different direction, she goes berserk. I have learned that the best way to live in this house is to ignore her behavior. After a few days she’ll get over it, everything will be back to normal.”

“But she hurt my feelings, I’m really hurt. We should move out, rent an apartment.”

Santosh said, “How can we leave? My mother will be very upset, she’ll be all alone. Apart from that, we don’t have any money of our own. You know when my father passed away, my mother got the control of all the property, this house, the cars, the factory, everything. We are completely dependent on her for everything, the food we eat, the clothes we wear...”

“You can get a job somewhere, we can live a simple life. I can’t take this abuse anymore. I’m like a slave, under her thumb, do this, do that.”

“Anu, Anu, calm down. You don’t realize what you are saying. I have a college degree only. This is India! We have too many unemployed people. Nobody wants to hire a simple college graduate. Even if I get lucky and find a job, the pay won’t be enough for rent and food.”

“You are working so hard at the factory, why can’t your mother pay you a proper salary?”

He became wistful. “She paying me salary? Forget it. We have no choice, Anu. It’s my lack of proper education that’s working against us. I wish I got good education, an engineering degree, move to America or Australia, escape this torture, always controlling. Anyway, I’m hoping that all this property will be ours after she passes on. So if we keep quiet and don’t rock the boat, we’ll be okay.”

Anu thought, O God, how long do I have to bear my mother-in-law’s tyranny? She prayed fervently that her children get a good education and decent jobs.


As her belly became bigger, Anu got short of breath, unable to move rapidly to get the household chores done. The never-ending cooking and listening to Subbulu’s taunts exhausted her. Whenever some friends or relatives visited, Subbulu poured out all her imaginary sorrows, complained bitterly about her daughter-in-law’s inconsiderate decision to get pregnant for a second time. If the guests were shocked at Subbulu’s behavior, they didn’t say anything, but Anu who was in the kitchen could hear Subbulu’s raving and ranting. She ignored Subbulu’s torrential taunts, kept quiet, went about her business.


But, she poured her heart out whenever she visited her parent’s house in Mysore. Her mother advised, “Ignore your mother-in-law, take care of yourself. Eat well, stay healthy. If you want to relax, call up some friends, go shopping. Or go to a movie with Santosh.”

Anu laughed. “Movie with Santosh? Are you kidding? The whole world will come to an end if Santosh and I go out on our own. My mother-in-law is so controlling, you won’t believe it. The moment Santosh takes the car out of the garage, my mother-in-law will call him to ask where he’s going. When he says he’s taking me to get some household items, she will retort ‘Why take the car for two people only? Can’t you take the scooter? It will consume less petrol.’ He will tell her that since we have to bring many items, the car is more suitable. Then she wants to know which shops we are going to and where they are located. He’ll patiently give all the details. Then she’ll say ‘It’s a shame to take the car for two people only. I’ll go with you, you can drop me off at your aunt’s house in Vyali Kaval. After you finish your shopping you can pick me up.’ However hard we tried to sneak out on our own, we never succeeded. After few such incidents, we gave up trying to get away. Simple things like going out to eat, go to a movie, go to the shopping mall are all beyond our reach. Not even a fly can move in that house without her permission.”

Her mother said, “Be patient. After she passes on, you’ll take charge of the house.”

“I’ll be an old maid by the time I get the keys to the house. She complains of many ailments but there’s nothing seriously wrong. She’ll outlive us all.”


When Anu went to the gynecologist’s office for a routine examination, she was told that she had gestational diabetes. Although this was not a serious condition, could be managed with diet control, exercise, and insulin shots if needed, Anu had to be careful.

Subbulu told Santosh, “Now she has diabetes. God only knows how the baby will turn out, may have some birth defects. I don’t think that Anu is strong enough to deal with an abnormal child. She should have an abortion.”

Santosh escaped from his mother without saying anything. He never paid any attention to what went on in the house. His focus was the family business. But, now he was caught between his mother and his wife.

Anu and Santosh spoke to her gynecologist about the risk of having a child with a birth defect. The doctor informed them that the likelihood of a birth defect was extremely low. She told them there could be a risk if the mother’s diabetes was out of control. But Anu’s blood sugars were under control.


When she heard that the ultrasound revealed that the baby would be a girl, Subbulu went ballistic. “Oh, my God, will there be no end to my suffering? I thought that before I die, I’ll hold a grandson in my arms. First you get pregnant at an inopportune time. Then you get diabetes, endangering the baby’s life. Now you are going to have another girl. Who is there to carry the family name after Santosh? Now after Santosh, there is no male member of the family to manage the factory. What to do? What to do?” She wailed loudly as though somebody had died.

Anu didn’t even bother to reply. She thought, What’s the point telling the wicked witch that it’s her son’s sperm that didn’t do the job. Why blame me for conceiving a girl? Telling the old lady about X and Y chromosomes is a waste of time. If she thinks it’s my fault, so be it. I don’t give a damn anymore.

But if Anu thought that would be the end of it, she was very wrong. Subbulu didn’t give up that easily. The next day, Subbulu got hold of Santosh and Anu, “You both should think of an abortion. We simply can’t have another girl. We must have a boy to continue the family line.”

Santosh mumbled something and slipped away. Anu was caught with the harridan, who said in a stern voice, “What do you want to do? You must listen to me, go to your doctor before it’s too late.”

Anu didn’t trust herself to speak, ran upstairs; Subbulu’s arthritic limbs didn’t let her climb the stairs.


Anu said, “Your mother is hell-bent on an abortion. She is mad, goes on needling me.”

Santosh, always timid when it came to confronting his mother, held his head between his hands and groaned. “I really don’t know, Anu. Let’s talk to Veena. She’s the only one who can tackle mom. She should be back from Goa next week.”

Santosh caught hold of Veena as soon as she returned, before she got busy with her hectic law practice. When Veena heard about her mother’s latest tantrum she blew her top. “What nonsense? Abortion! My foot! What’s wrong with a girl? People in this country are crazy. Everybody wants a boy, as though they’ll bring salvation to the whole family. Look at what they have done in Punjab. They are killing female babies, aborting women with female fetuses left and right. This has been going on for so many years, and now the boys are having a hard time finding girls to marry. It’s a pity that the government is so helpless. And the doctors, they are butchers. They’ll do anything to make money, opening up ultrasound facilities in every nook and cranny, doing abortions.”

Santosh didn’t care about the goings-on in Punjab or Timbuktu. “But what shall we do about mom? She won’t leave Anu alone.”

“Santosh, don’t worry, my boy. I’ll talk to her.” She patted her younger brother.


“What’s all this talk of abortion?” Veena asked in an uncharacteristically soft tone.

Subbulu assumed that Veena was on her side. “I told that stupid girl to get rid of that baby. You know she’s going to have another girl.”

“Mom, it’s illegal to abort a female fetus. We can’t do that. If people find out that you are forcing Anu to have an abortion, our family name will be ruined. We’ll become pariahs in the society. You know we move in highly educated circles. What will people think of us? Dad worked very hard to come up to this level, and we can’t ruin our reputation just because you want a grandson. Anu is still quite young, she may have one more child after this one. You have no right to tell her what to do. How would you have felt if someone told you to get rid of me when I was in your womb?”

While Veena could move many a jaded judge to tears with her passionate appeals on behalf of the downtrodden, the abandoned, and the abused, she was unable to convince her own mother.

Subbulu said, “Either she gets an abortion or all the property will go to charity. I’ve made up my mind. Santosh and Anu will not get even one rupee.”

Veena was shocked. “How can you do that? He’s your only son!”

Subbulu smiled benevolently, exposing her toothless gums. “It’s very simple, Veena. Tell that girl to go to the doctor before it’s too late.”


Santosh and Anu met Veena at her posh penthouse apartment in a gated community. Veena was a little late. “The traffic is horrible, phew... Bangalore is becoming too crowded.” She threw her jacket on a chair and plopped down on the sofa. “Mom has become a bloody dictator. I don’t know how to handle her.”

Santosh said in a meek tone, “Maybe we should listen to her; otherwise, we’ll be on the street.”

Anu was in tears. “But it’s my baby, my baby. How can she be so cruel, so unfeeling...”

Veena paced the living room, thinking hard about the situation. She went into the kitchen, put the kettle on. Back in the living room, she said, “You guys will have to separate.” Seeing their shocked looks, she winked. “It’s a game, yaar. Just to jolt Mom. Anu, move to your parents’ house. As for Sheila, she can stay back at the big house, she is smart and independent, she can continue to go to her school. Now Santosh, you carry on as usual, run the factory, take Mom to the doctor when needed. Once Anu leaves, Mom will come to her senses. She has to spend money on a cook. She is so miserly, I know she’ll hate to shell out the cash. Cooks don’t come cheap. Ha, ha, ha.” When the kettle started to whistle, she ran into the kitchen. In a few minutes, she was back in the living room with tea and biscuits.

Anu sipped her tea. “Santosh, do you think it’ll work?”

He said, “What’s to lose by trying? At least you’ll be off the hook until you deliver, right?”


When Santosh knocked on her door, Subbulu asked, “Why are you bringing my coffee? Where’s Anu?”

Santosh kept the mug on the side table. “She left, went off to Mysore.”

“What do you mean? She has to run the house, I’m too feeble.”

Santosh looked unhappy. “Mom, we are going to have a divorce. Veena is doing the paper work.”

Subbulu sat up on her bed. “Rama! Rama! Divorce? It’s unheard of in our family. No, no, no, you can’t have divorce.” For Subbulu, family reputation was very important, and she knew that a divorce would set tongues wagging.

Santosh enjoyed seeing his mother squirm, but kept a deadpan expression. Veena coached him and they rehearsed the scene several times. “Mom, I told Anu many times that she should listen to you, have an abortion, but she’s too stubborn. I begged her to reconsider, I told her that she can’t disobey her elders. But...” He made a face and wrung his hands.

“Nonsense. Let’s call her. I can talk her out of this crazy idea. C’mon, dial the Mysore number, give me the phone.” Subbulu was on a warpath.

Subbulu barked curtly. “Tell your daughter to return to Bangalore immediately, there’s a lot of work here, what? what? Ha, okay, okay.” She told Santosh who watched anxiously, “That woman! I never liked her.” She switched the phone to the other ear. “Ha, ha, Anu! How are you, we miss you, you must come back immediately. What? What? That’s it? After all I did for you all these fifteen years, I bought you expensive gold and diamond jewelry, silk saris, you lacked nothing, nothing at all, all this luxury, motor cars, drivers, servants at your beck and call. You want to give it all up for a baby? Hmmm. So be it, so be it.” She hung up, her face became hard. “Well, nobody’s indispensable. Santosh! Go find a cook. Call Veena, she might know of someone.”


Shanti—whose husband had run away with another woman—joined the household, to cook and help Subbulu to get around. Although well-mannered and clean, her rudimentary repertoire and curtailed culinary skills disappointed the matriarch.

At the dining table, Subbulu was mad and yelled, “Shanti, these cauliflower florets are not cut uniformly, some are too big, others too small, and look at the potato cubes, you left them too long in the skillet, they are mushy, where did you learn to cook, ha?”

Shanti stood with her hands across her chest and looked down. “I’ll do better next time, Madam.”

In spite of Subbulu’s relentless reprimands, the food didn’t get any better; it was either too salty, too spicy, too oily, or too bland. Every meal was a rude shock, every meal a disaster, every meal an assault on the unsuspecting palate.

Subbulu camped out in the kitchen to supervise Shanti, how to cut potatoes uniformly, how to chop cabbage, the exact millimeter pieces, how much turmeric, red pepper, and other spices to add. Shanti listened respectfully, but was never able to meet Subbulu’s exacting standards.

One day Subbulu sat in the kitchen and sipped coffee. “Shanti, watch that pot, it’s boiling over, for god’s sake reduce the flame! Okay, now add one teaspoon of salt and stir slowly.” When she saw the cook carelessly tossing a whole tablespoon of salt into the pot, Subbulu lost it completely and screamed, “You nincompoop! what the hell are you doing? The dish is ruined! No wonder your husband ran away!”

Suddenly Subbulu slumped on the chair, her mouth slack and open, her right hand fell to one side, as if lifeless. The coffee cup fell to the floor, breaking into many pieces.

Shanti panicked and screamed, “Madam, are you okay?”

When Subbulu looked at her with her eyes wide open, unable to speak, Shanti knew right away something was terribly wrong, and called Santosh and Veena.

At the hospital the doctor said, “Looks like she had a stroke. We’ll do some scans.”


Subbulu was discharged after a month or so. Partially recovered, she was feeble, unable to speak, and unable to walk. But in spite of these dreadful drawbacks, Subbulu was aware of what was going on. Whereas her family members were relieved that, at long last, her verbal diarrhea came to an abrupt halt, Subbulu was totally demoralized and devastated. It was her passion to comment on this and that, to pass judgment, to critique, to harass her hapless son and everyone else. Resigned to her fate, Subbulu communicated with the tinkle of a bell; a bell tied to her wheel chair, another by the bedside, and yet another in the bathroom. She summoned people with a gentle tinkle or two, and when no one came promptly, she increased the frequency as well as the amplitude of the tinkles, so much so, everyone in the house rushed to her.

Veena, not one to miss such a golden opportunity, quickly moved the judicial system to declare her mother incompetent to control the vast family enterprise. Santosh took formal charge of the business empire.

Anu returned triumphantly, now the rightful mistress of the house. She did not empathize, did not wait on Subbulu hand and foot, did not even throw a passing pitying glance at her mother-in-law. Anu was relieved that the old witch was no longer capable of delivering her nonstop, mocking monologs, no longer capable of hurting her feelings, no longer capable of demanding that she have an abortion. Now with a bigger belly, she waddled around, huffing and puffing, constantly out of breath even with the simple task of climbing the stairs. To Subbulu’s dismay, Anu hired a highly paid cook, who in a seemingly effortless manner, whipped up three tasty meals daily. Anu took pity on the homeless Shanti, let her stay to help the cook and do other minor chores. The house was again running smoothly, and peace and quiet prevailed.

Anu hired a full-time nurse to care for Subbulu, another expense that the old lady begrudged but was unable to veto. The nurse, a young flaky girl, was no Florence Nightingale, but lacked empathy and was in fact extremely apathetic. She was forever busy texting and browsing the internet, or talking to someone on her iPhone. She tested Subbulu’s patience, not that she had any to begin with. Although she appeared promptly enough to Subbulu’s noisy summons, the nurse simply stood in front of the patient, pretended not to understand what Subbulu wanted. She didn’t bother to change her diaper, didn’t bother to help her drink water or coffee, didn’t bother to feed her. But in the presence of the family members, she appeared to be caring, adjusting the shawl on Subbulu’s legs, cooing to her, wheeling her out to the colorful rose garden in the backyard. But when no one was around, she neglected her charge. Santosh and Anu, already overwhelmed with Anu’s difficult pregnancy, the frequent visits to her gynecologist, and to the endocrinologist who kept an eye on her gestational diabetes, failed to notice the nurse’s shortcomings.

Dealing with the recalcitrant nurse, Subbulu had another stroke, this time a massive one. She was now totally paralyzed, unable to move, unable to eat, laid on the hospital bed attached to numerous tubes—tube in her mouth, tube up her nose, probes and tubes stuck in her arms. She was heavily sedated and even when she was awake, nobody was sure if she recognized people around her. Barely alive, she survived in that vegetative state, and but for all those machines, would have died in a hurry. In the end, the machines could only do so much; it was like installing a new transmission in a badly battered vehicle.

Subbulu was unaware that Anu gave birth to a baby weighing eight pounds. To honor his mother, Santosh named the baby Subbulu.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Rudy Ravindra

is a writer who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.

More Writing by Rudy Ravindra

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury