Anita Desai

A Devoted Son

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A Devoted Son Summary

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“A Devoted Son” is a short story by Anita Desai. The story appears in the collection, Games at Twilight and Other Stories. Desai’s collection of stories was published in 1978 by Vintage and received widespread popular praise. The stories, including “A Devoted Son,” reflect contemporary urban life in India and the characters are from all walks of life. Desai has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times and she served as the Emerita John E. Buchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, is a Booker Prize winner.

“The Devoted Son” centres around Dr. Rakesh. He comes from a poor Indian village. His father, Varma, works as a vegetable vendor, and spent many years dreaming of having an educated son. Rakesh is the first in the family to get any education. When Rakesh finishes his medical examinations with top marks—the highest in the country—this is cause for celebration.

Varma tells everyone who’ll listen about Rakesh’s grades and how it means he can go to medical school in America. Neighbours come to pay their respects and wish them well, but some townsfolk worry this will make Rakesh conceited and forget where he comes from. Varma isn’t worried about this, however—he’s proud to have a son known now by everyone.

Rakesh spends a lot of time in America finishing his degree. He completes it with ease and has job offers at prestigious US hospitals. Awards he wins are sent back to his family for them to keep and admire. It’s Rakesh’s way of keeping in touch with them until he can return home.

Although Rakesh loves America and is admired by his colleagues for his aptitude, he loves his family more. He always planned on returning home, and this hasn’t changed. As soon as he has enough experience and money behind him, he returns home with the intention of working in his hometown.

His parents, however, aren’t so happy with his life choices. They don’t understand why he wants to come home and leave all this behind. They also don’t understand why he chooses to marry a village girl with no education—Varma believes he should have bigger dreams. This is the first real sign of conflict within the family unit. Rakesh refuses to listen to his parents, and he marries the girl.

He then starts working at the city hospital, which is quite different from the hospitals he’s used to working in. Rakesh, however, wants to work here and make a difference in his town. He quickly rises to the position of director, to the awe and joy of his entire family. Through all of this, Rakesh never seems conceited or ungrateful. There’s always a sense that he remembers who he is, and that he won’t let this go. When he has a son of his own, his life is complete.

Sadly, it’s not long before this that his mother passes away. Varma takes it especially hard. Rakesh is pleased he at least made her proud before she died, but he worries for his father and how he’ll cope. Now that Rakesh has a family of his own, he doesn’t have as much time to dedicate to Varma, but he does what he can as his father’s health declines. He doesn’t want to lose any time he has left with him, and he puts his medical skills to good use.

Rakesh imposes a ban on sweets for Varma, to look after his stomach. However, Varma tries to get them through Rakesh’s son, which enrages Rakesh. He worries that his father will make his grandson less honourable than Rakesh. Tensions rise between father and son, and Rakesh starts resenting how much time he spends looking after him—although he keeps doing it. For example, when everyone fears Varma is near death, they postpone a birthday party, only for Varma to be entirely fine. Rakesh wonders if he’s doing it deliberately for attention.

However, Rakesh doesn’t give up on his father—instead, he becomes more devoted to him. He wants his son to have a good relationship with Varma, just as he did as a boy. Varma tells Rakesh and his wife that he doesn’t like them, but even then, Rakesh looks out for him. As relationships deteriorate, Rakesh must choose whether to stay devoted to his father or leave him to die on his own.

Rakesh chooses to help his father. Desai’s message here is that we’re all faced with similar choices eventually, and we shouldn’t forget to look after our elders the way they once looked after us. Although Rakesh can’t make his father better, and he’s struggling to keep his own life under control, he doesn’t abandon him. He shows Varma the same faith once shown to him when he wanted to become a doctor. When Rakesh must finally let Varma go, right at the end, he knows he did all he could for him.