The Other Mother

The entrance of the shining glass building displayed the name, The Bot Shoppe, in neon letters like an honour. Harry and Robin entered, only to find themselves on a platform which started gliding smoothly as they stepped on it, and soon stopped in front of a podium, full of various kinds of robots or androids, their more human version. It surreptitiously retreated once they disembarked. A sales robot welcomed them with a smile.

“How can I help you?” The tone was smooth, no mechanical hum to mar the human timbre of its voice. With smooth movements, a synthesized skin and human features, it was a far cry from the metallic robots of the earlier era. The androids of the twenty-fourth century were indistinguishable from humans in looks but they didn’t eat, drink, get tired or fell in love. They could go on indefinitely with a smile on their face, making them excellent for the service sectors.

“We are here to look at a Mabot,” they said.

“Ah! Mabot! The other mother.” 

The exclamation was almost human. Robin wondered if these androids could do accents too, if required.

“You have come to the right place. Our newest offering in the Nannybot market, the Mabot, is a class apart from the earlier ones. Incorporated with the latest AI technology, it can collate the data from your past requests and actually predict your behaviour to anticipate and perform its duties for your complete satisfaction. It doesn’t need precise instructions like the previous nannybots but can go through a series of complex processes on its own to carry out the assigned job.”

“Pre-programmed with instructions regarding all the caring required by an infant till it reaches adulthood, it can duplicate all the loving care you, as a mother, shower on your baby. Cleaning, bathing, changing, putting to sleep, feeding; you name it, Mabot can do it.”

“With her superior memory and advanced intelligence, she will also entertain your child with stories from a thousand years past as per her developmental needs, rhymes and songs in more than ten languages, and play with her to keep her happy without even a ten second break. She will feed her, store her favourite recipes and make them on demand without ever getting irritated.”

“She will never tire, she will never have a bad day. She will do all that you do, more efficiently and expertly, so that you are free to do what you do best; love your child. She is the other mother.”

The android led them to a female android,  dressed in a crisp prim uniform, with the same superior external finish as the sales robot evident in her features and voice. She respectfully intoned, “Good Afternoon, sir and mam. What is it you wish of me?” Harry and Robin were delighted. 

Mabot’s paperwork would take a few days and they had to return their nannybot meanwhile for upgradations.

The air in the room shimmered and the familiar face of Sharon, her friend since kindergarten, overlapped the rippling molecules of air like a gently waving curtain. Robin had yet to get used to this newest technology. This made her feel queasy and sick in a way she had read only in the books carefully maintained in the climate controlled dark chambers of the Historical Artefacts Society where she worked. Sea sickness. She wondered what it would have felt to be onboard a freighter, moving back and forth, over the gently undulating waves and the nausea was back with a vengeance. 

Sea travel was now found only in books or in the historical videos they showed to kids. Climate changes due to global warming during the twenty-first century had rendered sea travel impossible because of the rising sea levels, the incessant storms and the unpredictable tides. The increasing pollution, harmful ultraviolet rays and solar storms would ensure air travel also became a dream soon. 

Thankfully new technology would soon make teleportation of human bodies possible in a few years. I hope that doesn’t come with nausea.

Sharon’s chirpy voice demanded attention. 

 

“I hear you got a new family member, Robin. How is she? Tell me all the details,” she giggled like a schoolgirl asking a friend for the details of her first love.

Robin smiled in spite of the nausea at the anticipated question. It rendered any devious slipping of her new acquisition as a topic of conversation, unnecessary on her part. 

“Oh, Sharon, she is a dream. The latest thing in nannybots! Almost human. She will help in housework as well. I am so relieved right now.”

She hesitated a bit then continued, “With this second baby coming, I can’t give as much attention to Diana as I would like. The Mabot is a Godsend. You know she comes pre fed with more than five thousand rhymes, that too in ten languages. It would be such an educational experience for Diana,” Robin paused to take a breath, then continued with her boasting.

“She can cook too unlike the earlier one. We can even save in our recipes. The Nannybot we had was fine but Mabot is another level. Can you imagine the company is even going to synthesize the face of the mother on the Mabot in the later versions. It truly would be the other mother.”

“She does seem an exceptional help. Or, as they say, she is the other mother.” Sharon chipped in. “Must have been expensive though.”

“Yes, they are super expensive. But Henry is so happy right now he is ready to buy me a holiday home on the moon. It is not everyday that a woman gets pregnant for the second time these days.” She bubbled with joy but soon cooled down at the fallen face of Sharon.

“How are things going with you?” She enquired, feeling a teeny bit guilty at her happiness.

In their quest for technological domination, humans had achieved unprecedented success. Mother Nature had given up so much for her errant children, the humans, who took incessantly without a thought of giving back, ever. Depleted resources, increased pollution, inclement weather and uninhabitable living spaces were the result. 

Nature had been unwilling to give up a few secrets still. Even though technological advancements ensured that mankind could synthesize most living matter and clone a variety of animals, the mysteries of human gestation were still beyond the scientists. It still took a woman to give birth to a baby, though genetic modification of DNA was rampant.

“Only half a dozen attempts per couple are approved. This was our third. I don’t have much hope.” Sharon sighed in dejection. 

Fertility levels had come down significantly in the world, either due to natural causes or human choice. Governments had to step in  with regulated Assisted Reproductive Treatments. Robin’s second pregnancy was nothing short of a miracle. It might have been her imagination but Sharon had cooled off just a bit after her good news.

“Don’t lose hope. There are still three attempts left.” She reassured her friend.

“Six months between each attempt. It’s hard to wait,” Sharon reminded her. “Hope Diana takes well to Mabot. See you later.” She signed off.

Robin sighed. She hadn’t yet introduced Diana to her new nanny. Just then Diana came bouncing inside. Her four year old chubby body had yet to shed its baby fat. Right now she was a confounding mixture of a baby’s winning cuteness and a toddler’s exasperating pig headedness and there was nothing Robin loved more in the world.

“Come here, darling. Did you have a nice playtime?” She asked the little girl.

“You know, the sky used to be blue. I have seen it in my books. Now I can only see a muddy thing stretching above the dome. I don’t like it.” Diana pouted her little mouth.

“Baby, the dome is for protecting us as the air outside is not safe. Only those who are lucky like us get to live inside these domes. People outside have to wear masks all the time. You won’t like that, will you?”

“Now come with me. Let me introduce you to Mabot, your new nanny. She will tell you stories of the time the sky was blue, the air was pure, green trees swayed in the breeze like gently fluttering flags, streams and rivers ran across the face of earth, full of sparkling mischievous water, when we didn’t have to live under climate controlled domes …” she trailed off. 

What a legacy had they left for their future generation.

“Hello Diana,” Mabot, who had heard and assimilated the conversation, crooned softly. “Come with me. I will tell you about whales in the blue seas and the sky above.”

“Wow, whales. What are they?” Diana was entranced and went with Mabot.

Diana took to Mabot like a fish to water. Mabot took care of all her routine jobs. Bathing, feeding, playing and stories. Robin would listen to Mabot recite story after story on Diana’s demand and silently congratulated herself for acquiring Mabot. Anybody who has faced a toddler’s incessant demand for stories, would understand her relief.

Evenings were for play and running around. Robin would sit on the side with her growing belly while the two of them ran around, tumbled in the artificial grass or played games. Mabot would never tire, or be in a foul mood or even stop smiling for a second. Diana had the time of her life with her.

The only jarring note was Harry who would nudge Robin from time to time. 

“Try and do something for Diana yourself. Don’t let Mabot do everything.” 

“Mabot handles everything expertly. I’ll only spoil their routine. Diana would hate me.” she would counter. 

Joyous times are as beautiful and ephemeral as a butterfly, and fly away as fast . Mabot had made Robin’s days wonderfully stress free. She only concentrated on doing the right things for her baby who soon arrived, a little healthy boy, a bundle of happiness, another blessing in their already blessed life. Diana immediately fell in love with him and Harry was over the moon. 

Sharon arrived a few days later with gifts for the baby, who they named Damien. A small mechanical dog followed in her wake. Biological pets had been weaned out long ago as there simply wasn’t enough fresh air to spare for them. Her visit was brief and she hadn’t been as glad and effusive in her blessings as Robin had anticipated. Once pleasantries were exchanged and gifts handed over, Robin inquired about the dog.

“The next attempt is our last and we have lost hope. Everyone isn’t as lucky as you. We decided to go for a Robodog. Now this is our baby.” 

 

She pulled the mechanical dog to her and showered it with kisses. It squirmed out of her grasp but looked up and wagged its tail once it was back on the floor. “Don’t be fooled by the innocent look. He is an excellent guard dog. If he thinks you are a threat, he can make short work of you in minutes,” Sharon informed Robin proudly.

Good times don’t last for long. Tragedy ensures the duration between its visits is never long enough for humans to forget her lessons of fortitude and patience. Mabot proved an excellent nanny for Diana and even helped Robin to look after Damien. Her expertise in handling Diana made Robin lax in looking after her own daughter. Busy with the new baby, she became a stranger to her own child. The reality dawned on her like a rude shock the day Mabot, her nanochips affected by a solar storm, stood impervious to all commands in her charging cubicle.

Robin found the day hard, managing both the kids and the housework without the comforting presence of Mabot. It was further complicated when Diana refused to eat all her meals, giving the laconic reason, “It is not as Mabot makes them.” Things came to a head when Diana kept insisting for her favorite rhyme and nothing Robin came up with could satisfy her. Both of them had a meltdown. Diana stomped her chubby legs and kept crying for Mabot. Robin, exhaustion and frustration, her excuse, took it out on the angry child. Diana was sent to bed hungry with a stinging cheek while Robin sat on the kitchen table and sobbed, for the “bad mum” Diana had thrown at her, had found its mark.

Two days later Mabot was restored to her former state of busy activity but the equations between them had changed. Robin had come to resent Mabot’s quiet efficiency and she was no longer a comfort. Irrationally,  Robin had come to believe that Mabot had taken her daughter away from her. 

The next few days, Mabot was commanded to be the nanny for Damien. Robin took charge of Diana’s routine activities. She made up innumerable stories, sang uncountable rhymes and made her favourite blueberry pancakes and caramel pudding. But to no avail. Nothing was as good as Mabot for Diana. 

Robin was devastated at being neglected by her own daughter.She even tried to convince Harry to exchange Mabot.

“I don’t believe Mabot is a good influence on Diana. She doesn’t enforce discipline,  always fulfilling all Diana’s wishes. She has become a spoilt child.” 

Harry only laughed. “I had already warned you earlier. Then you were happy to let Mabot do everything. Now that Diana has become too attached to her, you are feeling jealous. Never thought to see a day when a human would be jealous of an android.”

Robin felt small and ashamed at Harry’s plain words. Her laziness and insecurities had got her to this point and she was actually competing with a robot. But whatever happened she was going to win back the affections of her daughter. 

I won’t let an android usurp me in my daughter’s affections. I will show her.

Robin persisted in her efforts. She instructed Mabot to tell her all Diana’s preferences and to teach her all her favorite recipes. After a few weeks, Robin could recite Diana’s favorite rhymes and bedtime stories and could prepare her favorite blueberry pancakes just as she liked. Little Damien was meanwhile happy with Mabot. Peace again reigned in their little household.

Harry one day returned from office with disturbing news. “There is some virus which has been affecting the bots, especially the robodogs. It is said they have taken to attacking humans and their owners have been instructed to get them neutralized. We have to keep an eye on Mabot too.”

Robin scoffed at him. “She loves the kids. She will never hurt them.”

Twilight had fallen like a comforting blanket on the warm summer day. Robin was playing with Damien when she heard the scream. “Diana!” She ran outside looking for Diana and Mabot, who had gone out to play. The scene before her chilled her to the bone. 

Mabot stood silent on the pavement outside at some distance, a strange crackling sound coming from her. Her almost human eyes had a glassy look. She was unresponsive to the whimpering Diana who stood some way off, a familiar robodog crouching between the two of them. 

So Sharon didn’t get her baby neutralized.

The tangerine light of the setting sun, filtered through the dome, shone on the metal teeth of the robodog, giving it a menacing look. A growling emanated deep from its body as it crouched on the tarmac, in Diana’s direction.

Robin recalled Sharon’s words. “If it thinks of you as a threat…”

“Mabot, do something,” she begged, without any effect. Mabot stood there, the strange crackling her only response. Her eyes seemed to be shifting from glassy to focussed but either state didn’t last for enough time for her to listen and process the commands.

The robodog sprang. Another scream from Diana rent the air. “Ma……”

She moved, half listening, intending to do something, anything, when she suddenly stopped, listening and comprehending.

“Ma…….bot, help.” The intensity and urgency in the girl’s voice could not be ignored. But Robin stood still, unbelieving.

Something moved, quick as a thought. The robodog landed, only to find that it didn’t have a kid’s throat under its sharp teeth but a robot’s hand. Robin watched robodog give a vehement shake to Mabot’s arm. Mabot, unperturbed at the shaking, clutched its neck with the other hand and with a mighty effort, plucked its body from her mangled arm and threw it away. The skin of her arm broke, displaying the metal underneath, a few wires protruding like stray hair. In a flash, she reached the robodog, extended her unravaged arm into its belly and pulled out a chip triumphantly. And became a statue the next moment. Whatever reserves she had pulled onto had depleted completely. 

They all returned, silent, exhausted, spent. Robin dragged the unresponsive Mabot home.

“You’re mad. I will not exchange Mabot. Who exchanges a superior product for an inferior one? Your jealousy has got out of hand.” Harry exploded. It was the next day, Mabot had not been revived and Robin once again wanted her returned. “She saved your girl’s life. You should be grateful, not resent her.”

“I am extremely grateful and indebted to her for that. But I can’t have her in my house anymore. It is not safe to have such unpredictable ferocious companions. There is no telling what might corrupt them and how might they behave. You didn’t watch her fling away the robodog like a bread crumb. I will not have her.” Robin remained adamant.

Whatever century it be, when a woman has made up her mind, it is hard to dissuade her. Harry dejectedly loaded Mabot in his car after two days of useless arguments and failed negotiations. He waved, as a tearful Diana said goodbye. The car disappeared from view and as the gate swung shut, Robin smiled. 

Finally there was no other mother in her kids’ lives, only she, their mother.
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One Thought to “The Other Mother”

  1. Bindu Pillai

    Wow. Glad it is not 2320 and this robot thing becomes a reality. How well you have juxtaposed the present evils of our times to the future. Imaginative, entertaining and perfect. Kudos to you.

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