The Companion12 mins 437 12 mins 437
My sister killed herself when I was sixteen. That is why I did not think for one moment before buying a pair of AI glasses for my son. It was expensive, equivalent to my six month’s salary. I knew it was the best investment I could make for my son. I didn’t want my son to suffer the same fate as my sister.
My sister suffered from bouts of depression. She eventually stopped eating and sleeping. I was up all night listening to her sob into the pillow. Our parents took her to the best psychiatrist in town. He gave her drugs and things went back to normal. A few incidents later, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was a difficult time, I lost my sister. She went back and forth from depression and mania, and hardly was the same person she used to be. My parents asked me to shift to another room because it had started affecting me. They were considering sending her to one of those mental health facilities but she slit her wrists before that could happen.
My husband didn’t approve of me spending so much money for a pair of glasses, but he didn’t argue much because he knew how much this meant to me. I read the manual thrice. I gave the glasses to my son while the nanny looked on. She had seen it in advertisements and was equally excited about it as my son.
“Press that button on the side Rudra.” I instructed him.
That’s all I had to tell him. Kids are so good with technology. He customised an avatar for his AI buddy all by himself. I had paired those glasses with my mobile, so that the app could send me all his stats everyday. The manual promised that the glasses would record his stress levels and mood swings.
“I will call you Bunny.” My son suddenly spoke out. It took me a minute to realise he must be talking to his AI companion.
I remember what it said on the manual. My son could customise the AI’s look and give it a name. The AI would appear to him as a child of his own age, and it would develop his personality based on my son’s own personality. As they would talk more and more, the AI would keep updating itself to my son’s preferance. The smile on his face made this extravagant gift worth it and I left the room with a smile of my own.
Over the next few days I saw my son wearing the glasses throughout the day. This was probably the most happy I’d seen him. He constantly spoke to his AI. I had to scold him to take the glasses off at night and before going to school. It was amazing what a close bond he had built with this piece of technology. I almost considered getting one for myself.
“I don’t like this.” My husband told me one day.
“Rudra talking to some AI all day. That boy has no real friends.”
He had just returned from a trip to LA and like every time, he was expecting his son to greet him at the door, but Rudra was sitting in his room and talking to his companion. He swore he hadn’t heard the doorbell and apologised to his father, but her husband had trouble forgetting this little incident.
“He has plenty of friends at school.” I replied. “It’s good for him to have someone to talk to.”
“He can talk to us.”
“My sister could talk to us too. But she didn’t. This AI is designed to be his perfect companion. Studies have shown that children with these AI glasses have a much less chance of developing mental illnesses than those without.”
My phone buzzed and I quickly unlocked it to see the notification. My son’s stress levels were elevated. The app even provided the reason, he had to perform a poetry recital in front of the entire school tomorrow. I went to my son’s room to comfort him. He didn’t usually suffer from stage fright and he was quite confident with these recitals. He even got a trophy last year. I suddenly felt like I didn’t know him enough.
“Rudra, darling, are you okay?”
He looked visibly irritated for a second. “I’m fine Ma.”
“Could you please take off your glasses for a minute?”
Rudra reluctantly took them off.
“Honey are you okay? Are you prepared for the poetry recital tomorrow?”
“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. You don’t have to go to school tomorrow. I’ll tell your teacher you are sick.”
Rudra considered this for a moment. “Thank you Ma. I wasn’t really prepared.” He leaped up to hug me.
I checked his stress levels for before going to sleep that night. Everything seemed normal again. I gave out a huge sigh of relief and drifted off to sleep.
When Rudra got promoted to the 4th standard, we decided to throw a small party for him. I had expected him to jump with joy and a notification saying he was excited and happy but that never came. When I asked him, he simply shrugged and said he wanted Bunny to come to the party too. Now, I had no problem with him wearing his glasses and talking to his companion, but it was hugely inappropriate for a party. He usually ignored everyone when he was talking to his AI. So I had to tell him a firm no, and the app gave me a notification saying he was upset.
So I decided to cheer him up by making it a huge party. I invited all his classmates and our relatives and over exceeded our budget in every way. That worked, he came to the party, laughed and played with his friends, but left immediately when the party ended. For the rest of the day, he remained in his room with his glasses on.
For once I questioned myself if I did the right thing by buying him those AI glasses. The answer came immediately. Of course I did the right thing. I did not want him to suffer like Imli di and they say craziness runs in the family. What if I had passed on that gene to my baby? The AI should keep him company. It was so hard to find a true friend nowadays. I was fine with him being friends with his classmates. The school ran an extensive background check on all the students it admitted. I was assured they came from good families, but that was it. Kids met each other at school and played together for six hours, but then they’d be home and alone. With my husband going on business trips every month and me being in the office for nine hours, he only had his nanny, who was much older than him. What other choice did I have? At least Rudra was happy. That’s all that mattered.
I heard loud voices and rushed to see what happened. Rudra was sobbing on the floor clutching his glasses tightly. My husband was shouting at him.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He tried to break my glasses.” Rudra complained.
“This is getting out of hand. Hand over your glasses to me.” My husband shouted. He was fuming in anger.
I tried to stop and told Rudra to go to his room.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Why can’t you see those glasses are ruining our little boy?”
“Relax dear. Those are just a pair of glasses. So many kids have them nowadays.” I tried to pacify him.
“It’s not normal. He prefers his AI more than real people around him. That’s an AI, artificial intelligence, not a person. He needs real people to be his companion.” He said. “You’re responsible for this. He barely passed his tests.”
“He is in class 4. Marks don’t matter. They would have promoted him even if he’d failed the tests. He was getting stressed about his tests and I told him it’s okay. He didn’t have to stress about anything. And we both know that real people never stick with us. It’s far better to have an AI as a companion.”
“It is useless arguing with you. I’m sure you’ll bring up your sister again and shut me up. So it’s better I don’t say anything.” He walked away a few steps and then came back again. “Have you noticed how he looks when he talks to the wall in front of him? He looks crazy!”
We didn’t talk for the next few days after that, but I wasn’t worried about that. The app constantly notified my that my son’s stress levels were off the record. I tried to talk to him about it, but he kept shutting me off. Finally, it recommended me a list of good child psychologists. My heart nearly stopped. My son shouldn’t need a psychiatrist.
That night I couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning on the bed made my back ache. My husband had left for a business trip to Dubai and being alone right now wasn’t really working for me. I was so worried that I gave myself a headache. So I went to the medicine cabinet to get an aspirin. I saw Rudra’s door slightly ajar with his bedside lamp turned on. I peeped inside.
Rudra was sitting with his back faced to me, and was softly muttering something. I felt a wave of nausea wash over me, and I held my chest in fear, I couldn’t breathe. This suddenly reminded me of Imli di. She would wake up sobbing and keep muttering something to herself. I went closer to check up on Rudra.
“You’re my best friend in the whole world Bunny. They just don’t understand. Papa hates you, — I am just so sad. If only they could see you, they would’ve known how amazing you are, —— We should move out. One day I’ll get my own house and we can live together. No night time restrictions. We can play all day.”
I went to my own room as quickly as possible. He wasn’t talking to himself, that was a relief. Suddenly my husband’s words came to my mind. He did look crazy just a minute earlier, sitting there all by his own, talking to himself. I almost thought he went the same way as Imli di.
Over the next week, I began to keep a closer eye on Rudra. I took a leave from my office. Something kept bugging me in the back of my mind. He kept missing out on school, and would spend most of the time in his room. I would sometimes eavesdrop on his conversations with his AI. They usually talked about games, school or about us. I really wanted to hear what the AI said, because I had to guess on context, which was difficult.
“Didi, I want to quit.” The nanny said.
“Why? What happened?” I couldn’t imagine losing the nanny.
“Didi, Rudra doesn’t behave properly with me nowadays. I can’t work here anymore.”
This was news to me. I had never taught Rudra to misbehave with anyone. He was such a sweet child, he couldn’t do it. “What did Rudra do, Sapna?”
“He doesn’t talk to me nowadays. I don’t feel like I’m even needed here anymore. Just now I went to his room with Ludo. That was our favourite game to play together. But he just got annoyed and pushed me out of the room. He said that even Bunny is annoyed with me trying to hog their time together.”
I marched to my room and called the customer helpdesk of the company. After almost ten minutes, they picked up and we had a long discussion, and I learnt that the helpdesk doesn’t help at all. They told me that the AI was a child itself, and would behave like one. He was my child’s companion. I threw my phone on the bed and laid down. Perhaps my husband was right, this was getting out of hand. I went to Rudra’s room to speak to him.
“Rudra, we need to talk.” I told him.
“Ma, Bunny and I are watching a movie.” He said, laughing out aloud, barely even glancing at my direction.
I was too annoyed. Taking off his glasses, I dragged him outside to where Sapna was waiting. “Apologise to Sapna masi right now!”
“But why?” He asked.
“You pushed her. That is not the way to behave with your elders.”
“She was irritating me. I was watching a movie with Bunny.” He shouted.
“Enough! You cannot spend all the time with Bunny. You have to make time for us.”
“Bunny’s mom never disturbs us. You embarrassed me in front of him.” He kept shouting even louder.
“That is because Bunny doesn’t have a mom! Bunny is not a person. It’s artificial intelligence.”
“Well, then, I wish I didn’t have a mom either.” Saying this, he ran to his room and locked the door.
I don’t remember what happened the next few minutes. I remained frozen on spot. My head was spinning, and I was angry. That moment I decided that the glasses must go. That AI was taking my son away from me. I had to take action.
I marched over to his room and banged on the door several times. “Open the fucking door or else I will break it.” I lost all my senses and I could only see red flashing before my eyes. “Open the door.” Sapna came to pull me away.
“Didi, he will get scared. What are you doing?” Sapna said.
I rapped on the door several times. When he didn’t open, I went to my cupboard and brought all the spare keys. Once I found the right key, I opened the door, and Rudra was standing on behind his cupboard, obviously scared.
“I’m sorry Ma.” He kept sobbing.
His glasses were lying on the bed. I threw it at the wall but they didn’t break. So I stomped on them. Once. Twice. I don’t know how many times. I went blank for a few minutes.
Before I knew it, Sapna was trying to pull me back. My feet were bloody and somehow within those few minutes, I had broken his bedside lamp and all the photos on his study desk. I honestly have no recollection of that happening. Finally Sapna pushed me out of the room to make me stop. Then my senses returned. I had trashed my son’s room. Rudra was in Sapna’s arms holding her tightly. There was a deep cut on his forehead.
I tried to step in but Sapna stopped me. Rudra was wailing loudly. That was it. I closed my ears. I remembered her wailing like that, loudly. Just once. Before she—did I just push Rudra over the edge? My mind just went blank and I collapsed on the floor. I just lost my son.