Shashi Warrier | Hobgoblin in the house

We’ve named it Kuttichathan, Malayalam for hobgoblin

Until the first Covid lockdown two years ago, my wife Prita refused to believe in the supernatural. The car, her primary means of transport, behaved perfectly well when she was in it, regardless of who was driving. So did the various gadgets in the house, the washing machine, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner, the TV set… In short, no device misbehaved in her presence.

The sole exception was my bike. The brakes faded inconsistently, the engine refused to start in wet weather, the metal bits rusted all over, and the rear tyre, though its treads were in good shape, slid when I braked hard going round bends. I blamed the misbehaviour on gremlins but she thought it was because I didn’t know how to ride.

Then came the lockdown, with little things making life difficult. The lady who dropped in every other day to help with the household chores dropped out of sight. She lived far away, and couldn’t get to work without the bus service, which had stopped. We got a substitute who lived only a hundred metres away, but she lasted only a few months, for she had to return to her home village when her husband found himself out of work.

At this point, we wondered whether to get a robot to sweep and mop the floors, but I advised against it. As a senior citizen with limited learning abilities, I have trouble dealing with anything new or high-tech. So we found yet another lady to help from time to time, but she lasted only a few weeks: she got a job somewhere in the Middle East. Left with no choice, we swallowed our distrust and ordered a Chinese-made robot designed to sweep, vacuum, and mop the floor.

Four days later, a large and colourful cardboard box arrived at our doorstep. From it emerged an object some six inches high and fifteen inches in diameter, white on the sides and most of the top, with a single switch at one edge and what seemed a Cyclopean eye at the side just under the switch. Add-ons included a sort of three-legged brush, a mop like a patch of velcro, and a box containing a small water tank and a little bin into which it swept the dust it collected from the floor. Prita had it all figured out in about ten minutes, with a little help from the telephone support service, and by the time the robot was fully charged a few hours later, had the requisite app installed on her cellphone, and was ready to get it to clean the house.

That was the beginning of our discovery of the robot’s eccentricities, which our cat seemed to understand better than we did, for she fled the house the moment the robot started. We found that there were places where its fifteen-inch body was blocked by furniture and other household objects. After its first run we found large swathes of dusty floor where it had been prevented from going. Over the next few hours, we rearranged the furniture – this involved shifting some furniture outside and putting a stool on top of a wardrobe – and got the robot started again, and discovered that it needed wi-fi wherever it operated. Our internet connection works intermittently, and is feeble in parts of the house. The robot, which ran out of charge, couldn’t find its way back to the charger and instead ran around in circles until the battery went flat. So we got a signal intensifier.

Over the weeks, we discovered many more of its other peculiarities. It likes to eat earphones, for instance. Mine went missing a couple of weeks after the robot arrived, and we later retrieved the earphones from the robot’s dustbin, minus the foam covers for the bits that go into the ear.

It likes to attack carpets, gets stuck on them, and lies buzzing like a loud and malevolent bumblebee until one of us rescues it. It pushes slippers and such objects under the beds, into dark places that senior citizens find impossible to reach. It rolls up doormats and pushes them where you’d never think of looking for them.

Every now and then – apparently at random intervals, for it sometimes goes an hour without charging and other times only a few minutes – it runs out of charge, announces that it’s going for a recharge, and wanders off in search of the charger.

Most disturbing of all, it determines the sequence in which it works. You never know where it’s going to start. It makes three passes in every room: one to mark the borders, a second to sweep, and a third to mop, but it does these in a sequence that seemed random at first but I’ve discovered is just plain malicious.
Settle down to meditate, for example, and it’ll drop whatever it’s doing and find its way to the next room, hobble itself, and make growling emergency-type noises until you’re thoroughly disturbed. Experiment with some exotic dish that needs constant attention and it’ll invade the kitchen and snap unceasingly at your toes. Try to nap in the bedroom and it’ll come wake you up, buzzing and thumping angrily at the cot’s legs.

We’ve named it Kuttichathan, Malayalam for hobgoblin. Prita, now a firm believer, fears to call it that, for it might do something particularly nasty if it hears her. Our lives are now built around Kuttichathan: how we organise our furniture, when we cook, what TV programmes we watch, when we go out… When we do go out, the first thing we do on returning is check on what damage Kuttichathan has done in our absence. And now that I’ve told you all this, if we’re found murdered in our beds, you know whodunit.

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