The Son of a ‘Modaya’
She stood in the doorway and rang the bell. While waiting, she noticed the worn out door with the faded wood and watermarks, the car parked in the driveway with so much dust and the moss strewn brick driveway. There was a sense of desolation surrounding the area. She observed the leaves fallen and clogged into every crevice including the bark of the old gnarled tree right in front which for decades offered shade to the street. The place was old and weatherworn.
A wave of childhood memories washed over her while observing these and the door opened.
Uncle Dasa was standing there in his old, hacked pants and shirt and a pleasant expression on his face. She gave him a hug and walked into the foyer before climbing the stairs.
“Hi”, she greeted him and Uncle Dasa said “how’s it going Niva?”
They both went upstairs and she sat down in the living room while Uncle Dasa went up to his room. Niva spoke to Karuna the maid who was preparing lunch and then she waited for Uncle Dasa to come down. She sat down on the couch with its worn out covers and observed the crows flying in for their regular snacks.
Uncle Dasa or Uncle Dadingbiding (shorten form Uncle D as Niva called him) stayed at Uncle Gamage’s place when he came to Colombo. They were childhood friends and both families had been close over the years. Uncle Gamage’s wife had passed away suddenly and he had gone into depression out of which he had slowly crawled out. Now since Uncle Dasa moved to Sri Lanka from India, they were like an old married couple, companions to each other and constantly bickering in the process. They were both well over 70 but Uncle Dasa did not look or act his age (much to the dismay of his older siblings and militant younger brother who was Niva’s father).
Uncle Gamage came down the stairs saying,
“This fool. I told him how many times, it’s his fault. No point blaming the mother. It’s you!”
Uncle Dasa retaliated,
“This crotchety old fart, is picking fights with everyone and now he is trying to blame me also”. He gave a forced laugh and sat down on the worn out couch with his legs sprawled out. Uncle D had a bad back and he did this when the pain was bad.
Uncle Gamage who was an earnest, eccentric old bat, gave Niva a hug with a half smile and glint in this eye and proceeded on to his earlier topic.
Niva had a funny inclination she knew where this was going, she had heard the story earlier in the year and she was wondering if this was a continuation. Sure enough, Uncle Gamage ranted,
“You keep blaming the mother. It’s your fault! All your fault!”
“No, it’s the mother’s fault. 100% the mother’s fault. You listen to me, it’s 200% the mother’s fault. What do you say to that eh?!”
Uncle Gamage turned to Niva – “This fool. I have heard enough stories from his mother and sisters. Ah. His mother called him a fool. Modaya!”
Niva remembered this story – how much Archchi called Uncle D a modaya. She cringed inwardly. That would’ve hurt. A lot. Your mother saying you are a fool and that you will amount to nothing. Though Uncle D was laughing, Niva knew it was hardly anything to laugh about.
Uncle Gamage, continued,
“Ringing and ringing the son. Son doesn’t answer. Finally gets through on a friend’s line. Oh something has happened to my phone, I don’t know what.” Rubbish! Buys a belt for 400 pounds! 400 pounds!! You should have taken the belt and leathered him with it. No! Instead, keep giving!”
Uncle Dasa just said in a calm, controlled voice,
“No, it’s not him. He’s perfect. He’s his mother’s baby. Precious baby. There’s nothing wrong with him. 2 ½ months to go for his final semester and he is faltering. And his mother will look after him – her precious baby”
“You can’t blame him. It’s you!”
Niva’s intuition was spot on. About 6 months ago, Uncle Dasa was distraught that his only son was not finishing his degree as he had cut classes, been smoking weed in his room and had undergone a sort of spoilt brat’s crisis. That’s right thought Niva. Overindulged brat crisis. Coz his mother spoilt him rotten and here was the result.
Niva’s thoughts wandered as Uncle D and Uncle Gamage continued to argue.
Uncle Dasa’s wife was an Indian doctor. She was attractive but she and Uncle Dasa had a dysfunctional marriage. Uncle D was fond of Niva and had confided in her earlier on what a mess their marriage was and how the upbringing of their son Arjun had been such a fiasco. She overindulged him, never disciplined him and he became a brat growing up in the elite suburbs of Delhi. He hung out with people with family wealth whereas Uncle D and Aunty Seema were professionals who earned their money through their hard work. But Aunty Seema wanted to fit into the elite class of Delhi. She worshipped brands and her US education was a stepping stone to acceptance in this farcical world. For Uncle D it was him being his usual crass self. He wasn’t a bad man – he was very direct and American in his ways. But Aunty Seema put him down in front of their son. “Your father has a chip on his shoulder”. Nothing was wrong with giving too much. Her precious baby. Who grew up playing one parent against the other. Who used his parents’ credit cards with no remorse and bought things like a belt for 400 sterling pounds. Who asked his aunts and uncles for gifts even if they could not afford it. Who had now squandered his parents 40,000 USD a year hard earned money on playing truant, making excuses, smoking up and behaving like the ultimate brat in college. And who again was clearly playing pucks.
Uncle Dasa was slowly getting worked up.
“You listen to me. Niva tried to interject and say, it’s not entirely the mother’s fault. “No, you listen to me!” I don’t’ need your advice, I am just telling you a narrative.
“This woman is mentally not well. We went to 3 marriage counsellors and it never worked because she saw nothing wrong with herself and the counsellors also agreed that it won’t work if we continued like this.”
“It’s still your fault! All yours!” yelled Uncle Gamage. He proceeded to rant about his sister in Australia who had a son with many Phds but no job. Smothered by his sister and molly coddled to an extent where he can’t hold a job and lives off dole.
“Listen, tell me a good father that you know. Tell me!” said Uncle D.
Niva was trying to grasp all this.
“See? You can’t even tell me!”
“No wait.” Niva was struggling to gather her thoughts and mentioned her cousin Suvin who was a hands on dad and had a very healthy relationship with his American wife Laura.
“Ok. Suvin has a mentally ill wife. What do you expect him to do?”
Niva said “get her treatment.”
“Ok and if it doesn’t work?”
Then you leave.
“Yes”, said Uncle D slowly. As if explaining to a child with each word and syllable emphasised. “So I wrestled with myself with the decision of whether to stay or leave and I told myself that I will stay till Arjun was old enough to go to college. I did not want him living with the stigma of a broken family”.
Niva was shaking her head in disbelief.
“If you left, you would have broken this toxic relationship” she said.
“Yes I know. That’s what Seema’s sister also told me, that I should have left and broken this dysfunctional cycle. But I didn’t”.
“Ok, there’s no point blaming yourself now at this point. You need to look at it from now onwards.” said Niva rather forcefully.
“Yes so that’s what I am saying. Arjun has 2 and a half months to go and I told him this morning, I said I am not going to pick up after him anymore. He has to buckle down and study and pass his exams. I am letting him go hereafter.” Uncle D was all worked up by this point and was practically shouting at Niva. “So now I need to make up my mind about what I am going to do in the next 2 and a half months.
“Just let him be” said Niva. “He needs to learn to live – he is not a baby. He needs to grow up!”
“Yes I know that, but it’s like a bank investment. I have given a loan and if they are faltering, I need to tell them that they need to buckle up and pay”
“Yes that is all fine. You have told him that he needs to buckle up. Now just let him go. It’ll be the best lesson you teach him”.
Uncle Dasa, sat up almost in slow motion and said, “Yes I have let him go, but he is my son. I love him.”
“Of course. It will hurt. The pain will be there. But children use their parents. Sri Lankan children use their parents. It’s just a thing. But you need to emotionally let go. Now you have told him. Let him be!” said Niva now trying hard to make her point. Realising that Uncle D seemed to be quite agitated, she said more gently, “Listen, I don’t think any parent ever made a decision with the intention of hurting their child. But it happens.”
In the middle of all this Uncle Gamage interjected – “Niva do you want a cocktail?”
“No Uncle I’m fine.”
“How about some red wine?”
“Ok Uncle I’ll have some. Thanks.”
Niva didn’t really want anything but did not want to say no to Uncle Gamage and with her thoughts in such a disarray she just said ok.
Uncle Gamage poured the wine and Niva started sipping it as she dealt with the whirlwind of thoughts going through her mind.
“You need to even brace yourself to the possibility that he will fail. And if that happens, you still have to let him be”
“Yes I know that I won’t do anything anymore. But he cannot fail. He has to work and get his act together”
Uncle Gamage interjected at this point.
“He will fail!”
Uncle D ignored him and went on talking about yes, he has told his son he will not bail him out anymore. And that Arjun’s friends had said, if they ever mucked up in college, that was it. Their parents would never bail them out for another semester the way Arjun’s parents had.
But Uncle Dasa was slowly winding down, the wind gone out of his sails. And he finally said,
“Ok, thanks for your advice. I just need to figure out what I need to do in the next 2 and a half months.
“Let him go. Let him go. That will be the best lesson you teach him as a parent.”
Niva thought of her own parents – father suffering from PTSD and mother a Schizophrenic. Jeez, she thought. I have every reason to be worse than my cousin. Rich, spoilt brat from a dysfunctional home playing happy families. What the bloody hell. Honestly.
There was a pause for about 5 minutes when no one said anything. The fan whirred and the crows cawed, the empty wine glass sat on the side table and Uncle D got up, went upstairs and came back down.
“Ok where are we heading for lunch?” he asked when he came back down.
“You wanted to go to Galle Face Hotel right? So let’s go there.”
Niva said bye to Uncle Gamage, who was continuing on “This fool is coming to blame me when we have brought up sons, put them through college and now he is coming to tell me things!”
Niva didn’t say anything but just hugged Uncle Gamage goodbye. Yes his son was in the US, completely caught up with his wife and kids and his father was all alone in Sri Lanka.
On the way down and into the car was a silence. Like a resolve to close a door on a chapter that was only just beginning.
As Niva got in the car she noticed the Burger King discount coupons scattered on the seat floor and the crumpled up tissues everywhere. She got in and sat next to Uncle D as they drove on a poya afternoon for lunch to Galle Face Hotel.
“You know, Seema is a doctor, I am an engineer, he could’ve….” Uncle D trailed off and Niva finished for him
“Yes he could’ve been so much more. But listen. It’s those who hit rock bottom that really make it big. Seriously. Otherwise he would be just another brick in the wall. Just another cog in the wheel. It’s the outliers that truly make a difference in life. So trust that he will one day find his way.”
Uncle D just shook his head and looked at the road ahead.
And Niva thought to herself in all honesty, that her wayward cousin, the son of a modaya, would some day make it.