Fiction / September 2015 (Issue 29)

The Seven Plots

by Vaiju Joshi

1. Tragedy

The professor has a failing kidney, his skin is mottled, his breath is sour and his voice is loud.

"I do not have long to live," he is telling me now, spreading his palms around him in a helpless shrug, his shoulders slouching and defeated.

"I am sorry to hear that," I say.

"There was so much I wanted to do," his face is riddled with age spots, and in the afternoon sun, he looks strangely illuminated, an almost-spectre.

I nod. Whether you are about to die and become a photo on mantelpiece or not, there is always so much more we want to do. Death does not make this longing any more valid.

My great-grandmother Nanee was widowed at the age of twenty-one. She was already a mother to a six-month-old baby by then, this delicate young woman with defined features and a ready tongue.

"A woman's got to guard herself," she told my grandmother once. "Use your mouth wisely if you want to let a man know how you feel about him." 

My grandmother, the hopeless romantic, the one who wanted the fairy tale and did not mind being a princess in an ivory tower, must have missed this advice. 

Nanee buried her husband on a windy day; the rain was so fierce that the river had risen by a furlong, and the marker stone that was supposed to herald the onset of this danger had been tossed aside mercilessly as debris.

The deranged river claimed the roads and the houses near the embankment. Then, like a wounded soldier bent on justice, it climbed the hilly paddocks and made its way to the top of the orchard groves where Nanee sat staring at the body of the man she'd made love to less than a hundred times.

"It is time to cremate him," she said to herself. In her cot, my grandmother gurgled even as the rain slapped its feet on the thatched roof overhead.

The rain and the river, those vile elements, had barricaded the other villagers inside their houses. And thus it came to be, that when the world was a muddy teacup and her husband lay cold and tinged with blue, Nanee changed into her widow's robes and dragged his body down the hillocks and past the swollen streets, all the way to the cemetery where she waited with him under a tree while the rain abated. On her back, my grandmother cried and fussed and then fell asleep.

Under a sooty and spiteful sky, Nanee watched her married life become wisps of pungent smoke and float away into the frosty evening. Then she walked back up the hill and learnt to sharpen her tongue.


2. The Quest

"I am writing a book," the professor says, dropping his voice, pretending to share a delicious secret.

 "I need someone to help me finish it. I am running out of time," he stares at me with intent and leans closer. "Will you help me?" his voice still low is now a sooty hiss.

"What kind of help?" I ask. I am a tiny bit flattered, he could have asked anyone. "Do you need a copywriter, a proofreader?"

"This book writing is lonely business, a man needs company, a warm bed at night," he cackles. In his eyes, I see devious pools dance and glimmer.

Nanee was tricked out of her inheritance by her husband's family. She was a single mother and a penniless widow, hardly a threat to anyone.

"There is no one to look out for you," her husband's family said to her. "We do not need to play by the rules for an orphan.

To get her money, she went to the village courts and then to the high court in a nearby town.

"Our brother and son never wanted to marry her," her husband's family said during the hearings. "The witch tricked him. He died of a broken heart."

"That was not the only thing that was broken," Nanee said. And in her mind, she revisited the day she had cremated him.

"When you say goodbye to a man, burn his memories before you walk back home," Nanee told my grandmother and later my mother. "Exorcise his ghost before it finds a damp space in your house, in your heart, inside your loins."


3. Voyage and Return

"You could drop around my place every now and then," the professor elaborates. "It is not just the writing, you know. There are so many other things us literary kinds need help with."

I have never been good with comebacks, nor have I been propositioned by an old, ailing man of letters before. I stare at him trying to work out if he is joking. He is not.

"There could be something in it for you too," he says. "I will mention you in my book credits. There are other obvious perks of course." Perks—I presume the pun is unintended. If it was not for the bad timing, I would have almost pointed it out to him.

"You should think about it," he says in response to my silence. "It is not like anyone else has given you a better offer, hey?"

In the end, on her deathbed in delirium, burning from the throes of a raging fever, my grandmother lashed out at Nanee and her obsession with getting her inheritance back.

 "I was never loved. I was her inheritance, she needed nothing else," my grandmother wailed in her final hours. She was a scrawny skeleton now, her wrinkles failed to hold her hollowed face together as it rolled around in a crumpled mass on the sterile pillows.

The indignation of being cheated out of what was rightfully theirs had always consumed these women. It had kept them alive even as their lives became brittle shells, chipped and battered, soon irrevocably eroded.

My mother held my grandmother's feverish hand and stroked her forehead with its thinning hair, its permanently scarred brow.

"You had a good life," my mother said. My grandmother opened her eyes for a minute. When she spoke, her voice came from long ago, there were no tremors anymore.

 "Your father never knew, till the end," she said to my mother. "When I married him, I told him I was an orphan and that this single, barren woman took me in out of pity. Till the end, he did not know she was my real mother."

My grandfather had been a meek, average man. He had never known any option other than belief, and he watched the artillery between the woman he had married and the woman who had raised her from a safe distance, keeping himself dry in this crossfire.

"That sad woman," Grandmother continued. "Her life was obsessed with avenging her losses. She was too barren to be a mother. But I was a good daughter. By discarding her first, I set her free." 

Grandmother died the next day with an obscenely triumphant smile on her lips. She had waited till the end of her life to claim her victory. But what she never knew was that Nanee was not really sad. That is another story.


4. Comedy

"So, how about tonight?" His voice is eager now, dripping with the fat of things that are never really uttered.

"I have not even said yes, yet."

"But you are thinking about it?"


"Dessert is on the house."

This makes me laugh.

Wanting food and wanting sex, Nanee used to say, were the two sure indicators that you still had life left in you.

Pity and comedy must be sisters.

My grandmother wanted everything that Nanee did not have. That included, but was not limited to, a one part subservient but mostly alive husband, a house that was rich enough to need and sustain a shopping list and a child or two to complete the picture. The child part was optional because in strict honesty, for all her ramblings, Grandmother was as nurturing as a newspaper. She had pieces of information, trivia stashed away, sometimes a funny take on things, but it rarely ran deeper than that.

When she was still a child, the government had set up a free girls' school on the outskirts of the village since it was the decade of "Educate your daughter." One day, a kindly woman came to Nanee and asked her to send her daughter to school. 

"I do not have the money," Nanee said.

"I need to go to school," my grandmother cried out. She didn't, but it was the principle of the thing, fighting for her rights and all that.

Nanee checked to make sure that there were no hidden costs, and then convinced the school authorities to feed her daughter at midday.

"If you do not want to, she can stay hungry, she is used to it," she said. They thought she was joking, and they had an intake of students to fill, so they agreed to give her some food. Grandmother drifted through primary school with few friends and dropped out at fifteen because the school eventually stopped the lunches.

In the meanwhile, Nanee, who had spent many evenings chasing down what she believed were scrupulous lawyers, had started to follow these busy men to the local toddy shop. She figured that since the village already looked upon her as fanatical, impoverished and deranged (the last word made her swell up with pride for some reason), there was no harm in trying some toddy while convincing a hapless lawyer to represent her case and fight her brothers-in-law. The toddy ended up making her a bright, vivacious woman. Her eyes now sparkled when she laughed, and she felt the cobwebs lift off her heart.

She went home humming from the toddy shops, where my grandmother waited for her, sighing and attempting to cook a meal. Nanee had an epiphany during this time. She decided to get my grandmother married soon. The sight of the forever sighing (and semi-educated) girl was bringing her spirits down.

Nanee introduced my grandfather to my grandmother one day. My grandmother convinced herself that the fleeting curiosity she felt for a male was a form of love—he was after all the first man that she had had any close encounters with. My grandmother was a shrewd woman, and she knew that if you interrogated love, it stamped its feet and banged the door on you. So she played along, never once peering over the edge, never once swimming in these currents too far, just dipping her toe into the waters and letting herself know that, yes, it was enough.

"I have a husband and a home," she said to Nanee after her wedding. She wore her marital status with a vulgar pride now, her body and her fate now had a counterpart.

Nanee did not shed tears of happiness at her daughter's assertion of victory. In fact, she conveniently forgot to tell her daughter that it was she that had found my grandfather in the toddy shop. He washed the glasses there, and when no one was looking, he drained the dregs from the discarded glasses and created for himself a cheap and instantly gratified oblivion. He had been my Nanee's first drinking buddy, but of course, that was not mentioned.

Nanee was the most hilarious person in the family. It took us a few generations to figure out that her best punchlines were for the jokes she never shared with us.


5. Overcoming the Monster

"I want your response now, I have no time to waste," the professor says. His face is sombre, dark almost. Clearly, my laughter isn't the reaction he was expecting.

"Or what?" I ask, still amused, still feeling a stab of pity for his crumbling life, his desperation.

"I do not want to make threats," he smiles kindly. That is how I know he has just made one.

"Of course I am interested," I say then, and he moves closer. You cannot win the game by opting to walk away, you have to play along.

It is not that my grandfather took to the drink by accident. Rather, he launched into drinking full time once he realised that my grandmother had no real expectations of him. All she had wanted was a banal and domestic life, a home and a man she could defer decisions to.

So Grandfather stared with the tipple once a week. Then it became twice a week and then finally he announced that he needed his drink every day. My mother was born during this declaration. My grandmother was determined to deal with everything from childbirth to breastfeeding on her own, she needed no primer and certainly not from a woman who was dry sandpaper when it came to raising children.

However, my grandfather became scared of my grandmother's nonchalance at her own growing body. She had not become soft and golden, as he had imagined. Instead, like a currant, she had withered and swollen, a bitterness consuming her in the wake of her growth. So he invited Nanee to live with them for a while. My grandmother was not consulted on this, but she did not protest either.

When Nanee moved in, my grandfather, because he was not a bad man really, wondered if he should cut back on the drinking, as a token of respect, or manners perhaps.

Grandfather need not have worried, however. Nanee did not turn a blind eye to his evening pursuits. She saw how her daughter's house had mouldy walls and stale silences, how it was not very different from what she had had at the same age, even though she had been a single mother living in penury.

The deed was done, there was nothing else to change the course of their lives. So, she sat down next to my grandfather who was humming to himself, rocking back and forth, taking leisurely sips from his bottle even as his brand new baby daughter whimpered at her mother's breast.

Nanee had learnt that the only choices you could give people were the ones you were willing to live with. So she sat down next to grandfather and poured herself some liquid and raised her glass to her old drinking buddy. Behind them, my mother fussed and cried. My grandmother sighed in exhaustion and realised that for all it was extolled, motherhood was a terribly lonely gig.

Nanee felt a sense of relief as she stayed outside, ignoring the sounds from within. She had let her daughter carry on with her life, the best gift a mother could give her daughter, given the circumstances.


6. Rags to Riches

"I have the makings of a great writer," he says now. Now that he knows I will be visiting him. "I have been told that before, I do not know why I waited till I was dying to share my talent with the world."

Pomposity is a sweet bitch.

"Brag to your friends. Tell them you are going out with someone famous," he winks. "You've done yourself good."

Here is what literature does not always teach you. The story doesn't end when you go from rags to riches—it is just another subplot, another twist in the tale.

Nanee had moved in when my mother was about to be born. Then she forgot to leave. Grandfather did not seem to mind that his family was now defined by two extra women. My grandmother fumed on the inside though—Nanee took over the reins of the house, and through her daughter's family, regained everything that had been denied to her as an unfortunate widow.

My grandfather became the go-between for these two fiercely emblazoned and obstinate women, one now a prisoner, the other finally feeling raspy breaths of freedom. But there was nowhere else to go and therefore like that, in the same village they lived—three generations and a lifetime of stories under one roof.

My mother ended up becoming a lawyer. She once said that by the time she was at the crossroads of deciding what to do with her life, there was not much else she could have done, given the family history.

My mother also took on Nanee's case and won. Those that had wronged the old woman were now long dead—they were grey patches in the cemetery where Nanee had once waited with her dead husband for the skies to clear up.

The court awarded Nanee two strings of a gold necklace and a sack of rice from her late husband's fields—to be delivered on the first of every month, till she died. She had lost her teeth by then and now lived on gruel, but the day she won the case, she cooked a feast with the first sack of rice and fed the village.

"In memory of my husband," she said. She could not even remember his face anymore.

My grandmother never forgave my mother for redeeming Nanee thus. In the end, she even said so, and my mother realised that once you lose your inheritance, you are never truly compensated. It is never just one plot, not really.


7. Rebirth

The professor grins at me with his yellowed teeth.

"To celebrate, let me buy you a drink," he says. He starts talking of the seven plots again—he is not yet done with discussing how one can pigeonhole the sum total of living and breathing, perspiring and surviving, making loving and falling into a dreamless sleep.

I refuse the drink. Too much family drama there.

"Just so that we are clear, the book is an excuse," he says. His hairy hand is now on my thigh.

"Yeah." How imperceptive does the man think I am!

"I knew you would be OK with this. You have, how do I say this," he pauses for effect, the pompous bastard, "very fluid boundaries."

When we really need it, the women in my family find our voice.

"You won't have any soon," I say. "Isn't that what death is?"

You tell a dying man he is about to die, and he takes that as an insult. Because he knows that it is the end of all the stories, the seven or the seven hundred plots, even the white spaces and the pauses. The only damned plot that lives.

Inside my veins, my great-grandmother and grandmother and mother throw back their heads like dervishes and laugh, for once in a perfect holy trinity. Their laughter carries me off my feet into the warm evening, birthing me once again, even as behind me the professor waits to live and then to die, to be resuscitated by the promises of rebirth for everything that he could not do this time around.

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