I will be honest. I had to look up the meaning of ‘pluperfect’ before beginning to read ‘A Pluperfect Gift’ by Shalabh Bansal. It means 'an action completed before a specified time'. It can also mean 'more than perfect'. Either which way it suits the book to the t so much that I wonder what happened first – the conception of the story by the author, who then found this appropriate title or the author learning about this beautiful word first and then spinning a story around it.
‘A Pluperfect Gift’ is the story of Samar and Arisha. Samar is an engineer in the merchant navy and on the verge of taking on a new sailing assignment. A ‘chance’ encounter with Arisha changes the course of his ordinary life in an extraordinary manner, not just because she becomes his beloved but also because of the fantastical battle they have to wage against Time itself. Yes, this love story floats on a supernatural premise, where Love, Life and Time clash towards a climax. I don’t like being so cryptic but saying more about the story would be a tell-all, and even though the devil in me is itching to spill beans I will over power her. Instead, let me tell you my impressions about the book.
Chapter one, ‘The Pills’, instantly bells the reading cats and draws them in. In a little over two pages, the taut narration shows us a man lacing a woman’s drink on a beach and wondering to himself if this could be ‘the last time I lift her in my arms?’ A sense of suspense is built, as readers start guessing as to why what is happening, especially later on to Samar. However, what makes the opening scene so successful is that no one is guessing right. Because nearly at the end of the book, when the scene reappears connected between the dots of the plot, you could never have guessed the intent of the man or the possible scenario. I lost out on the guessing game but I enjoyed the ‘wow’ moment when page 181 connected with page 1.
While I say that the story of ‘A Pluperfect Gift’ is a different love story, I am aware that I say so primarily because it hinges around the supernatural. A few pages into the book and we know, after Arisha has saved Samar’s life, that ‘something was wrong, either with her or with him’. The mystery of the ‘then-and-now time span’ (I’ll say no more) continues well into the book, to be “cracked” by Samar’s Captain and crew aboard his ship. Once I learnt what was happening and why, I remember asking myself to observe if the book slackens, now that the mysterious cat is out. The story does not slacken and the love angle occupies prominence now. Between doctors and hospitals, donors and failing health the story continues, as does the presence of the fantastical.
Fantasy is not the only element which adds the shimmer of extraordinary to the once-ordinary lives of the main characters. The most important ‘accidental meeting’ is through the hand of destiny, ‘which had something bizarre in store’. Nature seems to collude and gusts of wind seem to have a mind of their own, as if aiding Fate in its plans. The spiritual world of soul connections, the little-known world of chakras and the bodily world of hearts inclined towards the right, or those dying a slow death, impress upon the readers the larger pattern of life and death beyond human agency. And all this is contained within a bubble called Time.
This may make no sense to you right now, but I have to say that I absolutely loved the unabashed celebration of the penultimate pluperfect ‘gift’ Samar gives Arisha, albeit not intentionally. The happy acceptance of it by Arisha is like the final victory of real love over all (social) else. I think that strengthens the author's claim that ‘their love was now far more than just a tale of romance.’
But, is ‘A Pluperfect Gift’, the book, more than just a tale of romance?
The story is unique in its bringing together of various elements, but has it been executed as best as it could have been? I'm afraid not. The basic problem with the way it is written is ‘more tell and less show’. Like an oral narration over the radio; the narrator telling you the complete story and taking it forward. So, even when your ears are interested, the build-up of tension that should follow the direst or eeriest of scenes often does not happen.
That there is not much character-speak adds to this effect of a long (though not boring) monologue. Even when characters do speak or interact, their conversations are too plain to help us create their images in our minds. They may be flesh and bones, but no effort seems to have been made to let them impress us on their own. Shalabh wields the pen that draws them, throughout the book. Perhaps, not letting them run free from his narration keeps them from becoming a memorable couple in the genre of love stories. The book is also remarkably stark of minor characters, almost as if the couple’s families and friends don’t exist at all. This, though, can swing both ways - good or bad.
You will also come across repetitive mention of character traits, facts and details. Often, in the same paragraph the same adjectives (like ‘slippery’) will feature in every sentence. Doesn’t take away from the story, but certainly from the experience of it.
If I was to re-write this story without tweaking the plot, I would add some spectacular descriptions of the sea and sailing ships, more hospital-smell to the doctors' clinics and sublime fear to scenes of drowning in bath tubs. That would help ease the hurry with which the story rolls, especially towards the end. Getting somewhere is important, but how you get there equally so!
There is definitely a story-teller in Shalabh, but the writer in him needs to ripen his skill set. That is why, his debut book ‘A Pluperfect Gift’ remains a sweet love story about love ever after but not one you will remember forever and after. Perhaps rendering it as a short story would have made it cling to your mushy side much more. All said and done, if you enjoy 'magical' love, free from typical social concerns and tangles of match-making, you might like this. The focus is only on those in love, which is a relief to read. The book came to me right after I watched ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. The theme of the inevitable vulnerability of love and of a larger pattern that we cannot control but which governs us had already made a residence in my head. Maybe ‘A Pluperfect Gift’ was read and reviewed with this background.
Leaving you with two lovely quotes from the book - one about the relativity of time:
‘Butterflies count not months but moments, and yet they have time enough’
and another about the journey of reaching its end, which stands symbolic of this story itself -
‘It is too common an Error to invert the Order of Things; by making an End of that which is the Means, and a Means of that which is an End.’
‘A Pluperfect Gift’, 2014, has been published in association with Authors Upfront.