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The way we were

N Kalyan Raman

Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto, Penguin Viking, 2019

Starting from the late 1940s, newly decolonized counties in Asia and Africa set about transforming themselves from hitherto tradition-bound societies to modern nations, equipped with newly minted socio-political structures and institutions of governance. The invention of a new architecture, entailing design of public buildings and spaces as expressions of a new vision of the individual, community and society, was an important component of this project. These new buildings combined traditional concepts and materials from the past with modern aesthetic and functional requirements. It was a heady time in many of these countries, filled with passion, zeal and hope for the future.

Shiromi Pinto’s novel, Plastic Emotions, features two eminent architects who worked respectively in India and Ceylon (later renamed Sri Lanka) as its protagonists. One is the legendary ‘Le Corbusier’, a Frenchman widely acknowledged as a genius, who was invited by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951 to design and build Chandigarh as “a city of the future” in the plains of the Punjab and the shadow of the Himalayas. The other is Minnette de Silva, a young architect from Ceylon who was 31 years his junior. They meet at the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in 1947 in Somerset, England, fall in love, and carry on a long-distance friendship, interspersed with occasional trysts, for the next 17 years, until Le Corbusier’s death in 1965 at the age of 77. The love they share forms the core of the novel and is narrated through a series of passionate letters that each writes to the other over the years. Except towards the end, we are privy to the circumstances in which each letter is composed and received, which renders their love even more vivid beyond what is contained in the letters.

Corbu, as de Silva fondly calls him, is much married at the time of their meeting and has a wandering heart besides. A genius feted by governments and royalty the world over, he is of such eminence as an artist that he can pick a quarrel with Pablo Picasso and Paul Éluard. During their romance, the Chandigarh assignment remains his main preoccupation even as he completes other prestigious projects in India and elsewhere, including the famous cathedrals at Ronchamps. De Silva is a young architect trying to make her mark in her island country.

In his letters, Le Corbusier is encouraging and tender to his oiseau (bird), also empathetic and supportive, and, later in their liaison, seeking reassurance against fears of ageing, bodily decay, and professional oblivion. In hers, she is the loyal and loving protégé, sharing her hopes and fears on the professional front, the vagaries of her personal life, and anxiety about the onset of turbulence in the world around her. Of necessity, both of them hide as much as they reveal of their intimate selves, and hence, perhaps, the novel’s title, which seems to signify the malleability of emotional life so essential for forming and sustaining such relationships. Pinto gives us a richly imagined account of this epistolary romance through the lovers’ voices, which always ring true through all the vicissitudes of their lives.

Beyond the romance, the two protagonists are fleshed out superbly as professionals and individuals enmeshed in a web of relationships with family and friends. We are treated to a ringside exposition of Le Corbusier’s foundational ideas and concepts for Chandigarh, which makes for a fascinating read. We accompany the great man on his field trips to Ahmedabad and Jaipur and share his thoughts on the architectural marvels of those two cities. We see him grapple with the sloppiness of Indian work culture as well as the refractory tendencies of his handpicked international team of architects comprising a British couple, a French cousin and two Indians. We are also witness to his complaint to Nehru about his conflict with the local authorities and the latter’s empathetic and appreciative response to the great architect. It is fascinating to learn that the architectural design of natural light in the Ronchamp Cathedral was inspired by the Amber Fort in Jaipur, about the conceptual basis of the Open Hand monument in Chandigarh, and the difficulties faced in its implementation.

Heavily influenced by her Corbu, de Silva, too, is focused on evolving an architectural style and method that makes judicious use of traditional materials. Her design approach aims to blend the building with the natural topography of the site. Her housing projects, with their balanced mix of private and public spaces, foster individual well-being as well a sense of community among the residents. Even after ten years as a professional, De Silva realises that most of her commissions have come through family contacts, a clear marker of social prejudice against her as a woman architect. In the concluding section of the novel, disenchanted by the unhealthy political climate in her country, she embarks on a comparative study of architectural styles in South Asia and South-East Asian countries, which results in a paper assessed as ‘brilliant’ by Le Corbusier. The thread that runs through the professional lives of the protagonists is their commitment towards supporting a new modernist ethos for community life through their “builds”. It’s an ethos that’s been flattened and pulverized since by the market-driven dynamics of present-day architecture in India and the world over.

Another important facet of the novel is its politically sensitive portrait of Ceylon’s descent into the hell of Sinhala majoritarianism and the attendant violence during the country’s first decade of independence. The case for providing opportunities for Sinhala-speaking people, hitherto dominated by Anglophones, quickly degenerates into shrill majoritarian rhetoric and paves the way for the militant entry of religion into politics. We are aware of the horrors it precipitated over the next five decades, culminating in the mass killing of Tamils in Mullivaikal in May 2009. That Ceylon took this disastrous turn during the decade when Nehru’s cosmopolitan vision had Le Corbusier striving to build Chandigarh as a city of the future tells us something about Nehru’s historical role in preserving India as a humane republic – for a time. Now that we are well along the same path of majoritarian politics, Sri Lanka’s trajectory of violence could be an ominous portent for our own future.

Plastic Emotions is a love story that takes us into the beating heart of a bygone world through architecture and the lovers who brought that world, and each other, to life. A slice of intimate history filled with intransigent love and light, it’s a story we all need to hear.

Review published in Mint Lounge on August 16, 2019


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