In many ways, people are like buildings — both with facades and foundations; both ceaselessly torn between form and function. In Plastic Emotions, author Shiromi Pinto presents her characters as if they were site visits. Le Corbusier and Minnette de Silva are pioneers of the modernist movement — one recognised as a genius, the other with a vision for transforming her motherland; one has found world-renowned fame, the other must struggle for life to get her due and to be taken seriously in a profession dominated by men. Pinto shows us their foundations, their environments, their facades and, most importantly, their function. Between Corbusier and Minnette, Pinto imagines and conjures a love that the fates will not allow. The passage between meetings snatched and stolen, they profess their love, their darkest fears, through letters.
What is perhaps the singular achievement of this book is the exquisite portrayal of Corbusier and Minnette’s foundations. In the act of letter-writing, Pinto takes us behind the facade that they build for each other and for the world. She tells us of their thoughts as they edit their words, always afraid of betraying themselves, helpless in their own censoring. In their unarticulated thoughts, she creates the positive space that defines the form of this book. Between ‘Corbu’ and his little ‘oiseau, bird of paradise’ there is but the tenderest of loves. Minnette remembers how Corbu never complained about huffing up the stairs to her apartment. Pinto’s prose has such poise, she deftly captures the essence of her characters. Minnette’s letters are deep pools of want while Corbusier’s are devoted to himself, his vision, his wife and his onerous burden of unrecognised genius. When he fails to respond he excuses Minette for being upset with him for it makes her more beautiful. Like letters of indulgences sold by the Catholic Church, Corbusier sends a letter, now and then repentant for his growing sins, awashed by the burden of his work. But both have what the other wants. Corbusier finds in de Silva loyalty, admiration and the thrill of youth; de Silva finds in him validation, respect and encouragement until love gives in to friendship, steadfast and warm.
The amount of history, politics and architecture Pinto manages to fit within the epistolary format is a delightful surprise. Through Corbusier’s and Minnette’s letters and friends, she provides a ringside view of Corbusier’s struggle with the city of Chandigarh, his spats with the Cubists, his meetings with Nehru, the church in Ronchamp and the independence of Algeria. The reader is provided with an intimate glimpse of the independence of Sri Lanka, the emergency and riots in the aftermath, the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, Minnette’s vision of regional modernism, her bickering with the owners over the Ariyapala Lodge, and her lifelong struggle against being referred to as ‘that woman architect.’ Pinto also paints a vivid portrait of an era lost in its bourgeois opulence, of garden parties and planter’s chairs with their extendable armrests. She shows us the character of time in its symbols and furnishings; it is in the bougainvillaea that leaps over walls, it is in the walls and homes of cities.
Like any good architect, Pinto entrenches the edifices that are her characters into the lush influence of nature. Like a silent narrator, nature is interspersed with human dialogue – the rain that sounds like applause, the calls of the ulama and the rilawa. One can almost hear the forest in these pages. Like a good conductor, Pinto devotes prose to the movements of nature with the forest as her choir. She counterpoints the intellect of Corbusier and Minnette with the rustic and pragmatic foil of Jaya – and what a worthy foil she is! Skilled in appearing to be unseen, gracefully proud over her Baby Nona’s designs, reluctant to fuel gossip regarding Minnette – she is the embodiment of a matron.
Those looking for India shall find it in a generous amount in Plastic Emotions. It is there in the construction site in Chandigarh, in Nehru’s speeches, in the house with no doors in Ahmedabad. In his sojourn through India, Corbusier stumbles on its most intimate truth – anger is futile in this country; its pace is its own. Corbusier remembers India through only its best parts, the India that is a viable alternative to the greed and the machine juggernaut of the west.
The untranslated French might perhaps present a minor annoyance to the reader or could be seen as a welcome pause from the sea of English that surrounds it. It adds a little touch of the indecipherable, much like the ethereal love that binds the protagonists.
Corbusier, in Plastic Emotions, defends the Open Hand monument in Chandigarh and its weathervane form. He argues that a city must adapt to survive, and to do so, it must be aware of the next trend, the new opportunities. It must look in all directions before deciding on a path; his Open Hand would be aware, it would adapt, it would point the way. The book also points the way to Minnette de Silva and her iconic, pathbreaking work – a permanent marker one hopes.
Through Plastic Emotions, Shiromi Pinto manages to unite fiction with magic. We hope this is true, we would like to believe this were so – that these letters are real, that such beauty, such emotion can be real and are not confined merely in the realm of paper and ink.