Love stories tend to become more poignant when certain fictional devices are put to use. Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions weaves a fascinating tale by imagining a love story between two great architects of the previous century, Le Corbusier, and the iconic pioneering Sri Lankan Minnette De Silva. In addition to being a classical love yarn—Plastic Emotions more than delivers on that account—Pinto’s novel is also a poignant rediscovery of the almost forgotten De Silva, the first woman architect in Ceylon, and her work that became known as ‘regional modernism’.
The story begins in 1948 London, where De Silva, who’s been studying there through the War years, is called back to the newly independent Sri Lanka. Her short love affair with Le Corbusier, whom she calls “Corbu”, has ended, and the world-renowned architect has returned to Paris to his wife, Yvonne. De Silva is inspired by the role she could play in the shaping of the new state and a rush of hope and optimism makes the separation from “Corbu” somewhat bearable for a while, at least.
The two exchange a series of letters that cover the course of their relationship where we get to know their feelings about each other, their work, and also their own selves. Over the course of time, the much elder “Corbu” and Minnette meet less frequently and drift apart owing to work and other commitments.
Pinto’s book shines best in the passages that exist between the letters. It’s with a great elan that the prose, which tends to get carried away in terms of lyricism, at times, unearths the brilliance of Minnette De Silva. You read about an inspiring feminist icon who comes into her own during a period of great turbulence in her country and can’t help wonder how come you had not heard enough about her.
As she struggles to get a house made for a famous couple, no one likes Minnette’s trailblazing ideas that would be a workable synthesis of the traditional and modest architecture, Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is busy building an entirely new city, Chandigarh. She has to dodge crazy demands while he has the go-ahead from the Indian Prime Minister.
In 1947, as a delegate of MARG (the Modern Architectural Research Group), Minnette De Silva was photographed with Le Corbusier at the International Congress of Modern Architecture (ICMA) meeting in Bridgwater, Somerset, that might have served as inspiration for Pinto. Looking at that image while reading Plastic Emotions helps. It makes you want to look at the two and imagine the missed chances, the joy, and the anguish.
At times, the artists end up being spectators of the upheaval that takes place right in front of them. Much like Pinto writes, “We are artists. We stand above such petty arguments.” De Silva, even in her own life, ends up being both a participant and a spectator. By the end, you realise that the love affair that holds Plastic Emotions is imagined, it is unreal, much like Minnette De Silva’s own existence in the architectural history of Sri Lanka.