In the first of our book reviews, Pooja Saxena writes about Shiromi Pinto’s speculative novel inspired by the life of twentieth century Sri Lankan architect and feminist icon, Minnette de Silva.As an amateur observer and student of Modernist architecture in the Indian subcontinent, I was drawn to Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions from the day I first read about it. Minnette de Silva, that was a name I remembered from the margins, when I was studying up about that other, better-remembered Sri Lankan stalwart, known the world over for “tropical Modernism,” before visiting his home in Colombo. For the uninitiated, Plastic Emotions is a novel inspired by the life of Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva. With an education in Mumbai and London, de Silva set up shop in her home country, at a time when few women had anywhere in the world, and did pioneering work in marrying Modernist architecture with traditional workmanship, all while keeping in sync with the geographical and climatic conditions of where she was building. The book chronicles her life, wrapped around a series of epistolary exchanges and encounters with her friend and mentor (and in Plastic Emotions, her lover) Le Corbusier — the Swiss architectural giant, of Chandigarh fame.
The story oscillates between languid days, set often in de Silva’s parents’ sprawling home in Kandy, or else in Colombo, punctuated by social soirées, musings about life, death and work, and the marking of time and weather; and episodes of frantic urgency, in response to Corbusier, or as productive interludes, when she is immersed in her work. These contrasts pace the story in an irresistible and hard-to-put-down tempo. What shines through is a woman quite ahead of her times, and despite the rampant romanticism in the prose, Pinto succeeds in painting a vivid, complex picture of de Silva, as a woman and architect.
“In Ceylon, people recognise her only as an extension of her father… But when she surveys her past work, she finds an uncomfortable truth: all the recognition she has received has been through family contacts… Very few have approached her on the basis of her reputation. Her reputation, in fact, is generally prefixed by the word ‘woman.’ That ‘woman’ architect. As if that somehow sullies the work I do. And if I succeed, the prefix is even more pronounced, suggesting how marvellous — and how bloody unexpected — it is for a woman to have created something so accomplished.”
Would I have liked to read more about de Silva’s architectural designs? Yes. Does the book fall in the trap of exoticising ever so often? Also, yes. But for me, these shortcomings were forgotten as I was swept away in the story of an iconic woman, who has been designated to the sidelines. The novel’s romantic speculation, as well as the many pieces of de Silva’s life missing in this book — her growing up as the daughter of progressive parents in colonial Sri Lanka, years spent in Mumbai where she was a founding members the quarterly art magazine Marg, and her later life spent alone — left me with a compulsive need to read as much as I could find about her, even though the pickings are slim. I’m loath to admit that so taken was I by Pinto’s portrayal of de Silva, that I even experimented with wearing a flower in my hair like she did (I failed).
More than anything else, I was struck by Pinto’s inscrutable brashness in enmeshing fact and fiction in telling the stories of very real people who were alive until only a few decades ago. In fact, in a note at the end of Plastic Emotions, she urges “assiduous readers” to have fun in finding disparities between what she has written and historical fact. If this reads as criticism, it is not. In a world where truth is more malleable than ever before, I found Pinto’s work and honesty not only refreshing, but reasons to pause, consider and then reconsider the part that facts play in storytelling.
If you think Plastic Emotions is up your alley, you might also enjoy Yashodhara Dalmia’s Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, and Anita Anand’s Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary.