Minnette de Silva: An unfinished portrait

Sharanya Manivannan | Updated on September 20, 2019 Published on September 20, 2019

Woman of importance: Minnette de Silva (second from left), in the company of Pablo Picasso (extreme left), Jo Davidson and Mulk Raj Anand (extreme right) at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, held in Poland in1948   -  WIKIPEDIA

Despite an intriguing premise, Shiromi Pinto’s depiction of the Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva in Plastic Emotions does not do justice to her subject

Shiromi Pinto’s debut novel Plastic Emotions has an exciting premise: That the undervalued Minnette de Silva — Sri Lanka’s first woman architect and a pioneer who influenced giants such as Geoffrey Bawa without credit — had a romantic affair with the legendary architect Le Corbusier, conducted mostly via 16 years of letters. Pinto, who is UK-based, is of Sri Lankan origin.

Throughout the book, Le Corbusier is referred to as “the architect”. Tellingly, this epithet was not given to de Silva too. As a revivalist project on the life and path-breaking work of de Silva, Plastic Emotions is frustrating, finding firmer footing instead as a novel about Le Corbusier. Historical evidence shows that the architects did meet in real life, but the consuming romantic relationship in this novel is fictional.

Plastic Emotions; Shiromi Pinto; Penguin; Fiction; ₹499


Rather than functioning as a creative device with which the author could open an homage to the historical de Silva, the alleged affair and then the persona of Le Corbusier himself overwhelm the book. Even the title of the book comes from his writings on architecture. He is the more fleshed out character: An unlikeable misogynist who happens to be a genius. The fictionalised de Silva in the book neither emerges as his natural foil — an indictment of how male genius is given both impunity and opportunity — nor as an equal talent. The book ends with his death, decades before her own (a lonely, painful one, which is briefly touched on in the prologue).

We never quite get to know a de Silva who is not in the shadow of her “Corbu”. Intriguingly, like him, she is also rendered as largely unlikeable. The turn from being a privileged individual who is disgusted by the homeless people who attend a funeral ceremony to a highly regarded architect who designs a vital social housing project is never articulated. But Pinto’s pairing then makes sense: de Silva is not dissimilar to the great architect who believes his work will perpetuate democracy but calls his Ceylonese lover his “Inde”, still unable to tell the world’s people apart. Sri Lanka’s early postcolonial politics, including interesting ideas such as how artistes become cogs within oppressive agendas, is established rarely through her thoughts or actions, and mostly through events concerning her friends. An inordinate amount of time is spent on her first commission of giving the wealthy Ariyapala family a sense of good taste, but the most important periods of the factual de Silva’s work, in which she truly came into her own, are not explored.

For instance, the time de Silva, still being called a girl by her clients even though she is almost 50 years old, begins to become embittered by the gender politics of her field. She writes, “Do I really have the career I deserve? Had I been a man, Corbu, the doors would have opened with a clap of my hands.” — the book ends. Corbusier’s demise truncates the story, although de Silva outlived him by over three decades.

“Man is the essential measurement,” Pinto’s Corbusier writes in his notes as he conceives the city of Chandigarh (this project is illustrated here with a depth no work of the protagonist is accorded). This is true for this novel too. Could de Silva’s life and work not have stood on their own without a consuming and one-sided imagined obsession with Corbusier, who even in fiction is the kind of man who will frequently travel as far as India but never once go to Kandy to see his lover?

The fictional letters between them are the highlight of this novel. There are some beautiful lines in the epistolary sections of the book — from the simple evocation of “Stand here and hold me to your heart” to a descriptive vision of a pair of lovers sighted unguarded. “And though it looked so much like us — so much so that I was fooled — it was someone else’s pleasure, someone else’s truth, and later, someone else’s forgetting too.” This passion is not matched or redeemed by descriptions of de Silva’s work or other aspects of her life.

There are other such lingering misgivings about Plastic Emotions’ slant. While all historical fiction is chiefly an act of the imagination, certain choices by the author to fabricate details about people from the relatively recent and verifiable past are strange. For example, it’s unclear to what end changing the order and causes of de Silva’s parents’ deaths moves the plot forward or more interestingly elucidates her trajectory. De Silva’s mother appears to be only a sickly homemaker, although the most cursory of Internet searches reveals she was in fact a famed suffragist. Oddly, the author’s note at the end of the novel states that de Silva’s sister, the noted art historian Anil de Silva (rechristened in the book as Marcia), never married, despite her having married twice, just as in the fictional version.

There are several points at which such incongruences appear; they are perplexing even with a margin for creative liberties. They sometimes have the effect of stripping away the feminism from each of the de Silva women.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the rendering of Minnette de Silva herself, a forgotten icon reduced here to an incidental architect, and, worse still, little more than somebody’s muse.

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of The Queen of Jasmine Country and The High Priestess Never Marries

Published on September 20, 2019
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