The following piece is from our August/September issue, which you can buy here.
December – June 1951
Stars, millions of them, beating like hearts. She sees them pulsing over the rim of her arrack glass. The sky is an open book, she thinks, written in a language I don’t understand. She slides back into the planter’s chair, tries to get comfortable, and fails.
She sighs, takes another sip from her glass. Jaya is standing behind her, looking at the almost empty tumbler. She will not offer her another one.
‘Minnette, Miss? Ivarada, Miss?’
Minnette considers the contents of her glass. There is only just enough liquid left to wet the tip of a fingernail. One last sip. She feels the impulse before she recognises it. One last taste before she abandons herself to the community of sleep. That community, she realises, is up there, brilliant with dreaming. Millions of stars waiting for her.
She hands the unfinished glass to Jaya who tries, but fails, to conceal her disapproval. Even if I gave it back to her full, she would not approve. Young ladies drink sweet wine, not spirits. She smiles. Am I still young?
Minnette shakes her head. ‘Hari, hari. Thank you.’ She waves Jaya away. Baby Nona. Even at thirty-two, Minnette knows she will only ever be the youngest, and so a child to Jaya.
Upstairs, in her room, Minnette collects her drawings. The Ariyapala Lodge is her first project. If not for her father, she might still be searching for work but fortunately, Ceylon – the new Ceylon – appears amenable to the ambitions of a woman architect freshly returned from England. It helps that the Ariyapalas are old family friends. Minnette’s drawings are neat, precise. The Ariyapalas were impressed. The house is sited on a hill, overlooking Kandy Lake. Minnette has sketched the elevation of the building, considered its aspect. Her calculations are meticulous. The house will be Modern and yet intrinsically vernacular. Materials will be local, as will the decorative work. Exterior spaces, like the balcony, will be as important as the interior. The Ariyapalas agreed to the plans without fuss. But as the months go by, first one objection, then another, is raised.
The project was commissioned more than a year ago. The honeymoon period, in which Minnette’s ideas were greeted with pleasant surprise and excited applause, has given way to suspicion, resentment, and occasional distress. ‘Hanh,’ says Mrs Ariyapala, ‘but why not paint the walls? Otherwise, it will look like an abandoned building, no?’ This to Minnette’s insistence that the interior walls remain unfinished. When Mrs Ariyapala realises that not only will the walls be unpainted, but they will also remain unrendered, she closes her mouth and does not open it again until she is alone with her husband, whom she then castigates for trusting an ‘upstart woman architect’.
All of Minnette’s energies are directed into the Ariyapala Lodge. She has set up her studio at Nell Cottage, hired local artisans to fire clay tiles, weave dumbara mats, carve and lacquer mouldings. The artisans are an extension of her studio, a community she, like her mother before her, hopes to nurture while engaging their considerable skill. She has forged friendships with weavers, learning techniques from them that she uses to create her own, exquisite saris. For Minnette, the Ariyapala Lodge is more than a house; it is the culmination of an architectural tradition that goes right back to Anuradhapura itself.
She examines her drawings as she arranges them into a pile. The foundations went down some months ago. Not easy, given her engineer had refused to work on them unless Ove Arup in London okayed the plans first. So, Minnette sent them to the famous structural engineer, whose first achievement had been the penguin enclosure at London Zoo. He approved them. The work continued. Still, Minnette has overheard the baas and his crew talking about that pissu ganni. They say she is crazy to site the house in an area vulnerable to earth-slips. Minnette ignores them. Her task is to use every foot of land, sloped or otherwise, so that nothing is wasted. Anyway, it has been years since the last flood. She knows there is no risk.
She opens her notebook, makes two calculations based on measurements she took at the site earlier today.
Accept this little card as a promise of more to come, he wrote. That was in June, just before she left London. A kiss for every one of your fingertips. Believe me when I say, this is not the end. And then, as a postscript: Chѐre amie, do not be offended. I ask that you do not send letters to No. 24, but to my office at No. 35. I know you will understand.
Minnette closes the notebook. She understood. She wrote back almost immediately: Corbu, please forgive me. I don’t know how it happened. Heartbreak, no doubt – a momentary madness. It wasn’t intentional. I would never do anything to hurt Yvonne.
In the quiet of her room, Minnette is suddenly, overwhelmingly, filled with need. Why doesn’t he write? She has been waiting for months and she is tired of it. Moths circle her lamp, immolate themselves. She decides to forget Le Corbusier, to ignore his letter when it comes. Then she sits down at her desk, moves her drawings aside, and begins writing.
Joyeux noёl, Corbu. I have not heard from you in so – She re-reads the words, crushes the sheet of paper, begins again. Joyeux noёl, Corbu! You must be busy – She crushes this, too, lights a cigarette, starts again. Joyeux noёl, Corbu. This should arrive well after you have digested your goose or duck or whichever fowl Maman Le Corbusier is roasting this year.
I’m sorry I haven’t written for a while. Like you, I have been busy. The Ariyapala Lodge. Not without its challenges, Corbu. They are trapped in their parochialism. The Ariyapalas are short-sighted, lacking adventure. Sometimes I despair. I could really do with some of your advice, if not the certainty you bring to a room as soon as you enter it. The knowledge that I am what I am because of you.
Minnette stops, considers throwing the letter in the bin, stubs out her half- smoked cigarette, and lights another. Too late, she thinks. She inhales and exhales a long puff of smoke, fanning it towards the window. Jaya would not approve of this either. Smoking is for prostitutes. As is arrack-drinking. Minnette applies the nib of her pen to the vellum sheet.
But what of the knowledge of who I am? That seems only to exist somewhere else, when we are together. I don’t know if I can survive this separation, Corbu. So many months without a letter from you – without a word. All this waiting. It gnaws a hole in me. Minnette puts a hand to her stomach, is convinced she can feel it hollowing out. This is what comes of being forgotten. Have you, Corbu? Have you forgotten me? ‘No,’ Minnette says aloud, causing a moth to flinch before extinguishing itself in her lamp. No, you cannot. Not yet.
You wrote, all those months ago, not to give up on us, so I will not. I know you have a good reason for not writing – What am I saying? You are Le Corbusier. That in itself is a reason. Everyone wants something from you. So, in the spirit of Christmas, I am going to give you something, Corbu. Take as long as you need to write to me. This is my gift to you. Time. Minnette signs off, folds the sheets, puts them in an envelope and seals it. She places the letter in the centre of her desk and stares at the address written in flowing blue cursive. No. 35, it says. Not 24. She can be sure of this.
Two months later, a letter arrives at Nell Cottage. It is from him. Minnette turns it over and over, thumb over index finger. The script on the envelope is erratic, difficult to read. She commends the postman for deciphering the address, for ensuring that the letter arrived at its intended destination. I will not open it, she decides. She opens it.
There are few words on the page. She resists the urge to crumple the sheet, directing her gaze instead to the jittery lines of text. Mais non, my little one, it begins, Corbu has not forgotten you. This can never happen! Minnette shrugs. She is used to the hyperbole, tries to defend herself against it, and fails. You are too generous, oiseau, sending me a credit note to claim against the months I have been absent. But you are right, too. Corbu is in demand! She nods. Corbu is always in demand. He is a busy man, a genius. Minnette should know better than to expect more than what he chooses to give her. She glances at the rolls of drawings arranged on her desk. It is nothing, she thinks, to build one house. My efforts are miniscule next to his.
She reads on. I have been asked to take on a project of immense scale in India. She stands, begins pacing the room. It is the dream of all architects, to build a whole city. For me, it will be Chandigarh. Nowicki’s death, Mayer’s resignation – these are the forces of Providence which state that Chandigarh will belong to Corbu. Like you, I will be working in a spirit of optimism – the optimism that comes with independence. Corbu will change lives – perhaps even a whole civilization. You and I, petit oiseau, will see one another once again, it seems!
Minnette holds the letter to her chest, closes her eyes. For the rest of the day, she forgets about her drawings. She cancels her afternoon meeting with the Ariyapalas who would only be vetoing something else she has proposed. They cannot stop finding obstacles for Minnette to trip over. She decides that today, she will not be a spectacle for them.
Days peel away into weeks and months. Minnette’s desk is piled with drawings, no longer neatly rolled or filed. She has been asked to design a new building for the Red Cross, and a day nursery extension, both of which she tackles with efficiency. Given a small budget, she opts for something simple for the Red Cross: a building with a large events hall, its roof raised above the adjacent walls. She insists on making a feature of the surrounding land, so that the building opens onto the garden, rather than sitting flatly in the middle. But ultimately, her design is rejected. Her plans for an extension to the day nursery also come to nothing. It seems few people are willing to pay for innovation. They see it as a risk, she sighs.
The Ariyapalas are not so different; they still oppose her choice of exposed stone and brickwork for the interiors. Mrs Ariyapala has continued her mute protest, darting glances of disapproval at her husband which he, in turn, translates into a diplomatic ‘no’. Minnette does not know how to resolve this impasse. I am weak, she thinks. What would Corbu think of me? She has written one desperate letter to him, saying this much, confessing her shame. The great man replied: Corbu can never be disappointed in his oiseau. Courage, mon enfant! Minnette wishes she could summon the courage of a child – that blind wilfulness that compels children to climb to the top of a tree without a thought for how they will return.
She sits on her bed, smoking. Today’s meeting with Mr Ariyapala went badly. When Minnette showed him her designs for the sitting room – floor- to-ceiling glass windows and doors – he shook his head. ‘We never wanted such a grand design,’ he said. He looked tired, like a man defeated by age or marriage. His head was bent, as if to study Minnette’s drawings which were spread out on the table before him, but she could see that his eyes were closed. So stubborn, she thought. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘perhaps we can talk about this again in the new year.’
‘Hanh,’ he said, opening his eyes, but not looking up. She gathered her drawings and left.
Minnette flicks ash into her empty glass. She has drunk half a thumb-length of arrack and is enjoying the numbness spinning a web at the back of her head. She stares out into the night sky and a million stars stare back. She pulls a small envelope from her sari blouse – a letter from Mimi – and opens it.
Inside: an invitation to join her in Paris for Christmas.
I can breathe again. Minnette sips a glass of wine, shares a smile with a dark-browed Italian sitting two tables from her own. She is in Rome, her final stop. Before it, there was Venice, London, Paris. The heat of the evening reminds her of home. It has been more than six months since she fled Kandy for Europe, and now she must return. So many returns, she thinks. So many exiles. She observes the many couples, heads bent low over round tables, fingertips resting on cutlery. One man looks casually over the shoulder of his wife or girlfriend, and gazes at Minnette with deliberate and open intention. Minnette smiles, looks away. Why do I always do that? She looks at the man again, and this time he is the first to falter. She smiles to herself. Rome is grand and glorious and full of men with easy smiles. The ‘eternal city’.
Minnette remembers she has not eaten and orders some bread and olives. She closes her eyes, sees Corbu’s face, that amused expression he wears whenever he is about to take her to bed. Paris, she sighs. He was not expecting me. They had not had much time. She saw him, and her thoughts had come undone like a row of stitches. Yvonne was away. The flat was empty – No. 24! How could we have? – the flat was empty. He told me about India, he called me his ‘Inde’. She shakes her head, cringes at her weakness. There was no time to speak. The snow fell silently outside the window, his easel blocking out the remaining daylight. They were standing, side by side in the front room, watching the snowflakes flatten and burst against the windowpane like moths on the windshield of a moving car. What are words when flesh finds proximity after so many months apart. Words are unbearable then. His palm against her back. His mouth against her ear. How are you? Pas mal. Et vous? No. We used few words and so knew not – nor cared not – what the other had been doing between before and then.
Christmas arrived and to Minnette, drunk from being with him, the whole city was briefly enchanted: duck and pheasant hanging upside-down in the market; the rue Mouffetard with its exquisite pastries. Mimi and Minnette bought a different pastry from each boulangerie they passed. The only sour moment – which sullied the rest of the day – came when Mimi leaned over a mille-feuille to tell Minnette that she had heard from W.E.B. DuBois, Picasso and Paul Éluard that Le Corbusier had refused to sign the Peace Manifesto.
‘But Corbu would never ally himself with the fascists,’ argued Minnette, who had years earlier gone to Poland to address the World Conference of Intellectuals for Peace. At first, she went there on a lark, revelling in the wonder and fluster caused by her saris, but she returned a committed activist.
‘Picasso and Éluard are furious,’ said Mimi, sending a gust of pastry flakes into the winter air. And she was right, because Éluard dropped by Mimi’s later that evening for a drink, and he was fuming.
‘Le Corbusier, that fascist. Thinks himself a genius but he’s too self- important to put his name on a document that the world’s greatest artists and intellectuals have signed. Our plea to the world for peace – our plea for disarmament. He thinks himself better than all of us. Genius? He is a fascist! A sympathiser. A traitor.’
Éluard spat burgundy all over Mimi’s white carpet. His anger was not only palpable, but contagious. Why, thought Minnette as she watched Éluard’s trembling cheeks, why did Corbu refuse? Does he really think that we should be building stockades of more and more arms? The Americans in Korea – ‘Perhaps,’ said Minnette, ‘perhaps Corbu believes, like the Americans, that world peace is a Communist plot.’
Minnette shrinks now from the betrayal. At the time, Éluard had nodded and Minnette had felt vindicated in criticising Corbu. Now, sitting by herself at the edge of a Roman piazza, she is not so sure. It is enough to think such things – Minnette notices that her wine is finished; the bread and olives she ordered earlier remain untouched – to speak them aloud is inexcusable.
After Paris, Minnette went to London for the Festival of Britain, and watched the King open the new Royal Festival Hall. Models of tankers were moored in the Thames, while the V&A exhibited ‘the only surviving model’ of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Festival Hall itself impressed her. A modern building for a modern age of entertainment, she had thought. She enjoyed the excellent acoustics in the auditorium itself, although the mass of the outer building troubled her, sitting like a hen on the ground.
Leaving London meant leaving her sister Marcia and brother-in-law Werner. Saying goodbye to Mimi was harder, but Minnette’s friend crossed her heart and told her she would be sure to make it to Ceylon for a visit.
Minnette tries an olive. It is the first solid food she has eaten since breakfast. Her head is heavy with wine. She knows that if she stands up now, she will not manage the walk to her pensione with dignity. She orders more food, a carafe of water and no wine. She will remain here until the numbness at the back of her head thins. She starts on the bread. Those winter months with Mimi were a godsend. If not for Paris, I would have been crushed by those Ariyapalas. It is true. Minnette has received numerous telegrams from her clients, requesting her early return so that work on their house can continue under her direction.
She recalls the Ariyapalas’ latest fearful demand – that she provide them some guarantee that their house would not ‘succumb to an earthslip’. She shrugs at the thought, then imagines the relief she might feel at watching the house and everyone in it swept away by the rain.
The man with his wife/girlfriend is looking at Minnette again, open intent now replaced by hope. She sighs. After London, it was Venice – the Renaissance city, gilded, lustrous. An exercise in proportion. A marriage of water and stone. Never mind that the city sinks, the romance of it is too great to ignore. Islands of arches and campanelli, Palladio’s Basilica, the Piazza San Marco – all of it fainting frame by frame into the Adriatic. Even Rome, for all its claims to immortality, will lie in dust one day, she thinks. Ultimately all our work will find its match in the elements. Stone or concrete, brick or glass.
She stares at her empty wine glass, remembers why she hasn’t ordered any, then orders another. There has been no letter since Paris. When she arrived in Venice, she found herself drawn along the bridges and piazzas of the city, strolling beside handsome young men – all of whom claimed they had fallen in love with her. Mimi’s painter friend, Francesco, was back in Venice and offered to take Minnette on a tour of the city’s waterways last week. Sitting in a gondola with him, she felt the pull of the water beneath her like temptation. It would not be difficult to believe everything any one of these young men says to me if only for a few days, she thinks. His silence makes the option all the more attractive, yet every time she imagines herself reaching out, it is to Corbu and no one else.
Minnette feels that urge again, that churning, knotting need that seizes her when she is not with him. She has some wine and takes up her pen. In the absence of your words, I allow myself to be charmed by others, she writes. She describes her gondola ride with Francesco with enthusiasm. Francesco is especially loquacious and beautiful in a godlike way, she adds. That is to say, beyond reach, as all divinity ultimately is. But to sit in a gondola and listen to him speak passionately of Venice’s bridges, its rising waters and softening bones, is like drinking a smooth merlot. Which is to say, he is rather delicious in his own way. She indulges in further detail – how Francesco painted her while she sat on silk pillows and listened to him talk. She omits mention of her clothing, preferring to let him think the worst –
Laughter. Minnette opens her eyes and wonders when she had closed them. The piazza is unchanged. The man and his girlfriend/wife remain two tables away. Minnette’s food remains half-eaten. Her wine glass is empty. Her head is resting in the palm of her hand, but she is still in her chair. She pushes away the empty glass, drinks water and resolves to eat. Her letter to Corbu is open, unfinished.
She remembers their last conversation, his triumphant announcement as he lay next to her. They were on the floor of No. 24, staring at the snow thickening against the front window. I will change the way people live, he had said. Of course he will, she thinks. He already has. Minnette smoothes out the unfinished letter, scorns her erratic penmanship, wonders what Corbu will think of her, then decides she doesn’t care. She resumes writing.
Here I am, Corbu, and you – you are crossing the ocean, finally, for a project that will change the way people live. That’s what you whispered to me in Paris. Audacious words for any architect except that the architect is you. And why else would you cross the ocean, Corbu? Certainly not for me. I would not let you even if you offered.
She dips a piece of bread in oil, puts it in her mouth and enjoys the viscous feeling on her tongue. So you are off to India. Shall I ask my father to put in a good word for you with Nehru? I know, I know. Nehru needs no such encouragement. He is always such a forward-thinking chap. When he visited us during those pre-Independence years, he was full of brilliant ideas about the ‘new India’ – a new industrial India. Minnette was little more than a girl back then, but Nehru spoke to her without condescension. He was intelligent, charming and immaculately turned out. Gandhi must have seemed a terrible throwback to him, clad in that white vettiya. But Gandhi was astute – mark my words – a brilliant tactician. He knew how to get everyone, whatever one’s caste or religion, behind him. When he visited, he quizzed my parents on all aspects of the Ceylon National Congress’ strategy for independence and their involvement in rallying the masses. Though he did seem an awful husband, she thinks, recalling how he ignored Kasturba so that Amma felt compelled to take her for a drive. Amma had later told her that Kasturba wept in the car: no one had ever done such a thing for her before. Nehru was exceedingly Oxbridge and exceedingly dashing and wasted no time in taking a young lady who was not his wife boating on Kandy Lake. In full view, I might add, of Kandy’s evening strollers.
Which is to say that Nehru is not so different from you, my dear friend. Except that you are discreet. I cannot say otherwise. ‘So discreet,’ whispers Minnette, ‘that I have heard nothing from you for weeks.’ Nothing, that is, apart from a brief telephone call two days earlier in which he apologised for being unable to meet Minnette again. Do not despair, oiseau, he had said, and Minnette had gripped the phone tighter to stop herself from hanging up. There was no need. Less than a minute later, the operator did it for her; a faulty line brought the call to an end with neither party having a chance to say goodbye.
We did not say goodbye, writes Minnette. I like to think, Corbu, that there is no need for such banal exchanges between us. Not when we are within reach of one another. After all, there is plenty of time for words. They come later, on paper or card, across water and land, bearing longing and reflection. Inside me runs a torrent of words. ‘Do not despair,’ you said when we spoke the other day. I shall take that to heart, Corbu, as I wait for your next letter. Words are all we have now, so let us not shrink from the obligation – let us not despair of our mutual exiles.
Minnette lays down her pen. She pours herself a glass of water and, glancing inside it as she takes a sip, sees a constellation of stars reflected on its surface.
This is an extract from Shiromi Pinto’s novel Plastic Emotions (Influx Press, 2019), which is available to buy here.
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