Around Shangri-La / Ammber Pandey

Harley Samuel Cornwallis died of cardiac failure on June 28, aged 81. Cornwallis who began his career as an astrologer in London Times writing weekly predictions later became a notorious writer of false travelogues which he wrote under the pseudonym Umber P. London Times fired him in 1967 stating literary crime as reason. Afterwards he attained a cult status among intellectuals and writers. He often compared himself to Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov. He left two sons : one is a Buddhist monk in Tibet and currently in Chinese prison as he fights for Tibet’s liberty.
Cornwallis was born in Rangoon in 1929.

An excerpt from Cornwallis’s Travelogue ‘Around Shangri-La’ :

I met James Stubbs during the hearing of famous ownership battle over a map of paradise between House of Maps and Queen in the court of chancery. His collars were inky and he hated the flummery of journalists as they tried to photograph him. He seemed disappointed with his ham-fisted efforts to deal with the crowd. He wore old espadrille, hat ill-shaped due to excessive usage and sunglasses that are distributed for free in hospital to people after their cataract operation to help them see less of their hardscrabble life.

We met again and this time in Hotel Bertram, suite no. 13, which he called his home and claimed that it is designed on a blueprint by Gustav Klutsis. Though I knew that Bertram has never been designed and is the product of Bertram couple’s mind where they constructed as the need arose without giving any attention to architectural planning or aesthetic values. As a result, they had constructed a building with quite an unusual structure which resembled more a human mind than a dwelling of iron and concrete. Lady Bertram never believed in exteriors, for according to her exteriors are merely the opposite and useless side of interiors and they become what we make of interiors.

The source of light in that otherwise aphotic space was four electric bulbs of the diameter of seventeen inches intersecting each others’ centre lighted on the table with red and green filaments. Framed plan of Collective House {1921} by Nikolai Ladovsky was hung behind him. He sat on an armchair muffled in a pile of ironing and laundry, smoked a self-made cigarette with Turkish tobacco and cardamom; the habit he acquired from his wife, a Moslem princess Idris from Hindostan. He always had strong ties with Hindostan. He was born in a small town Mhow situated on Malwa. Sivaji Rao Holkar, rajah of Indore hammered his father Mr. Richard Stubbs in a railway compartment to death. Eleven days after senior Stubbs’s death, lady Stubbs gave birth to James in a quarter allotted to Rudyard Kipling in 1899.

Seven months later she married a police constable in north and James went to his maternal grandfather in Britain. His grandfather owned Cavalier Chemical Works, then famous for its notorious cough syrup which contained 75% alcohol and quite a substantial amount of opium.

It was a bleak childhood like that of orphans in Victorian novels. All he remembered that he drew flying machines and ships in his rationed journals. Now a published book {1972, Lighthouse Publication, New York} it has eighteen hundred designs of airships, hot-air balloons, gliders, helicopters, huge flying towns. Though technically advanced in air traveling equipments, Stubbs showed almost medieval technology in boats; mainly drawing sails boats in baroque hand with intricate spinnakers, masts and sails with few exception of flying gondolas in charcoal and indigo. He drew automatic motor cars and bicycles too.

Stubbs never had any liking for chemicals and he studied landscape paintings in South Kensington Schools under Sir William Rothenstein. He wanted to work as an apprentice with already retired and ill Sir Herbert Barlett, one of the most distinguished architects of his times but Barlett died on the same day as Stubbs arrived at his home in 1921.

He returned to Hindostan only to find his stepfather killed in Chowri-Chowra massacre at Gorakhpore district. There he contracted smallpox. Lady Stubbs, now Lady Waugh, too died of smallpox while pregnant with fourteenth child of Constable Waugh.
“The natives called smallpox Mata, the goddess.” He says and tabs his long, obese index finger on his lips as if to hide his winked smile.

In South Kensington Schools, Stubbs befriended Uday Shankar who abandoned the art of painting to become a famed Hindu dancer. Stubbs joined him in designing stage but proved to be a failure as he installed huge structures on stage and left very little space for dancers. A curious installation created ripples in Paris, where he tied a chain of sewing machines with their wheel revolving on the heads of dancers. On the second day, there were a series of staves erected on stage with an intricate net of copper wires tied to them.
‘I wanted to change the perception of space,’ he said drinking stewed espresso and sucking on a peppermint candy alternately. ‘I believe that everything exists only in space and because there is infinite space to cover, we feel a sense of burden called time.’

In 1931, his grandfather died leaving him only a geometry box. His estate went to Lady Waugh’s other seven children. In all those years, he did nothing except roam through India in search of buildings made in an obscure Indo-Islamic style called Firdowsian architecture, now almost extinct because in Firdowsian style metals and pillars were restricted. Firdowsian style developed in Deccan, on the basis of a Sufi text in verse which described a Dirwesh’s body as architecture in concrete and containing only four basic elements; water, air, fire and clay were allowed in that architecture. Firdowsian architectural theory believed that a building should not survive more than one and a half generations as this is the maximum time a human being can live to attain the supreme knowledge. A Parisian journalist stole all the sketches he drew during that tour.

When left with nothing, not enough to buy even a postage stamp, he understood the urgency to find some work. He tried assisting an engineer Padmamani De; a weak and peevish man like usual Bengali males in Bengal Chemical Works as he knew a bit about pharmaceutical machinery but lost his work as De thought his idea very large scale, expensive and utopian.

On the last day of supper on credit in Gymkhana, he met Prince Kiratarjun Singh. Prince took him to his state Dhedhpore in Rajputana. Dhedhpore was a desert state established only sixty years ago famous for its mirror works and step-wells. As the story goes, sixty years ago, one of the ancestors of the Prince gave a mirror to an old woman melting with leprosy who had been laughed at by everyone for the desire to see her grotesque face. As soon as the old woman saw her face, she turned into a fakir and asked the ancestor to ask for anything. The ancestor, being modest, only asked for earth measuring one and a half steps but the fakir, happy with him, elongated his one and half steps to measure whole of Dhedhpore district.

Degenerate Prince wanted to construct a huge step-well called Bawdi in the language of natives not to store water as commonly step-wells are being used but for voluptuous delights. Stubbs, now being paid handsomely, designed a complex, huge map for the Bawdi. It was a labyrinthian structure with hundreds of staircases and seven-floor-high and seven-floor-deep underground. Not a very impressive design in Hindostan as multistory step-wells were common but Stubbs proposed to fix mirrors on every inch of walls thus making the structure sound proof, though it was designed in such a way that it would amplify the slightest sound inside the structure. These numerous mirrors were placed in such angles that every nook and corner was visible from any point of the building. Prince planned to appoint naked maids for service in Bawdi to seem them all while exhibiting himself engaged in sexual copulation.

Prince died under suspicious circumstances in a brothel at Paris before the allotment of land for the construction.

Stubbs returned to Britain via Russia and there he encountered many constructivist architects. He rubs his left knee broken in Deccan years ago when he was showing a typical Firdowsian arch to uninterested Begum Idris and fell from a slope as stairs are not allowed in Firdowsian style and says, ‘I still sometimes feel as if I am living in Vesnin Brothers’ Narkomtiazhprom and I walk in same manner so as to protect my knees from the walls of Vesnin brother’s building. It exists in my head like the tower of Etemenanki existed in the head of Emperor Antiochus, who fell from the tower and broke his knees.’

Birth of his only son and his large, seventeen hundred pages long plan of a carnival town came in the same year, 1937. Both were named Firdows. Firdows, the proposed carnival town was based on the idea that permanent structures are uncivilized and pollutes both society and nature, thus proposed Stubbs the idea of a mobile town. A town which should occupy a piece of land more than one and a half months. Hospitals, schools, spaces for commerce and industry should all be mobile. Firdows was laughed at by several architectural critics and historians. Reyner Banham kept silent on his work.

Firdows died in 1953 in an accident when he was flying a glider. ‘Deaths are as common in my life as flies in Calcutta,’ said he and showed a photo-collage where a boy in black and white was flying against the Soviet red background. ‘He never came back.’
The carnival town Firdows, though, is still being studied in Architecture classes.

He planned a bicycle mill in 1945, again huge but thought out to its last detail. He took it to Robert P. McCulloch who purchased the new London Bridge. He remembers as he says, ‘Mr. McCulloch being a kind man gave me one-and-a-half hour but I managed to describe the outline of stock room only. He was impressed and asked me to bring a plan for aviation industry.’ He believed in bicycles and considered aviation hormone driven.

Begum Idris came for tea. She was consciously unpredictable and woman of gracile morphology clad in an Indian silk sari. Stubbs balanced his posture and moved his legs. Begum Idris poured tea for us in yellow thick china cups, unusual in Britain. ‘Since James lost his vision for vertical lines, I choose crockery with care.’ Stubbs’s only project that was realized was electric tower and pole erection project in Brixworth rural district in 1972. Iron rods set in spiral and triangular fashion horizontally to the top with eccentric breaks from the running design formed the tower painted in turquoise and purple. Wires were twirled and coloured in all hues possible in crayons’ set. In 1974, when Brixworth rural district was abolished, the authorities tried to decamp tower and poles stating that the structure is inefficient and percentage of electricity wastage and faults is higher in the system than then common in electricity distribution system. ‘Only photographs remain,’ Begum Idris sighs. ‘He started losing his vision for vertical lines since that year, isn’t it, Stubbs?’

Stubbs lost vision for vertical lines after he completed Simulacrum garden blueprint. It contained seventy-eight double helix staircase reaching nowhere. Though garden was based on the Chaharbagh gardens of Persia. ‘It was not a detailed plan but only a conspectus as I lost my eyesight in between’. The blueprint he sold to a man whose name he can’t remember or doesn’t want to remember but he is always listed in Forbes’ richest list.

‘It does not matter that my plans aren’t worth more than a few pounds of paper.’ He gropes for the octagonal table to keep the cup and stands up to retire to his bedroom to listen to opera on television. He still constructs greenhouses and lighthouses in his head meticulously.

I came back. I saw several buildings on my way back to home, none was made on Stubbs’s detailed, utopian plans. He will never get his eyesight back to see the map of paradise Nakshaw-e-Firdows for which he goes to court religiously. Reveries like Hungarian rhapsodies are rarer than reality.


Ammber Pandey is an Indian poet.

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