31 October 2017

The lady who keeps the world young

A tribute to Sybil Wettasinghe on her 90th birthday


Fifteen years ago, after interviewing this grand old lady who is forever young, I called my wife and said, "parana yaluvek hambuna" (I met an old friend).  “Sybil,” I added.  She was thrilled.  Neither of us had met her  before.  Years later, we would, along with our two daughters, but she was nevertheless ‘an old friend,’ a part of our growing up and a part of the growing up of our daughters.  

And we are not alone.  She’s been the aunt thousands have never met but who nevertheless were touched by her.  She’s given us all joy and laughter, magic and nostalgia.  Most important, she breathes life into that creature called ‘Child Within’ that everything in life seems determined to destroy.  

It had been the then Head Master of Royal Primary, H.D. Sugathapala, who first commissioned her to illustrate ‘Nava Maga Standard 5 Reader’ after seeing some of her drawings at an exhibiton at the Art Gallery submitted by her father.  Martin Wickramasinghe had recognized her potential and this paved the way for a job at Lankadeepa.  Then she got to illustrate folk poems every staurday and still later to illustrate Sooty Banda’s articles and short stories for ‘The Times.’  She subsequently joined Lake House where she got to illustrate an entire page.  

The editor of ‘Janatha,’ Denzil Peiris, having discovered that Sybil had a penchent for story-telling following a chance opportunity courtesy a co-worker falling ill, got her to write.  She wrote ‘Kuda Hora’ (Umbrella Thief), a story that has since been published in 13 countries. 

She’s come a long way since then.  One could also say, she’s not moved, that she’s been where she was and who she was through all these years.  Her story is not an article.  It is a book and the part of it that she wrote (until the mid-nineties) won her the Gratiaen Award in 1995 (‘The Child in me’).  Her story is a thesis.  It is a history of literature for children, a handbook for the aspiring writer and illustrator and a trace of the nation’s cultural sensibility.  

How can a single story delight children across time? How can a single story-teller continue to delight an individual with ‘children’s stories’ long after that individual has moved from child to adult?  It has to be someone who is in touch with the earth, its creatures and processes, someone who knows intimately the secrets of the sensibilities of her social context, is rooted in cultural soils and can at will stretch out arms and embrace the universe.  That’s Sybil.  

How can someone write what is in word and illustration quintessentially ‘Sinhala’ and yet have it resonate in someone to whom ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Sri Lanka’ are absolutely foreign?  Such a person must know intimately the secrets of the human condition and its most salient commonalities.  That’s also Sybil.

Sybil described, describes and will continue to describe the world is ways that are unforgettable.  She informed, informs and will continue to inform that there’s so much delight to be obtained from ordinary things.  She has given the humble a form and opened eyes to recognize it in ourselves and our fellow creatures.  

"When I was a child, the world around me seemed a more fresh, nicer and a more beautiful place. This is why my childhood, in my rustic village home, seems to me, a long, beautiful dream. Then people semed to live as warmhearted human beings giving out love and affection, caring for one another with a kindred togetherness. Enchanting recollections from those days keep pouring out of my heart, mingled with love towards all those lovable country folk.”

That’s a nostalgic statement anyone can make.  Sybil Wettasinghe doesn’t stop there whereas most would.  She adds this: “It is an experience too precious to be kept within me.”

There are those among us who want to share.  And then there are those who can.  Sybil Wettasinghe falls into the latter category.  

She is or rather her work is probably among ‘earliest memories’ for thousands of people.  Her words don’t age.  Her illustrations don’t fade.  


The last time I visited her she took me to her ‘work station.’  Her drawing book was full of ink marks.  There were names, numbers and notes, all laid out neatly.  

She loves this room.  She loves the way the sunlight streams into the room in the evening.  She said something which was simple, profound and unforgettable, much like most of her work: ‘When I am alone I become my friend and I feel so beautiful!’  

At 90 she is still as full of wonderment as she had been when she was “a child and the world seemed more fresh, nicer and a more beautiful place.” 

She wrote and illustrated children’s stories.  In doing so she showed pathways to childhood and wonderment that are not forbidden to anyone, regardless of age, location or cultural histories.  She keeps the world young and that perhaps is the secret of her enduring youthfulness.

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