12 August, 2020

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Sybil: A Farewell To A Legendary Storyteller 

By Himansi Dehigama –

Himansi Dehigama

I just returned after paying my last respects to Mrs. Sybil Wettasinghe, or the legendary storyteller, as I would rather call her. “The body” as now they would call it, lies delicately, in a calm and quiet environment, dressed in a charming white saree ready to enter a magical world of enchantment, the world she has always been dreaming of, with which she tried to enlighten the little hearts. According to her family members she was in extreme good health just a week before, which was proved through the beautifully mingled bright and vibrant colours of her last illustration done just a few days back, of which we were lucky enough to have a glimpse. The painting said a lot, but not that she would be in heaven by the time this comes out as a publication, with all those beautiful characters she has given life to, in her entire lifetime. 

How could one person make a delightful story which is accepted, treasured, and embraced by generations? The world changes rapidly in the blink of an eye and every day the context of one’s life is renewed in numerous ways with so many complexities. But Sybil, her writings, and illustrations still stand out, waiting to delight one’s heart and soul, bringing out love, faith, compassion, and mostly an enchanting beauty which never fades in any given condition. I believe it is the intimacy of her fabulous work that has made generations love her enduring work, no matter what, when, or where. No matter whether we are kids, youth, adults, or among the aged. We still and will forever tend to breathe in those beautifully worded works of hers as they are intertwined with the subtle beauties of nature and the hidden innocence of the human being. It’s because of her capacity of describing the world in unforgettable ways. It’s because of the magical feeling she creates through eternally being engaged with things which otherwise are yet to attract our attention.

Sybil Wettasinghe

 There was a time nearly forty years back that I was impatient until it was Thursday to read the “Dinamina” paper where in a corner column appeared Sybil Wettasinghe’s “Sooththara Puncha”. That is an engraved memory of my childhood when books were not in abundance for us to buy. Waiting for a week to read a story, was, in a way, a treasured memory. The only book I had then was “Duwana Rawula” of Sybil Wettasinghe (The Runaway Beard). Never did I dream at that time, that I would, in another forty years, would still have the same desire and the same passion and craving to read her stories just as I did then. Today, hugging the pile of books of Sybil’s I told my younger son, “Putha, take care of these precious books even after I die. These books will continue to share your life and they are precious.”

It’s a mystery.

I am a middle-aged woman now with young children and here I am with my mind still revolving around the beautiful memories of my childhood. When my boys sit with me and listen to all those stories, I feel I have given life back again to my cherished memories. Now, when I read Sybil’s books about the times she spends with her grandmother in Ginthota, there are multiple times these stories have carried me back to the times I lived in a village many miles away from Colombo with my family, where my grandmother played a prominent role in my life.

Sybil grasped the beauty and the innocence of the little minds of children in the most magnificent way. When I read or narrate her stories to my boys, there has been no resistance in me but a constant desire and a craving deep within to enter that amazing wonder world of her imaginations. The beautiful, colour-filled, unique illustrations carry us, far back, reviving us and pumping up our energy to relive our childhood. Reading “Sybil” together with my boys has been an all-time love for me.

This morning (1st July) at home I was reading the story of “Matigedara Lamayi” to my son and his friend when I got the sad news. It was a coincidence. My heart cried out. But I thought to myself it’s just her physicality we would miss. It’s a somewhat difficult thing to identify her as just a “person” who is separate from her writings. Her heart and soul cannot be taken and described as separate entities as they represent each and every storybook and illustration. All her stories depict love, beauty, innocence, and the purity of little hearts. They are like intangible substances which blend together to make a vivid painting on a canvas. Through them, she creates all imaginings into which a little mind could deeply excavate. Her unique illustrations enhance the beauty of all the aththammaas, seeyaas, muththas, devils, animals, gamaralas, princes, and princesses of her stories. Though she is no more with us, her works will enlighten generations to come as they have always done.  

Three years back I was fortunate enough to meet her at the exhibition organized to commemorate her 90th birthday. It was such a pleasure to see her vibrant at that time and she was a rare visual of someone who is of her age. Seeing her I felt it was all the love she has for small children that made her look so.  Elegantly dressed in the Kandyan saree, she enjoyed the shoal of little boys and girls and many more men and women of different ages, who surrounded her then. I am not here to recall her past but to write what I feel of her as a reader and a teacher and mostly a human being. 

I have no doubt she regretted about today’s world. In that case, I feel she left right on time. She did immense work to revive several generations. She lived a life close to a century in length, through which a vast array of rapid changes in this society took place. Politically, socially, economically, the world accelerated its development, yet people hardly have time and space for themselves. Today where an individualized world waits to greet us, people like Sybil who have the capability to even share your own breath, are extinct. The bond and the empathy she creates in her magical stories do not have a long life span in today’s reality. Today’s world is such agony and it’s not ready to capture the beauty of our lives as Sybil tries to do in her enchanted writings. That day in 1933 when her family decided to shift to Colombo to offer English education to Sybil, she says she felt like her vivid childish dreams were bundled up and loaded in a lorry with the other “materials” to be brought to Colombo with them. But the child in her didn’t vanish, it couldn’t be bundled up; instead, it was strengthened, becoming wings to soar high in the air revealing more and more of her unique capacity to embrace the society. 

But let us make a pledge to make this world beautiful in her absence. Let’s make our children blossom, surrounded by the magical beauty as in Sybil’s heart throbbing stories. Let’s make for them no boundaries. Let’s pave for them the way to enjoy the beauty of a crawling line of ants, to listen to the harmony of croaking toads after an evening of torrential rain, to embrace the rain and the darker clouds, not just the shining sun and the blue sky, to gaze at a squirrel digging into a ripe fruit on a tree. Their lives then will be filled with eternal love, the love towards humanity which we long for. 

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    I loved her books growing up. and May she achieve the supreme bliss of Nibbana,

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