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Sybil Wettasinghe (3)
Sybil Wettasinghe

I met her at a meeting of the English Writers’ Cooperative. This was the first time I had met Sybil Wettasinghe. I had heard that she could draw. I asked her if she could illustrate a story I had written, ‘Mandy and the Purple Dolphin’.

Ms Wettasinghe said, ‘I have to read it first and if I think I can I will illustrate it.’

That was good enough for me. I sent her the book by post. I called her. I was disappointed. She said she could do the job, but I would have to wait until January 2016. I wanted to publish the book and give it to my nephew as a birthday gift. So I told her ‘that won’t do’. I asked her return the manuscript.

She asked me to collect the manuscript myself. I had no choice in the matter. I went. I stood at her door. She gave me the manuscript. I told her as I left, ‘You will have to write to my lawyer’. She said, ‘Why should I write to a lawyer; my dealings have always been with authors, not lawyers,’ or something to that effect.

I asked my lawyer to send her a note. The following is the gist of the letter they sent her, about a week later.

‘We write on the instructions of our client Malinda Seneviratne, who has advised us that he had handed over to you in May the manuscript of a story titled ‘Mandy and the Purple Dolphin’ which was to be illustrated by you. However, you had told him that you can complete the work only by January 2016. Since this didn’t suit our client, he had collected the manuscript on June 25. This letter is to formally acknowledge that our client has advised us that the draft of the story given to you has been collected by him. Our client would be obliged if no further action is taken by you either to publish or illustrate the story in any of your publications.’

End of story.Sorry, end of THAT story. The postscript follows.

The truth is that I first met Sybil Nandaa more than forty years ago. ‘Nandaa’ as in ‘Aunty’ by the way, which, by the way again, doesn’t quite translate for me the warmth, affinity and respect embedded in the Sinhala kin term ‘kekaod’. ‘Aunt’ or ‘Aunty’ would be an insult. So yes, to continue, I first met her when my mother brought home some of her work purchased at a book exhibition. Children’s stories. Amazing children’s stories with wonderful illustrations. Children’s stories which I would several decades later buy and read to my own children.

The truth is, I did not insult Sybil Wettasinghe. Someone else did. Someone else insulted her by doing exactly what I said I had done. The truth is I don’t know if it was ignorance or arrogance or something else that made that person do it. Perhaps the person doesn’t even see ‘insult’ in all that transpired. Had I done it though, I would have been insulting an iconic literary figure, held in high regard not just in Sri Lanka but the world over.

Sybil Nandaa wrote ‘l=v fydrd’ (‘Kuda Horaa’ or ‘Umbrella Thief’) in 1956. That’s almost 60 years ago. She’s almost 87 years old. My grandmother died when she was 92. I would never ask her to deliver something to me. My mother died when she was 73. I would not ask her to deliver something to me. I wouldn’t ask anyone that age to deliver anything to me. Clearly respect for the elderly was something that was alien to this person.

I know that Sybil Nandaa doesn’t publish other people’s books. This person obviously thought different. Perhaps the author of that book thought Sybil Nanda might make some bucks on the sly or even thought she might publish the book in her name! Perhaps the lawyer’s letter was a precaution. Some might call it gumption, especially those who know Sybil Wettasinghe.

Her work has been translated into many languages. Her stories are read and loved by children in Japan, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, China and Korea, among other places. She’s been illustrating since the age of 15. She illustrated Martin Wickramasinghe’s ‘wfma .u’ (‘Ape’ Gama’ translated into English as ‘Lay Bare the Roots’ by Prof Ashley Halpe). She illustrated the ‘Sadaham Maga’ of Narada Haamuduruwo. Almost 88, she still writes. She still illustrates. Why on earth would Sybil Nandaa want to pinch someone else’s story?
The author of the book has not stepped into Sybil Nandaa’s house. A pity. A lot would have been learnt. Sybil Nandaa would have been spared the insults she certainly does not deserve. That was the first time she had ever received such a letter.

So forget the headline of this piece. I did not insult Sybil Wettasinghe. Someone else did. It hurts me. That’s all.

Sybil Wettasinghe (2)
Sybil Wettasinghe has been illustrating since the age of 15