‘Kuda Hora’ (Umbrella Thief) is a story that many have grown up with. It’s a fascinating tale of umbrella after umbrella being stolen to the consternation of not just those who lost theirs but the entire village. And of course the reader. The culprit is eventually found — it is a monkey. And all the stolen umbrellas are found hanging from the branch of a tree. That final visual with its vivid and varied colors etches itself in the mind and heart of the reader. Indelible.
That’s what Sybil Wettasinghe did all her life. She wove stories. She painted them. She coloured the childhood of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world with word, line and hue. She was friend, companion and partner in all childhood pursuits of these children. And she kept them young throughout their lives and hers, through adolescence, youth, middle age and even the evening years.
And now she’s gone. She, the assured umbrella that kept away monsoonal rains and scorching sun while ensuring warmth and breeze, is gone. Someone or something has taken that umbrella away, it seems.
In her later years and depending on the age of the particular person, she was not Sybil but Aunty Sybil, Sybil Nanda or Sybil Aachchi. And yet she was always a child in that she never stopped delighting in the simple things around her. The day’s last sunlight was streaming through the window of the room where she ‘worked’ or rather ‘played,’ as she spoke to me.
This is how I read that moment: ‘I am convinced that [sunlight] was drawn to a child who has the rare gift to illuminate in much the same way – without announcement or fanfare, with utmost innocence and in words so soft they might be mistaken for silence.’
“‘When I am alone I become my friend and I feel so beautiful!’ “
And this is what she said: ‘When I am alone I become my friend and I feel so beautiful!’
‘She was beautiful. She was young. She had the curiosity of a child. Her eyes were as full of wonderment at the world around her. She smiled all the time and her voice seems eternally coated with the chirpiness only a child can have.’
That’s what I wrote back then. That’s how I will always remember her.
She’s gone now and I might be inclined to say ‘she’s left us vulnerable to high winds, heavy rain and insufferable noonday heat. Except that Sybil Nanda always knew how to take care of people and in particular the child in each of us that refuses to die. And she knew how to end her fascinating stories. She told us how to find stolen umbrellas and made sure that we will be safe from the elements when they get configured in intemperate ways.
Some umbrellas will never get stolen. Sybil Wettasinghe made sure of this. She hasn’t left. She’s just walked into her stories, blended with the colours and is dancing with the lines. Beautiful. Soft. Smiling. Indelible. Such a child she is!