The daughter of a writer, I was introduced to the magical formula of reading and writing at an early age, by my father.
My father Premil Ratnayake knew Sybil Wettasinghe well – they both shared a common work heritage at the Lake House, the home of legendary journalists.
I was five or six years old when he brought me Duwana Rawula (The Runaway Beard) which was the first Sybil Weerasinghe book I ever read.
More would follow. Many, actually.
As I started to discover the magical world of books, her mesmerizing stories of the simple village life became more than just books – they were escapades, a journey into an imaginary world of enchantment, one in which wonderful characters lived.
Her books were a staple for us as children of the Seventies.
We had no phones, no internet and not even TV back then.
But we had her books.
Listening to me, my thirteen year old daughter raises her eyebrows –
“but what did you do then, Ammi?“
We read. That’s what we did, I tell her. We read Enid Blyton, we read Charles Dickens, we read Nancy Drew.
And yes, we read Sybil Wettasinghe.
Fed on a diet of reading that nourished you from inside out, it would not have done justice to the words I read if I hadn’t turned to writing – which came as natural as reading was to me.
I would clank away at my father’s old typewriter, writing stories and articles for children’s newspapers.
All the while, reading Aunty Sybil, among others.
But the enchantment of dear Aunty Sybil didn’t end in childhood for me.
Years later, as I continued my reading and writing into adulthood, her book Vaniyan Kalu Vaniyan (The Child In Me) which chronicles the serene childhood spent in the charming village of Gintota, in Galle, never failed to inspire the child in me.
It was her gift to the next generations – her signature narrative about a way of life that no longer existed.
If she didn’t tell the stories, how would we understand?
How would we know the thrill of going to school across streams and greenery? The thrill of picking fruit that grew so abundantly in the village?
How would we know the love of a grandmother for her granddaughter as they foraged the forest together for ripe fruit?
The story teller in Sybil Wettasinghe takes us by the hand and together, we discover her village home, the idyllic setting of her aththamma’s (grandmother’s) house.
We meet the characters who bring her stories to life – Sedara Akka, Loku Amma, Babun Appu, Nandaseeli and many other village folk whose stories she so charmingly details.
The silvery waters of the stream in which little Sybil and her grandma bathed – or the silvery moon on that special night when her mother and the rest of the villagers would boil jackfruit and eat it as a midnight feast.
We are right there with her as the cook Carolyn churns out condiments on the traditional stone grinder, almost meditating.
Or ponder the plate sized hoppers little Sybil had for breakfast on her way to the primary school.
The stories are not just full of enchantment but they bring to life the vivid memories of a simple childhood, spent in the serenity of a village in which everyone knew everyone and life was a lot less complicated.
It was the old world charm of an era long vanished – yet still alive in the pages of her books, living on for the generations to come.
Her other books – from Runaway Beard to Children of the Clay House, often chronicled simple stories that left a deep impact on children. Her lucid style of story telling captivated audiences, whether young or old.
The stories were never complete without her magical drawings that accompanied the stories.
I will never forget how the old Seeya (grandfather) in the Runaway Beard found his beard growing as white as snow to fill an entire house – the childhood memory is still so alive that I could close my eyes and hear my father reading the book to me.
Thank you Aunty Sybil for your unforgettable art of story telling. The clarity, the lucid style that never failed to captivate hearts and minds as you took us on journeys into the heartland of the village.
The characters you helped us remember – the stories you told so beautifully.
It is indeed a privilege to pass on your legacy that lit a thousand lights in the fertile mind of the young – to my children.
They have enjoyed your books as much as I have.
May the turf lie gently over you – may the stories live on in our hearts.