Her pinkish dress ballooned like a buckram over her feet. A scene from Vasilisa The Beautiful, except she was seriously ill, semi-conscious. I stroked her hair and spoke in her ear” Sybil nanda, it’s, me, open your eyes” She half-opened her eyes-one hazy, one good. “Butterfly” she said. And then she spoke in a language of her own- a series of incomprehensible words. That was the last time we spoke.
Outside the ward I ran into my friend Thanuja who first introduced me to Sybil. We spoke some words of comfort suppressing our tears.
“Butterfly, be kind to yourself”
Once upon a time, my friend Dr. Neelika Karunaratne conjured a story about a family of butterflies. She pushed me to write her story and I had it illustrated by our favorite artist Sybil Wettasinghe. I still remember my first visit to Sybil, holding a bunch of colorful roses. Like puppies in the grass, Sybil and I fell in friendly love. I had a smart phone. Sybil had smart brain. And a land line. So, she and I ventured in to an adventure of creation and talking. By the time we got around to finishing our book, Neelika has been diagnosed with lung cancer with a timeline. “If I’m ever unconscious, Santhu, bring this book to my bed” said Neelika, lightly. Neelika had her way in life and in death. “She died” I told Sybil over the phone, choking on tears. “Butterfly, be kind to yourself, we tried our best at making her happy” Sybil said.
“To Halmessa with love”
Those who associate celebrities, politicians, famous people know this: they are best admired from a distance. If you get closer to them, our idea of their celebrity crumbles fast to reveal the common nakedness of their souls. The icons themselves are the iconoclasts of themselves. Sybil was one celebrity whom I adored exponentially with time. More time I shared with her, the more resplendent she revealed to be. The more I loved her, the more inclusive she became of my thoughts, ways, errors, anger, petty enmities, big grudges. The more she dissolved my ills in to her ocean of bliss and joy, my poison diluted to became… love. Our friendship transcended age. She embraced my children, nannies, troubles; rejoiced in my triumph. The one-time nanny of my son, Siyumini*(name changed) did her morning shift with an amnesic ex- politician where her duty was to sit and talk to him and nod politely as he read out highbrow books. He called her “Halmessa” (sprat) because Siyumini was so thin. One day amongst several books Sybil gifted me, I saw the Tamil translation of her hilarious book “Kusumlatha” amongst them. Inside was an inscription: “To Halmessa with love. Sybil nanda”. Clutching “Kusumlatha” to her chest Siyumini squealed with joy” this is the first time someone other than an employer gave me a gift, Miss!”.
Message from a prophet
Sybil’s ways were simple. She avoided TV news. She was always herself. She has mastered the art of avoiding those who tamper her soul. She was lucky too. She had a husband who told her not to spend time at a sink washing dishes and rather, to use her hands to draw; Mr. D.B. Dhanapala who was deaf to big wigs who told him that teenage Sybil’s childish, animated style should change; Mr. D.R. Wijewardena who understood that young Sybil liked a quiet space in the big media world to herself -to be herself. “
The name Sybil means prophet in Greek. Sybil’s unequivocal message was to not obsess about evil people; not combat pigs; let things go; forgive easily; even when someone is taking advantage of your goodness, be gracious about it. And to laugh at yourself, liberally. “It feels funny when they call me a legend puthey, I’m just a girl falling on to a rocking chair neh?” This was literally true because with age her hips were not very flexible and she had to drop herself on to her rocking chair.
There is a signature cat that appears in many of Sybil’s illustrations. There is an actual cat who visited her at her little room. It first sits on the room; then by the window; then at the table. There they were, Sybil and her cat. She had an intricate knowledge about the natural world. You can note the powerful zoological and botanical accuracy in her art. The proportion of the human body, ethnic anatomy, biological variations she captured and turned in to children’s art are worthy of serious academic study. Even her fantasy drawings are emblematic of a deep understanding of historical and cultural context of the story told. And to convert the observed biological accuracy in to her style of art is a reflection of her artistic intelligence. This talent made children across a plethora of culture and language embraced Sybil’s universal storytelling with love. Although the name Sybil invokes a sense of childlike levity in many, Sybil was a profound and serious artist cum writer. Centuries of oral culture, mythical stories, folk narrations and her personal experiences all converted to unique stories and art in her hands. I believe that Sybil is the stand-alone icon of the Sri Lankan tradition of Modern Fantastic Literature. And at the heart of all this achievement, I believe was her unshaken respect for children.
Try living till 93
Yes. Try it. It’s not easy. Sybil lost the sight of one eye years ago. Many of her fantastic and uncommon work were done with the sight of one eye. She has seen her parents die; her husband die; her child die. When we think of an ever-young legend like Sybil we probably don’t consider the toll time would have taken on her because she is out go-to person for happiness. But Sybil’s life was a human life, just like ours. She felt sadness and loss just like us. She was vulnerable, fallible like us. She was trusting of sob stories and would fall prey to guileful ones. Yet she grudged no one. Her self-cleansing heart beat just so to the last breath. In spite of the tribulations of an adult life she only gave out love, understanding, compassion, forgiveness.
The last time I met her at her house she showed me an uncommon picture of Lord Buddha that she had drawn with a pen. The entire image was put together with interrupting minute lines. “As I draw each tine line I’m thinking,’ I have tried not to hurt anyone in this world. And if I have, I am sorry’”.
Room of her own
Sybil lived in her authentic independence. Her tiny room in her tiny house which she insisted on living in reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Room Of Her Own. We all need a room of our own. To be ourselves. Those who do not understand the inexplicable solace of solitude and the organic process in which artists create art may wonder why she lived so. She lived so because that is where she was, she. Sybil led an uncontested life of integrity committed to spreading her truth. Many multinational companies would approach her to get her services to promote their products, to write create endorsing scripts and attractive pictures. She refused shady ones with her signature gentleness. Although we think of her as an eternal child and although the child in her would live forever, she had the feminism of Sylvia Plath, the resolve of Virginia Woolf, the categorical straight shooting of Arundhati Roy. Sybil was my hero, not just because she was my friend. She was my hero because when she kissed my cheeks, thrice, whenever we parted and when she inhaled my skin in to her lungs and as I did hers in a real grandmother kiss, generations of women who dared to stay true to their unapologetic, authentic truth kissed me and hugged me through her. And in a moment of truth, a better world was seemed possible to me.
Sybil nanda, its been three months since you left. Creating art and sharing life with you was the greatest honour. I miss you so much. I love you so much. I will see you again one day.
- Santhushya Fernando
(Facebook page of Monkey.Business)
(Dr Santhushya Fernando is a Sri Lankan Public Health Specialist. She has been educated in Army Medical College Pakistan, Post Graduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo (PGIM) and University of Oxford, UK. She is the co-author of “Montage of Sexuality in Sri Lanka)