The Happy Lady…. Or How To Seize The Day
One of the largest book launches I have ever experienced took place recently in the lovely premises of the Colombo Public Library; the venue couldn’t have been more adequate for Manel Abeysekera, Sri Lanka’s first woman to enter the Foreign Service in 1958.
She presented to her family, her close friends and retired colleagues, her memoirs titled Madam Sir.
A few days later, Manel Abeysekera received me at her home to talk about her book.
In 1970, when Ms. Abeysekera was posted to Thailand as Chargé d’Affaires, a driver was sent to pick her up at the airport. Unaware that a lady was coming to assume duties, the man greeted her by saying: “Welcome Madam Sir”. Forty years later, a copy of the book was being dispatched to this same driver by his one time boss.
Manel Abeysekera has the charisma of those who have achieved a great deal and yet remain down to earth and non judgmental.
“I am an extrovert, I am a gregarious person who likes to mix with people of all social strata, ethnicity and cultures. That is one of the reasons why I did not want to study by myself. My father made me start on a correspondence course for a London Degree. I completed the first year and did very well. But I wanted to study in the company of others and have a little competition.”
Somerville College at Oxford was going to be her next stop where she read a degree in Modern History. The enticing factor was that her brother was already at Oxford, making it easier for her to break away from her close knit family.
After completing her degree, a Gazette notification caught her eye. It called for applications to join the Overseas Service but stated that: ‘married women who apply must get special permission of the Public Service Commission’.
“There was a prejudice against married women, it implied that they were not able to do the job and had to continue playing second fiddle to their husbands, I don’t know what it was, but it is that sentence that made me want to apply!” Three permanent secretaries interviewed Manel Abeysekera and one of them was quite obviously hesitant in investing in her training just in case she “ got married”. A young and bold Manel answered that nowhere in the application was it stated that one has to leave after marriage and questioned if male staff resigned if they tied the knot while being in the service? She was also asked if joining the Overseas Service was a way for her to travel around the world! To that too a curt answer was given regardless of the consequences “I am a frank person and without trying to be rude I do always say what I feel. I told them that if I wanted to travel, my father could pay for it!”
Training began for an entire academic year at the University of Cambridge where Manel specialised in Italian, this was followed by a three month Foreign Service Course at the British Commonwealth Office. An illustrious career was just about to begin, and a life impossible to summarise in a few pages. Manel Abeysekera was Chief of Protocol at the Non Aligned Summit in 1976; she negotiated two hijack situations during her career with the most memorable one being when Sri Lankan national Sepala Ekanayake hijacked an Alitalia airliner and threatened to blow it up in the Bangkok Airport.
Manel Abeysekera says that her strong faith helped her deal with such challenging situations as it was a near “miracle” that Ekanayake abided by all her conditions and everyone came out unharmed. During her long career, she has met some of the most illustrious politicians and even royalty!
It seems nearly natural and logical that a book had to immortalise such a fantastic life. “ I had often thought about reflecting on my life, first because I have had such a wonderful family and second because I had such a wonderful life as a career diplomat during which I was able to meet unique people, both of which I thank God.”
When asked if Madam Sir is meant to inspire the younger generation, Manel laughed with all her heart. “Good heavens no! Never do I want to be an inspiration eventhough I am a person who is generally content and sees life in a positive way. This is a book which recollects happy memories, happy, yes.” It was time to wrap up and brave the flooding roads, but suddenly that didn’t seem like such a hassle, Madam Sir’s happiness was contagious indeed!