'Madame-Sir' - the title's certainly intriguing. And here's the story behind it. When Manel Abeysekera, Sri Lanka's first woman career diplomat, was posted as the ambassador in Bangkok, Thailand, women diplomats were a rarity.
By Vijita Fernando
© Women's Feature Service
Colombo (Women's Feature Service) - 'Madame-Sir' - the title's certainly intriguing. And here's the story behind it. When Manel Abeysekera, Sri Lanka's first woman career diplomat, was posted as the ambassador in Bangkok, Thailand, women diplomats were a rarity. So imagine the shock of the driver assigned to her when he found himself serving under a woman. P. Sompis was puzzled as to how he would address her. Since he usually called all his male bosses 'Sir', he settled for 'Madame-Sir', much to Abeysekera's amusement!
"I thought this form of address was charming and decided that if one day I decide to write my memoirs, this would be the title. So here I am, with my book 'Madame-Sir!'" Abeysekera laughs.
If laughter is the best medicine, then Abeysekera certainly gives her readers laughter in small, but potent, doses, as she recounts her years as a diplomat in the Sri Lankan Foreign Service. But 'Madame Sir' - despite its amusing title - is not all fun and laughter. The book also takes a serious look at the challenges and daunting tasks of diplomacy. Abeysekera's first venture as a career diplomat was a tough one. "Soon after I took this posting, a Sri Lankan youth, Sepala de Silva, hijacked an Alitalia Boeing 169 with 169 passengers on board at Bangkok airport. Nothing in my training had prepared me for this particular contingency, but I was able to convince the man to free the passengers after hours of pleading and speaking...," she recounts.
Her tact and understanding in tackling difficult situations shines through her memoir, making these events come alive to her readers. "The Non Aligned Conference held in Colombo in 1976 was the most daunting assignment I handled, as Chief of Protocol," she reveals. It went off without a hitch despite the literally hundreds of tasks and emergencies that had to be dealt with to make the conference a success. Of course, there were hiccups along the way, but Abeysekera was able to take on the challenge in her own inimitable style.
Even though she has "never considered myself to be a feminist" several incidents related in her book, especially the time she was being recruited, show her to be one in the true sense. She describes in detail an incident that happened when she was being recruited for the service. One of the panel interviewing her asked her what would happen if, after being trained at government expense, she were to marry and leave the service. To this, she gave a quick response: "If any man you recruit could leave at will, there is no stipulation in the conditions of the service that a woman could marry and not remain in the service. The choice, therefore, is left to me and whoever I married!"
Abeysekera was selected, becoming the first ever woman career diplomat in the country. It was certainly not her smart repartee that got her in. She had all the necessary qualifications - a Cambridge education, the backing of her educated parents and a favourable climate in the country when the Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike himself was interested in foreign affairs and wished to steer a new course that he felt was good for the country.
"Though I had always claimed that I was not greatly interested in gender matters, when I accompanied Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first woman Prime Minister, to the first UN World conference in Mexico, it awakened my interest in gender issues and the cause of women," she recalls.
'Madame-Sir' certainly lives up to its unusual title. In its pages one gets a glimpse of many of the curiosities that Abeysekera came across during her several postings in world capitals. These give life to a narrative, which could easily have degenerated into a dull record of a career diplomat's life and work through several decades - something this book certainly is not. Exuberant and happy, as the author is in real life, Abeysekera has the knack of seeing the bright side in the grimmest situation, and the rare ability to laugh at herself.
But it doesn't take long to see that, despite the easy banter and the racy style of the book, there is a serious vein running though. The reader is introduced to important world events, the political climate of Sri Lanka at the time, the ups and downs of politicians, the making and breaking of political systems, and the intrigues and idiosyncrasies of life in the Seventies and Eighties.
Abeysekera has avoided the danger of many reminiscences - of being overly nostalgic and slipping into sentimentality. This trap she cleverly sidesteps through her gift of laughter at the little pinpricks that came her way.
Reading 'Madame-Sir', one sees a silken thread that weaves through her story: The unstinted support of her parents and siblings, and the trust and affection she won from her colleagues. It may have also helped that she had an unwavering faith in the Almighty, especially during the tough times.
(© Women's Feature Service)