Madame-Sir's unique diplomacy

VIJITA FERNANDO | Updated on: Apr 07, 2011


M adame-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 and puzzlement of the driver assigned to her, P. Sompis, who wasn't sure how to address her. Since he usually called his male bosses ‘sir', he settled for ‘madame-sir', much to Manel's amusement.

“I thought this form of address was charming and decided that if one day I write my memoirs, this would be the title. So here I am, with my book Madame-Sir ,” says Manel. She infuses humour in small, but potent doses, as she recounts her years as a diplomat in the Sri Lankan Foreign Service.

The amusing title apart, the book also takes a serious look at the challenges and daunting tasks of diplomacy. Manel's first job 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 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 shine through her memoir, making these events come alive to 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 hundreds of tasks and emergencies to be dealt with. Manel was able to take on the challenge in her inimitable style.

Though she has “never considered myself to be a feminist”, several incidents in the book show her to be one in the true sense. During her recruitment, for instance, one of the interviewers wondered whether, after being trained at the Government's expense, she might marry and leave the service. Her 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!”

It was certainly not just Manel's smart repartee that got her selected as her country's first woman diplomat — she had all the necessary qualifications, including a Cambridge education, the support of her educated parents and a favourable climate in the country wherein the then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike himself was interested in foreign affairs and wished to steer towards a new, progressive course.

“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 United Nations' first World Conference on Women in Mexico, it awakened my interest in gender issues and the cause of women,” she recalls.

Madame-Sir gives glimpses of the many curiosities that Manel came across during her postings in world capitals. Manel has the knack of seeing the bright side in the grimmest situation, and the ability to laugh at herself, which greatly enhances the readability of her book.

Alongside the easy banter and interesting anecdotes, 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 1970s and 1980s.

Manel has avoided the trap of being overly nostalgic or slipping into sentimentality, thanks to her gift of being able to laugh at the little pinpricks that came her way.

© Women's Feature Service

Published on April 07, 2011
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