I first met Uthum Herat over 25 years ago as my student, when he followed the M.Sc., Programme in Applied Statistics at the University of Colombo for which I was a visiting lecturer. Later, our roles were reversed, as I found Uthum more knowledgeable than I on most Bank-related subjects, including my own, Statistics and I would seek his opinion and clarification on economic and financial issues at the Central Bank where we both worked. Finally, while following a short course in Corporate Finance at the Bank, I became his student! We began as professional colleagues, but soon developed a close friendship that spanned those same 25+ years, throughout my career in the Bank and later, until his untimely death on October 23. We would discuss the economy, professional ethics, work stress, bringing up children, American cheesecakes and other diverse topics. I appreciated his thoughtful insights and always learnt something new from our discussions.
Uthum’s advice and wise counsel were sought by the highest in the land, yet, he wore his importance lightly. He worked with many different Governors, different Monetary Board members and senior management, yet there were none who spoke ill of him or disliked him, even though they knew, in no uncertain terms, that Uthum would never take a decision that would compromise his integrity or his professionalism. He earned their respect. Among his many academic and professional achievements, he had a doctorate from Purdue University and was a qualified accountant. Yet, he was so modest, that you could know him for years and never hear mention of any of these.
He was conscientious about his work to a fault. He would often miss out on social occasions due to work pressure, coming in to the Bank at 6.30 a.m. and never leaving before pitch dark. He literally worked himself to death, maintaining an astounding commitment to the Central Bank. Yet, however busy he was, he always had time for little kindnesses which extended to everyone. In my own personal experience, on one occasion, Uthum learnt that my husband was fond of a particular snack from his student days in the USA, which he had never found in Sri Lanka. Some weeks later, Uthum dropped off two packs of this very snack that he had managed to track down in a supermarket in Mt. Lavinia!
Throughout my children’s formative years, he would send them carefully selected story books which he thought they would enjoy. He and a mutual friend in the Bank would jointly send the children birthday cards, usually enclosing book vouchers. My son is now 20 years old and at university, but even this June, Uthum found the time for an e-mail to wish him on his birthday, though I know Uthum was inundated with critically important work as Deputy Governor in charge of financial stability in the country.
During his stint at the IMF, he would always find time to inform his many friends of an upcoming visit to Sri Lanka to ask what we needed from there. No request was too trivial for his attention, and usually, a parcel would be delivered enroute from the airport - such thoughtfulness, even though he never allowed himself time to come over for a meal. Unusually, on my birthday in 2007, the year I retired from the Central Bank, it was such a treat to see him walking in that evening, straight from work, carrying his signature umbrella! This year too, a birthday card arrived by post, spot on time, just two weeks before he fell ill.
I considered Uthum a close friend, but also recognised that he was a private person. One never quite grasped the true depth and breadth of the man. There were, I know, many, many people, young and old, to whom Uthum was as close a friend. He was extremely generous with his worldly goods and his intellect and yet, his good deeds were done anonymously, so that even his left hand did not know what his right hand did. The massive gathering at his funeral - young and old; subordinates, peers and superiors; personal and professional contacts; friends from his school days and university years; worshippers from his much-loved Mt. Lavinia Methodist Church, from his bible study group and FOCUS group - reflects the enormous love and respect in which he was held by so many. As his close friend, Prof. Priyan Dias, said so eloquently at the beautiful and moving funeral service held at S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia, Uthum was self-effacing, humble and never forced his opinion on anyone.
This man, with a brilliant intellect, never looked down or passed judgment on others. He lived up to his name “Great” in all respects, but was also most human, with a wonderfully sharp wit. I remember, when we, his self-appointed “older sisters” in the Central Bank, felt he was being exploited because he would never say “no” to any task assigned to him, even if he was already inundated with work, we would scold him and suggest that he find a wife to take care of him. All our match-making failed, as he would say ‘your prescription is worse than the disease!'
He once said to me that his time as a graduate student at Purdue and as Alternate Executive Director for South Asia at the IMF were two of the happiest periods in his life. Perhaps, he felt less stress and responsibilities there and made more time for himself to enjoy his many interests - browsing in book stores, walking with nature and visiting museums, among others. He was self-contained, content with his own company and did not need a host of others to enjoy himself.
Uthum was truly, a very special person - a man of God. To me, it was more than coincidence that Uthum died on the same date, October 23, as another man of God from the previous generation, my much-loved uncle, the late Bishop Lakshman Wicremesinghe. He, like Lakshman, was blessed with a powerful intellect, unquestionable integrity and loving, gentle heart that embraced everyone.
He, like Lakshman, chose to live a life of simplicity and humility and tread this mortal world lightly. Despite significant intellectual and professional achievements, neither sought the conventional social trimmings of such achievement - no house, no car, no spouse, nor children to call their own. Yet, each shared of themselves with others, almost to a fault, loving and caring for all God’s children as their own. Neither was a saint, both enjoyed a good joke and witty conversation. Neither was ever condescending or superior. Each lived by his Christian faith, led by example and commanded respect. Uthum, like Lakshman, chose to ignore his health towards the end in the interests of his chosen vocation and he too, has died young, before the ravages of old age could leave their mark. It is we who are left behind who suffer their loss.
I remember, with gratitude, his friendship, his wise counsel, his concern and love for children, his sharp but gentle wit, his love of books and beauty, his many kindnesses and never-failing thoughtfulness and compassion. He lived his life for others at great cost to his health, but would not have lived any other way.
Uthum’s life is epitomised in many passages in the Bible. I have chosen one, Philippians, Chapter 4, verse 8, to salute him -
''Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on those things”.
In the greater presence of God, may he rest in peace and have infinite time to smell the roses. I will never forget him.
Anila Dias Bandaranaike