The Sunday Leader

Appreciation

Dr. Uthum Herat

On October 23, Deputy-Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Uthum Herat, passed away at the premature age of 52, after a brief illness. His outstanding career at the Central Bank, his total dedication and commitment to his work there have been described many times in the media in the past few weeks, by colleagues, underlining the tremendous loss the country has suffered by his sudden demise. The superlatives that have been used to describe not only his professional talents as an economist, but his personal traits as a man, would appear incredible if they were not true. Here I offer my own personal tribute, not to Uthum the Banker about whom others have spoken of so eloquently, but to Uthum the Man, the friend of my youth, who set the standard of integrity and decency by which I hope to live my life.

I have known Uthum Herat for a little over 40 years, since shortly after he transferred from S. Thomas’ Preparatory School, Kollupitiya, to S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia. For nearly all of that time, I have been privileged to be his friend. Early in our acquaintance, I, like others of our classmates, came to realise that Uthum was special. Not that he was a brilliant student, a talented athlete, or anything like that. Highly intelligent though he was, he did not stand out in a class that contained an unusually large number of exceptional students. What made him special was his character.

Even as a schoolboy, Uthum was the perfect gentleman. His impeccable manners and a few idiosyncratic mannerisms reinforced this impression. He was always scrupulously polite and considerate, even to close friends. One close friend was actually his umbrella; rain or shine, he was seldom seen without it. He also had a strikingly old-fashioned, courteous way of bowing to people. Whenever he and I met, we would bow gravely to each other, much to the amusement of my sisters and, later, the lady who became my wife.

But it was not just the outward expression of good manners that endeared Uthum to us. He had the firmest commitment to his principles and the most unshakable integrity of anyone I knew. Much of this derived from his absolute commitment to God; but much was innate. His commitment to principles and religion was never intolerant, intrusive, or evangelical. Rather it was that of a gentle and caring friend, always respectful of the beliefs and feelings of others. His great personal humility was tempered by a dry sense of humour and gentle sarcasm.
Underneath the stiff exterior, Uthum was a romantic at heart. His tastes in literature were broad, ranging from science fiction and fantasy to “Western” novels, but he had a particular yen for early 20th century British authors of light and romantic fiction. The depth and breadth of his reading gave him a superb command of the English language, which, I gather, stood him in good stead later on.

In 1976, Uthum and I went our ways, he to the University of Jaffna and I to the University of Colombo. The following year, the deteriorating security situation forced Uthum and the other Sinhalese students out of Jaffna, and he eventually completed his degree in Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, graduating with First Class Honours. Shortly thereafter, I went to the United States in pursuit of post-graduate education. Uthum, who had already joined the Central Bank, followed me there a few years later. During this period, I temporarily lost touch with nearly all my former classmates from S. Thomas’ College, but Uthum and I always stayed in touch, and managed to see each other in the U.S.

After completing a Ph.D. in Economics at Purdue University, Uthum returned to Sri Lanka and continued his career at the Central Bank, while I pursued an academic career in the U.S. During my periodic visits to Sri Lanka, I would always get together with Uthum. I discovered quickly that it was nearly impossible to reach Uthum at home at a reasonable hour in the evening, since he was seldom there. He eventually gave me the telephone number of his office at the Central Bank, so that I could call him there, usually after 8 o’clock in the evening. I once made the mistake of asking him what he was doing in his office until so late. His response, “Oh, I am sweeping the floor,” was a characteristic mix of self-deprecation and caustic humour.

The intensity of Uthum’s commitment to his work went up a notch after his promotion to Deputy Governor earlier this year. It would be idle and perhaps disrespectful to speculate whether the resulting stress was a contributing factor in his sudden and unexpected death, which sent shock waves through a worldwide circle of friends and associates. Uthum chose to live the way he did, and we who survive him can only feel honoured that we had a chance to share some part of his life.

Ranil D. Guneratne

1 Comment for “Appreciation”

  1. Incredible story. How come he died like that at a relatively young age. what were his personal circumstances – was he married – had family etc.? Why should he sweep the floor of Central Bank when there are so many peons there!?. Our deepest sympathies to the loved ones.

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