On the corner of Bauddhaloka Mawatha (once known as Bullers Road) and Bullers Lane, lies Thurban House. For many years, it stood, unassuming, and for many people, almost lost in sight. This was until Sanath Weeratne, the Public Trustee, started refurbishing it. This year, they unveiled a statue in front of it. It was the statue of Sir D.B. Jayatilaka – this year was his 150th birth anniversary and tomorrow (29) will be his 74th death anniversary.
Thurban House, once owned by Sir D.B., was his prized possession, said Weeratne, and in his last will, he left the house and his close to 100-acre coconut estate in Dodangaslanda, called Pitakanda Estate, to the Public Trustee to manage. More importantly, he insisted that the Office of the Public Trustee as long as it functions in Sri Lanka, functions from his house. “If not for Sir D.B., we would not be here today, literally,” said Weeratne.
The life and, perhaps even more, the death of Sir D.B. Jayatilaka has been closely entwined with the Office of Public Trustee. In the 76 years he lived, Sir D.B., an educationalist, scholar and statesman, came to be a trailblazer for many who came after him. He was the first Sri Lankan Vice President of the Legislative Council of Ceylon; the Home Affairs Minister and Leader of the House of the State Council of Ceylon; and the first Representative of the Government of Ceylon in New Delhi. An ardent scholar of Buddhism, he founded the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) and helped uplift Dharmaraja College, Kandy and Ananda College, Colombo, during his time as their principals.
More importantly, according to Weeratne, he was a key personality in the establishing of the Office of the Public Trustee and was one of the first to donate his property to it.
The Public Trustee today manages 1,100 wills and over 54 estates and trusts, but it all started with the last will of Sir D.B.
The last will
Public Trustee Sanath Weeratne reads Sir D.B’s last will.
Great insight into a man’s life can be obtained through the reading of his last will. It embodies who he is and what he treasures most. And more importantly, what he would like his legacy to be.
“I have seen thousands of wills in my time as an attorney and now as the Public Trustee, but Sir D.B.’s last will is truly one of the most remarkable,” said Weeratne.
Sitting in his office at Thurban House, he explained how Sir D.B. had described what he wished done with his assets to the very last detail, including his clothes. “I direct the Public Trustee to sell all my wearing apparel and to apply the proceedings for charitable purposes in his discretion,” said Weeratne, reading from Sir D.B.’s will.
“This was a person who was tipped to be the first Prime Minister of the country, if not for his untimely demise. He bestowed the majority of his estate, or the most prized asset, in the trust of the Public Trustee. That shows the faith people like Sir D. B. had at that time in the system – in the administrative, legislative and political system of the country which was prevalent in our country.”
The date of Sir D.B.’s his last was January 4, 1933, three years after he was elected from the Colombo District to the Legislative Council of Ceylon and then appointed as its Vice President – the highest post a Ceylonese could hold in the Legislature at the time. It is unusual for a politician to leave his prized assets to the state as soon as he is elected to government, but this reflected a rare trait of committing oneself completely to the service of one’s country.
Further, he nominated the Public Trustee as the sole executor of his will, disbarring all others to question the discretion and authority of the Public Trustee when executing it.
“It is amazing to see how the Public Trustee has been such given a lot of authority,” said Weeratne.
The will further states, “All books, both printed and manuscript other than books of account in my library, I give and bequeath unto the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), a Corporation duly incorporated by the Ordinance 11 of 1927. To be preserved carefully as a separate collection and I declare it to be my ardent wish that no work of importance be removed from the reading room of the said association. I further declare that the receipt of the person who professes to be the secretary, for the time being, of the said association, shall be sufficiently discharged to the Public Trustee who shall not be concerned to see that my aforementioned wish is carried out.”
“So he donates his entire library to the YMBA and he says that as long as the person holding the position of secretary of the YMBA issues a receipt, that person has the obligation of Public Trustee. That shows the faith he had not only in one institution, but all other associations,” said Weeratne.
When it comes to the personal effects, Sir D.B. states, “I direct the Public Trustee to divide the said jewellery into as many shares and proportions as are nearly equal in value to the best judgement and in absolute and uncontrolled discretion of the Public Trustee.”
His most prized asset, Thurban house which sits on 30.5 perches of prime land in Colombo 7, he wanted to be used as the Office of the Public Trustee in Sri Lanka.
“He built this property on his own. His relatives say he built it between 1928 and 1930. Very soon this will be a heritage property when it reaches 100 years,” said Weeratne.
The bricks for the house had come from his family kiln in Kelaniya and according to records at the Public Trustee, he had taken an annual insurance premium of Rs. 50,000 on the house from an insurance company in England.
“He would apparently sit on the balcony at the front and watch the races at Race Course as a way to relax after a long day.”
The story goes that Sir D.B. named his house Thurban House after a name he picked up during his time at Oxford University. Perhaps it was after Thomas W. Thurban, the first violinist in the orchestra of the Oxford Music Hall in the 1930s.
And given his love for the house, he states in his will, “And without imposing any restrictions whatsoever upon the Public Trustee I declare it to be my ‘earnest wish’ that as far as possible and practicable, my residual immovable properties, in particular the house and grounds called ‘Thurban House’ on Bullers Road, Colombo and my Pitakanda estate situated at Maduragoda, in the Kurunegala District, shall not be sold.”
Weeratne noted that it was a good thing that this was included. “One fine day, you might have someone say, ‘Why should the Public Trustee’s office be here, you could sell it and put up a hotel, apartment or shopping complex, because this is prime property?’ So I think his foresight was such that he wanted his legacy to continue. The legacy of Thurban House, his prized asset, to continue. His legacy of his coconut estate to continue as a coconut estate. He obviously did not want any apartments or quarries to replace them.”
Finally, in one of the last paragraphs of the last will, he states, “Public Trustee to place those monies in fixed deposits in any bank or banks and to pay the income from such deposits to or for the benefit of any educational or charitable purpose or purposes or for social work in such manner as the Public Trustee (whose discretion as to whether any purpose or work is educational, social or charitable shall be final) may in his absolute and uncontrolled discretion see fit.”
To Weeratne, this last will is a great example of a man using the letter of the law in the best possible manner. “The way he uses his language is remarkable. He directs at times, he pleads at times (earnest request to not sell this), then gives absolute undisturbed discretion on what to do with the money.”
Have we held up our end of the bargain?
According to A.A. de Silva’s book Lives that Inspire, Sir D.B., “came to politics without some of the advantages most of his contemporaries had over him.
He did not come from the rich land-owning class, nor was he professionally qualified at the time of his entry into national politics. But long before he left active the active political scene in 1943, to be become Ceylon’s first representative in India, he had become the undisputed leader of Ceylon.”
D.S. Senanayake who went on to become the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon was Sir D.B.’s deputy.
During the election of 1924 to the National Legislative Council, D.B. was so popular that no one was willing to contest him in his electorate. “In fact, no one dared to do so since public opinion and public support would have at that time won him any position.”
His biographer further states, “His popularity was neither purchased nor earned overnight. This was the esteem of a people who held Jayatilaka high, for his services in many fields over the years.”
However, during his life Jayatilaka proved to be too honest to be able to survive. After he successfully negotiated for food aid from India when the British governors could not, he was seen as too much of a risk by both the British as well as his deputy. Sinhalese novelist K. Jaytillake, in his works on political figures of the time, wrote that D.S. Senanayake had a strong pragmatic leadership, but at the same time D.S. had personal ambitions over national politics. “D.S’s instincts told him that the British colonial rulers would be leaving soon and there would be strong competitors like Sir D.B. Jayathilaka. D.S. never trusted Sir D.B. Jayathilaka who was a popular national leader. Obviously, D.S. knew that Sir D.B. could be a potential threat to his future political ambitions. D.S. activated an internal conspiracy that enabled him to abridge Sir D.B. from the National politics. Sir D.B. was requested to go to India to serve as the Sri Lankan high commissioner. He agreed to go to India without realising the after effects of his decision. But in later years, Sir D.B. realised that he was misled by his colleagues. Sir D.B. Jayathilaka was utterly disappointed and died in India.”
He took ill in 1944 and on May 29 of that year, as he was being flown back to Ceylon, he passed away with the last words, “Are we in Ceylon?” His plane was still over Indian waters.
Famous businessmen and philanthropists from Sir D.B.’s time, inspired by his actions, had followed suit and donated their own prized assets to the Public Trustee. Weeratne explained that figures like Gate Mudaliyar N.D.A. Silva Wijesinghe, T.S.W. Samarakoon, C.E. Wanigasooriya, J.E. Jayasuriya, M.J.C. Chandrasekara, U.B. de Silva, and Harry Hapugoda were all prominent figures who donated their assets to make the Public Trustee’s office what it is today. “Sir D.B. set the momentum,” he said.
Trust in the Public Trustee
The Office of the Public Trustee, similar to Sir D.B., had started off with all the right convictions, but in a corrupt system, over the years, it too had succumbed. The building, almost a reflection of the current political system, is worn down, with very little having been done to upkeep its stature as well as its structure.
“Whoever who holds the post of Public Trustee has the obligation to maintain the property, because we get a rent of Rs. 895,000 per month from the Treasury for the building. In addition, we get an income from the coconut estate,” said Weeratne.
“When I came, the security post was just a cardboard held up with metal poles. It didn’t seem right. We also laid bitumen in the car park area and refurbished the hall. We turned the garage into a visitor’s waiting room.”
Fire extinguishers were installed for the first time, a must in a place which handles so much of paper and last wills. Weeratne also took on an insurance cover for the house once again. “This is not done for show, but to preserve the building so the value of the building improves.”
Whilst funding to improve the building further is limited, he believes that by phasing it out, it could be gradually refurbished in whole. “This should not be tucked away like a haunted bungalow; it should be brought out to the public, like Independence Arcade. This is one of the properties gifted to us by the greatest sons of the country.”
In February of this year, his relatives at their own cost, built a statue of Sir D.B. Jayatilaka in the front lawn of Thurban House in honour of him.
Faith in the system
Public Trustee’s Department at Bauddhaloka Mawatha.
The bigger task of instilling faith in the system, however, would be an uphill task. Last year, Weeratne found that the last wills of 254 people between 1931 and 1992 had not been opened. Unlike Sir D.B., their wishes had not been carried out.
Legal action was instituted to open these wills and Weeratne has the uphill task of resolving the legal quagmire to ensure that the objectives of the wills are met.
“We manage it all with a full cadre of 87 officers. It is a very difficult task, but we are doing it because that is our mandate,” he said.
He added that it was imperative that they fulfilled their mandate with the highest possible financial transparency. “There have been some lapses in the past, but we are in the process of rectifying it.”
Interestingly, some of these processes also include Sir D.B’s own will.
The Trustee will look into restarting annual donations he had asked to be given to certain institutions. “For example, the annual prize of Rs. 20 to Vishaka College in the name of my late wife, annual prize of Rs. 20 each to Dharmaraja College, Ananda College and Wesley College, Colombo. Annual donation of Rs. 50 to Vidyalankara School in Peliyagoda, an annual donation of Rs. 30 to the Social Services League of Colombo in the name of my late wife. Annual donation of Rs. 12 to the Wellawatte Buddhist Girls Industrial School, Colombo, in the name of my wife (no longer exists).”
To avoid repeating the mistakes in Sir D.B.’s will, Weeratne said they were going to implement a system to check whether objectives in wills which need annual action are being carried out. “This is fundamental and not only for D B Jayatilaka and his will and trust, but it has to be the case with all other wills and trusts.”