By Suren Peiris
Mid May, particularly the 18th is a day of sadness as this was the day in 1986, that Mr. Sarath Muttetuwegama met with an accident and died. Mr. Muttetuwegama was driving down the new Ratnapura Road and having mistaken a Jeep for a motorcycle, as the right hand sidelight of the Jeep was not working, crashed into it.
It is ironical and unfortunate that Mr. Muttetuwegama a distinguish Member of Parliament and a brilliant lawyer at that time, had to die coming down this particular road, as it was a road that he had used on a daily basis, more than once.
Personally having taken oaths as an Attorney- at-Law in 1980, being a family friend I had the good fortune of joining his Law Chambers. At that time I was the only junior who worked with him.
Mr. Muttetuwegama was much more than a senior. He was a Guru, a friend and a guide to me not only in respect of the profession but otherwise. His kindness had no limits. He was a person who had many talents. Other than being a Member of Parliament, he was one of the most eminent Criminal Lawyers the country had.
In Parliament he was the virtual opposition at that time, but bore no malice towards anyone. In fact, I believe it was Mr. Muttetuwegama who was the first member to be carried out and also it was during the time when he was the Member of Parliament for Kalawana, having won the election petition, thereafter not only was democracy devalued but the people’s franchise being totally disregarded when another member was nominated to Parliament and Kalawana had two Members of Parliament for a short time, making mockery of Parliamentary Democracy!!
There were many days on which, early in the morning, he used to drive to Ratnapura, then drive back to Colombo for Parliament sittings. Then, once the Parliament visiting was over, he used to drive back again to Ratnapura and Kalawana, finish his work and drive down to Colombo again — many a time all by himself.
As a senior he wanted me to have self confidence, courage and strength. I will never forget the fact that not even a week after I had taken oaths in the High Court case when it was at the Queens Club, in a murder case, where I was the Junior after making the preliminary submissions, with his ‘normal mischievous smile’ he told the learned High Court Judge that his junior (that was myself) would be conducting the case.
Of course eventually this gave me the courage and strength, but I must confess at that particular moment not only did I profusely sweat, but through lack of confidence, words were also not coming out of my mouth.
But Mr. Muttetuwegama – the guide mentor – was seated next to me, right throughout the case and gave me the direction and courage to carry on with the case and when the Learned High Court Judge acquitted the accused and true to his character, he took the ‘Senior’s’ fees and gave it to me and many persuasions by me for him to take it back met with absolute refusal. Indeed I was fortunate that I had a senior of the calibre of Mr. Muttetuwegama who quite openly pointed out one’s weaknesses and also commended any good job done.
There were many cases that we used to attend by train and there was one instance worth mentioning where both Mr. Muttetuwegama and I went in a train to Anuradhapura and stayed at the Nuwara Wewa Rest House.
The following morning Mr. Muttetuwegama got a taxi and both of us proceeded to the Court House but to the dismay of our client who expected us to come in a much more posh vehicle. The next morning the client sent a Benz for Mr. Muttetuwegama and me to go to Courts but as usual we got into the taxi and motored to the Court House.
Then at the Court House when the client asked as to why we did not come in the Benz, Mr. Muttetuwegama’s prompt reply was whether the client wanted the Benz or his services; to which the client had no answer. This is indeed a good example particularly to many young Lawyers not to mix their priorities in the profession.
I could still recall that when my father the late Mr. Denzil Peiris died all of a sudden in London, that it was Sarath and his wife Manori who were at our house most of the time, consoling us. His wife Manori was a strength to him.
His kindness was unlimited. There were times when I had seen him parting with all the money he had with him, to an individual who had mentioned some need to him. There were also many occasions where Mr. Muttetuwegama used to drop me at his home in Kuruwita on a Monday morning, where only his father was living, and allocate all the cases – sometimes even Embilipitiya cases – to me, and on a Thursday evening or Friday afternoon he would pick me up and bring me to Colombo.
It was of course quite interesting to listen to his father who was fondly referred to as ‘Appo,’ who would keep one interested in talking of the past.One of Mr. Muttetuwegama’s favourite passions was to go for a swim at the Kinross beach in Wellawatte with the children or with a friend, most often it was another Senior Lawyer Sidath Sri Nandalochana whom Mr. Muttetuwegama considered a very close friend.
On the day he met with this fateful accident, at least half-an-hour earlier he called me and told me that on the following day there was a case at Gampaha and that if he fails to come to Colombo by 9.00 a.m. for me to proceed and he would follow. Hardly half-an-hour lapsed when I got a call from a domestic in Colombo that Mr. Muttetuwegamà had met with this fateful accident. I immediately drove to Ratnapura and saw the car he usually used to drive – a Datsun 120 Y – lying a complete wreck.
Personally his death was a great shock and a loss to me. He was a man who could mingle with Kings and commoners in the same manner. Though he made some forceful speeches in Parliament, there was no one who bore any animosity towards him.
The simple qualities in him were an example to all not to be ‘swollen headed’. He was a person whose heart was filled with sympathy, kindness and love to his people. The weeping crowd at the funeral bore testimony to this. To me it was not only loss of a great senior who was a guide and a Guru, but also whom I considered to be like my father.
Fortunately, not many years later I joined the Chambers of another very senior lawyer, Mr. I.S. de Silva who had the same qualities of encouraging juniors at all times.
Mr. Muththettuwegama’s demise was certainly a great loss to our country as there was no individual having his mannerism and who made speeches in Parliament with absolute substance.
Related: Sarath: The unfinished struggle