Vellupillai Murugesu - ‘An inspirational life’

Vellupillai Murugesu (fondly known as "Freddie") passed away on Saturday 20th March 2010 at the age of 86. Though I was aware that he endured poor health for some short time, the news of his demise through a text message from his son, Nithianandan on that early Saturday morning reiterated not only the impermanence of life, but the realisation that the generation old school legal professionals who epitomised meticulousness, dedication and attention to legal detail is fast diminishing.

Mr. Murugesu was born on the 1st of July 1923 in Balangoda. Having had his early education at St Aloysius College Ratnapura and St Joseph’s College Colombo, He entered the Law College in 1945. He took his oaths as a Proctor of the Supreme Court of Ceylon in November 1949 and was admitted as a Solicitor in England and Wales. He completed sixty years as a legal practitioner in November 2009.

I came to know of Mr. Murugesu in the early 1980’s in the capacity of my good friend Nithi’s father. Nithi was generous in photocopying the lecture notes at ‘appa’s office’, which was very expedient for all his friends who had to rely on these notes for at least three months of the year, cramming for the year end "must pass" examination during our eventful stint at the Sri Lanka Law College. The occasional visit to ‘appa’s office’ to assist Nithi with the photocopying was the first introduction to the law firm Messrs Murugesu (as it was then known). During these visits I was introduced to the esteemed Mr. Murugesu who had by that time already served as a Partner in the long established law firm F J & G de Saram.

Having commenced his legal career at De Saram’s and risen to the position of a Partner in the early sixties, when the then Senior Partner of De Sarams Mr. David Martenz left the firm and established his own firm, Mr. Murugesu followed suite and formed his own firm under the name Messers Murugesu. Later the late Mr. V. W Kularatne joined him. The firm changed its name to Murugesu and Kularatne. Mr. Martenz did not continue with his firm and later joined Julius & Creasy.

It has to be remembered that in the sixties Mr. Murugesu pioneered in setting himself up in "Fort" what would in today’s context be commonly termed the "City" or the financial hub where three large legal firms namely De Sarams, Julius & Creasy and De Silva & Mendis dominated. These firms were patronised by the commercial clientele in the country. Having broken away from the "club" and commencing his practice in Fort, the hinterland of all commercial activity at that time, albeit in the home turf of these large firms and to build up the firm to what it is today was an endeavour of epic proportion. It illustrates the tenacity, propensity for hard work, dedication for the principles he believed in – tenets of his character that endured till his death. The success of the firm can also be attributed to the more fundamental qualities of his personality - the meticulousness, attention to detail and personal integrity with which he discharged his work to his many and varied clientele.

In 1971 Mr. Kularatne, who was an ardent supporter of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, left the firm to pursue active politics. The firm reverted to its original name of Messers Murugesu. He earned the reputation and the respect of his clients as an embodiment of what a "proctor" should be. Knowledgeable not only in the law but also of life and matters he played the role of the traditional "proctor" well, often venturing beyond the boundaries of the legal issues the clients encountered. It was well known that for many individual clients Mr. Murugesu was a source of wisdom and strength, and they relied heavily on the advice he provided on a variety of matters. The development of the firm dominated Mr. Murugesu’s professional life and he fostered its growth with great enthusiasm and alacrity.

His innate ability to approach life and the many tribulations it brought, serenely and philosophically earned him the respect and admiration of those who associated with him closely. He endured disappointments in his personal and in his professional life without anguish or acerbity.

There was also a completely different facet to Mr. Murugesu’s personality - a sense of wit, tempered with sarcasm, which was perhaps rarely displayed. I recall an experience during our student days. Weekends then were full of activity particularly the evenings when our group of friends including Nithi met up in some club in Colombo for our usual friendly banter. No social evening was complete without a constant flow of spirits. Once when our collective finances were insufficient to maintain the flow, Nithi bravely volunteered to provide us with some; out of a cupboard full of stocks of Mr. Murugesu’s as they remained unconsumed since Mr. Murugesu was a teetotaller. Having once enjoyed the generosity of Mr. Murugesu without repercussion, we were quick to plan another occasion to enjoy his generosity. I was assigned the arduous task of picking up Nithi and the precious cargo from Havelock Place where they lived. Having arrived at the residence at the appointed time and waiting for Nithi and the cargo, I was unexpectedly invited in by Mr. Murugesu. Having concluded the usual pleasantries and a polite exchange on the progress of our studies, he walked into his office and brought out the Law Students’ Magazine that was published during his time at Law College. With deliberate causality of a man in full command of the situation he drew my attention to an article he had written titled "The Law and Drunkenness". That was Mr. Murugesu the philosopher at work; the subtle gibe delivered the message loud and clear without acrimony or chagrin.

Philosophical as he was, he was acutely aware that everything has an end and therefore he planned for that inevitable moment when he could no longer play an active role in the daily management of the law firm. This he did without lingering or resorting to counterfactual subterfuges. He was quietly confident in handing over the reins of the firm he so tirelessly built to the next generation. Thus saw the rejuvenation of the firm as Messrs Murugesu & Neelakandan in 1989. He was fortunate to have the immediate family involved in the legal profession and that they were like minded in terms of the depth of knowledge in the law and the meticulousness in the work they performed. The lasting legacy of the founder of the firm would be the commitment to thoroughness and the high standard of work Mr. Murugesu set for himself when he pioneered the setting up himself in the sixties.

Born a Hindu he later became an ardent follower of the teachings and the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. He was instrumental in creating the Sri Aurobindo Society and spearheaded the movement’s work in Sri Lanka.

Retirement, after such an assiduous career, might have been sadly anticlimactic, but Mr. Murugesu went on to derive much pleasure by concentrating his energies on the unfinished business of completing the Sri Aurobindo Centre and spent his days in meditation, teaching and propagating the philosophical teachings of Sri Aurobindo. Even in retirement and in a vastly different endeavour his appetite for perfectionism never waned. He was relentless in his pursuit and the result is the now completed Sri Aurobindo Centre. Like the law firm he created and fostered with much devotion he left a fine legacy in Colombo for the Sri Aurobindo Movement, which has evolved to be a fine seat of learning and meditation.

His uncompromising sense of devotion, conscientiousness, and meticulousness benefited whatever task he undertook - be it client’s cause, the firm he built or to the faith he believed in. What he achieved as a legal professional and as a man is colossal and he will be remembered with respect and love. It was my privilege to have known him.

May he attain Moksha.

Anil Tittawella
President’s Counsel

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