The passing away of M.T.L. Fernando, former senior partner of Ernst & Young (Chartered Accountants), heralded the end of an epoch. As the anglicized expression goes: A mighty oak has fallen, and may I add, he was a gentle giant imbued with the genuine quality of noblesse oblige. Both as a human being and a professional he was primus inter pares et nulli secundus nulli secunda -- first among equals and second to none.
A colossus, he towered, almost apologetically – such being his nature -- over the country’s financial world for many a decade. He was much sought after for his financial and management expertise by most leading entrepreneurs in the mercantile sector. His mere name when listed as a member of a board of directors gave that organisation an aura of being well above board.
Yet, the hallmark of ‘MTL’ was his inherent distaste for publicity. Not for him the limelight. Service was his motto, integrity being his watchword. A fitting epitaph if there was one.
His genteel nature prevented him from ever uttering a harsh word – an unparalleled achievement after having been in the thick of the highly competitive commercial world for over half a century. Yes, this was the uninterrupted and possibly an unprecedented long-service record in the annals of the local accountancy and/or business world, he so faithfully rendered the firm of Chartered Accountants that was then known as Turquand, Youngs & Co. Another distinction was that he was also the first Ceylonese, in 1961 it was, to be appointed as a partner of the firm – an honour he bore with unsurpassed professional dignity. Hardly anyone would grudge if one would say that M.T.L. Fernando was the jewel that shone in the crown of this leading century-plus firm of chartered accountants.
It was in 1961 that I had the opportunity of being one of his first batch of articled clerks. Although I did not come up to his expectations as a student, about which he would sometimes gently reprimand me, I am grateful that he always kept a fatherly eye over my subsequent career. It was also a chore he performed willingly to anyone who sought succour from him. Indeed I was not only honoured but also touched when, a few years ago, he requested of me to make the inaugural address to the staff of Ernst & Young.
Nobody could have earned the well-worn expression “a gentleman to his fingertips” more deservedly than the man who was first dead-set on becoming a physician but circumstances made him turn his talents to become a chartered accountant, in which he reached the pinnacle of the profession with consummate ease.
This was not all. With a couple of his friends, he helped establish a charitable organisation, Eyecare Foundation (www.eyecaresrilanka.org), to render gratis assistance to those afflicted with optical ailments. This was his pet project towards which he utilized a lot of time and resources. It renders yeoman service to the less affluent sections of society. Hopefully, this charity will continue to go from strength to strength. Supporting this noble venture is the best tribute one can pay to the memory of this benevolent being. I am sure many would gladly lend a helping hand.
Behind every successful man, as yet another hackneyed saying goes, is a woman. In describing Shirani, his ever-loving wife, I would prefer to change the word ‘woman’ to a ‘lady’ - and a caring one at that. I am aware of how she tended her husband during his illness, rushing him to hospitals at the slightest hint of danger and ensuring that the best of medical attention was available at all times. No doubt she would be blessed though his loss would take quite a while for Shirani and their charming daughter Gayatri to bear. Yet, one must take solace in the universal fact,of nature that all compounded things are subject to death and decay.
Paeans of praise, adulation and hosannas were heaped on Lal Fernando -- as he was referred to by some – in life and it would continue, for sometime even after death. Yet, as Thomas Gray wrote in his immortal poem, ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’:
“Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?”
Obviously the answer is a resounding ‘No’.
However, my fervent wish is that M.T.L. Fernando’s journey in Samsara be comfortable and short.