Do the ‘right’ thing! Throughout the ceremony to mark the assumption of duty by the new Public Trustee on Wednesday, this is the message that was resonating over and over again……and this is what the new incumbent is determined to do. There is no ambiguity and her convictions are obvious, when we meet Attorney Tharangani [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Clean up op, her mission

The first woman head of the Public Trustee Department, Attorney Tharangani Keenawinna Disanayake talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Do the ‘right’ thing!

Throughout the ceremony to mark the assumption of duty by the new Public Trustee on Wednesday, this is the message that was resonating over and over again……and this is what the new incumbent is determined to do.

There is no ambiguity and her convictions are obvious, when we meet Attorney Tharangani Keenawinna Disanayake the next day, the first woman to head this august department established in 1929. The Public Trustee Ordinance No. 1 had been passed just seven years short of a hundred, back in 1922.

Numerous are the congratulatory calls, while the Sunday Times interview is on, which she deals with cordiality and gentleness belying, however, a firmness which comes to the fore when one well-wisher attempts to digress to issues about property.

“Mata anunge depala walata thanhava ne,” says Mrs. Keenawinna Disanayake in no uncertain terms, adding that she is not avaricious for others’ property. “Neither do I have thanhava even for my own,” she says, seated in her office on the upper floor of No. 2, Buller’s Lane, Colombo 7 — a legacy from none other than educationist and statesman Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka.

Legacies are what we talk about after reticence is her answer when we query about the not-so-good reputation of the department highlighted in the media a few years ago. There is unspoken assurance that the clean-up urged at her welcoming ceremony will see the light of day during her time at the helm, for misuse of public money is anathema to her. (See box for the duties of the Public Trustee)

Only in passing is it mentioned that even for the ‘official’ ceremony when she took over on Wednesday, all the funds for the chairs, the food and the flowers came from her own pocket.

It is to her wonderful childhood as the youngest of eight siblings, her schoolteachers’ influence and her seniors’ guidance that she returns to explain how she has been on the straight and narrow path, the principles of which she hopes to uphold at the department.

Cherished she had been as the youngest daughter of Francis and Dingiri Menike Keenawinna, living an idyllic life “getting priority” from everyone including her older siblings, five brothers and two sisters, who adored her in their home in Yakkala. While her brothers would give her special treatment, her sisters treated her like a doll, stitching little frocks and dressing her up.

Her father was one of the last of the Village Headmen, before that post was abolished and it is in tribute to his integrity and honesty that she has taken on a double-surname, her Thaththa’s Keenawinna as well as her husband’s Disanayake. “Thaththa was very straightforward and also helpful to all. He was credited as the ‘gama hadapu ekkena’,” she says with emotion, adding that Amma was also a good role model. Both her parents are no more.

For her primary education, she just crossed the road from their home to the Yakkala Government School, as her parents were reluctant to board their little one in Colombo. The Scholarship Examination propelled her to Devi Balika Vidyalaya, Colombo, and it is matter-of-factly that she says that both in the primary and at Devi Balika she was always first in class.

The Advanced Level too she completed well and the impression after the results was that she would enter the Medical Faculty, with young Tharangani even receiving the initial set of papers. Her dream was to become a doctor.

Receiving congratulatory calls with a smile. Pic by Amila Gamage

It was not to be though – that door closed on a district-basis issue and she was devastated. When her parents and family explored the possibility of sending her to China to study medicine, she was reluctant to be away from home, leaving behind all her loved ones. Around that time preparations were underway for one of her Akka’s to wed a lawyer and Tharangani was toying with the idea of dabbling in chemistry when her brother-in-law-to-be suggested a drastically divergent path.

A “last-minute” application and the rest just fell into place – passing the entrance examination and walking through the portals of the prestigious Law College in 1980. Her welfare at Law College was entrusted to a friend of one of her Aiyas, with the proviso “tikkak balaganna”, to whom she would run to whenever there was friendly ragging, sometimes drawing the response of “ara wathe enawa”.

This was Nalin Disanayake who would ultimately “hondatama balagaththa”, she laughs, explaining that they married in 1989. Now they have two lovely daughters, Minuri and Ranuri, who too have taken up the work that the parents oft discuss over dinner – the legal profession.
In her own youth, Law College was followed by apprenticeships first in the chambers of President’s Counsel J.W. Subasinghe and Queen’s Counsel H.W. Jayewardene, while working the rounds of both the hallowed Supreme Court and Court of Appeal until 1991. Appreciation and respect tinge her voice when she talks of her “Seniors” who were father figures, ingraining systems and thoroughness in their impressionable junior.

A break from work to bring up her young family followed with Mrs. Keenawinna Disanayake slipping into the role of wife and mother with enthusiasm. “Busy my life may have been and is still is, but I cook, stitch and always find the time to prepare breakfast and dinner,” she says, murmuring that she sews her own saree blouses.

Next she embarked into civil law and in 2008 came the appointment as the Deputy Public Trustee. With her passion for putting things right, it was an uphill task for Mrs. Keenawinna Disanayake, as she set to streamlining the work and reconstructing files which were heaping up high.
She recalls the case of a man living in India who used to visit Sri Lanka every year to collect the interest due to him from a trust fund linked to his dead mother who had been a tea-plucker. On his last visit she had looked through the file of this only surviving heir and found that hehad Rs. 3.4 million he could take back with him, after all the red tape was cleared. Tearful the man became when he was told of his dues.

Another file that makes her emotional is that of two mentally-disabled siblings whose care and welfare, even though they are in a home, are the duty of the Public Trustee who has been given the role of parent. “My staff takes them shopping and also buys them food they like to eat. The home has been given strict instructions to take all measures to keep them healthy and happy,” she says.

For Mrs. Keenawinna Disanayake, however, many have been the obstacles along her path to the summit. These were challenges that did not deter her, as she dug in her heels as she had done no wrong and made up her mind to “survive”. Her smile gives way to bitter memories of the “hard time” she had as the Deputy Public Trustee, overcome only by sheer will-power, patience and tolerance.

Survived she has and now as she occupies the Public Trustee’s chair the perfectionist in her is bent on doing her job to the letter in a transparent setting. Little by little as she sorts out the many issues of the department under her, the instructions to her staff are plain and simple.

“As the Public Trustee Department we are not supposed to do the ‘good’ thing but the ‘right’ thing, for all those who have placed their full trust in us,” adds Mrs. Keenawinna Disanayake.

What her duties entail

The Public Trustee Department, although coming under the government, manages private property, both movable and immovable, including money, jewellery, vehicles, land or any other asset. The monies run into billions and the lands include vast tracts of paddy, tea, rubber and coconut.

This is how Mrs. Keenawinna Disanayake describes the mandate of the department in a nutshell.

“When last wills or trust deeds are deposited with us, we act as the Executor and implement last wills on the death of the relevant person and trust deeds while they are living,” she says, adding that sometimes court appoints the department as Administrator in other complicated cases.
The duties of the Public Trustee include: Acceptance of last wills and trust deeds; taking on the power of attorney in the management of property of minors and those of unsound mind; maintaining compensation monies paid by the government on acquiring temple lands and releasing such monies on the instructions of the Commissioner of Buddhist Affairs; looking after compensation monies paid on behalf of migrant workers and ensuring that they are distributed among the rightful heirs if there are no legal nominees; and when appointed Administrator in other cases, seeing the conclusion of these cases and distributing the assets among the beneficiaries.

“We cannot change wills or trust deeds when there are specific objectives. If there are no specific objectives and beneficiaries, the Public Trustee may use her discretion to help those in need,” she reiterates.

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