Commonwealth Writers / Scientists / Writers

Nalaka Gunawardene and Kavan Ratnatunga: At home with Arthur C.Clarke

Arthur C Clarke

Earth hangs suspended over a stack of old magazines, in what used to be Arthur C. Clarke’s foyer. Parts of the aging space mural are peeling, but the sight is still pleasing to visitors entering the home of one of the 20th century’s greatest science-fiction writers. A floor above, past the green sign on the landing which points the way to Mars (35,000,000 miles away), is a room lined with plaques and accolades that Clarke dubbed his Ego Chamber. Beyond that is his study. It is early afternoon in Colombo, the air is warm and humid this time of the year – but the quiet office offers respite.

Behind the desk Arthur C. Clarke’s wheelchair stands empty, but the author laughs and poses in  dozens of photographs that hang on the wall – at a cookout with astronaut Buzz Aldrin and shaking hands with the Pope; hobnobbing with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Patrick Stewart and former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. In one series, Clarke stands chatting with his director and friend, filmmaker Lester James Peries on the set of Beddegama (1980), an adaptation of Leonard Woolf’s A Village in the Jungle. Clarke, dressed in a stiff white suit, could be Woolf himself.

On the highest shelf of a cupboard overflowing with books, is a slim blue copy of Wingless on Luna signed by Neil Armstrong. Taped to the inside front cover is a small plastic bag; inside it a single, glinting speck of moon dust.

After I have admired it, Clarke’s former aide Rohan de Silva slips the book back onto the shelf – it was one of the author’s favourite possessions. De Silva, who served as Clarke’s aide for decades, remembers primarily that he was an amiable man, only made grumpy by delays in the delivery of his afternoon tea. Across from me, Nalaka Gunawardene, science writer and Clarke’s executive officer for over two decades, leans against an armchair. Gunawardene now has streaks of white in his short hair but when he first entered this office he was a schoolboy, intent on researching whales and dolphins for a homework assignment.

L to R - Pioneer divers in Ceylon - Rodney Jonklaas, Mike Wilson, Arthur C Clarke during their 1956 Expedition of Ceylon

Arthur C. Clarke first stopped in Sri Lanka in 1954, on his way to the Great Barrier Reef. He returned the next year with diving companion Mike Wilson, who would later discover a treasure of ancient silver coins and artefacts at the Great Basses reef. Wilson went on to embrace the life of a Hindu swami, a choice that Clarke never fully understood. Clarke himself settled in Sri Lanka in 1956 and the landscapes and people he encountered here had a profound influence on him.

Clarke had never even left England until he was thirty-three, but as he writes in The Treasure of the Great Reef (1964), “it is Ceylon, not England, that now seems home.” Conceding that while the world’s great cities “hold all the things that interest my mind,” he goes on to write, “they are no longer quite convincing. Their images are blurred around the edges; like a mirage, they will not stand up to detailed inspection.”

Still, Clarke thrived on contact with the world at large. Gunawardene remembers that Clarke was hooked up to the internet and using a slow version of email years before it was available anywhere else in Sri Lanka. He would travel when necessary, as was the case in the 1960s when and he Stanley Kubrick were working on 2001: A Space Odyssey together. When he couldn’t go to work, it came to him. In the 1980s, Clarke was filmed in this house for television shows like Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

And of course, he could always look up to the night sky. Clarke would tell journalists visiting here that he had a crick in the neck from having peered through his telescope for hours the previous night. Gunwardene remembers his favourite object was the moon. But Clarke also trained the lens of his 14-inch Celestron on Saturn, and saw the dark bruises left by the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter, through a brief window in cloudy monsoon skies.

Yet nothing drew Clarke more than the oceans that surrounded his adopted island home, the reefs filled with dazzling fish, the seabed thick with wrecks – and sunken treasure. He always said that being able to move in three dimensions through the water felt like the closest he could get to outer space. (He even took the astronauts of Apollo 12 diving here, on their return from the Moon.)

This side of him is, for me, something of a new discovery. Reading of his earliest encounters with the island, I am charmed by the man who prided himself on being able to sleep across the thin planks of a catamaran, and savoured the tongue-twisting challenges posed by the villages they encountered – Angunakolapelessa, Illuppadichchandiya – as they travelled in search of good spots to set out to sea.

Clarke would remain a passionate diver for many years – particularly after his post-polio syndrome was advanced enough to confine him to a wheelchair. For a while, the water became the only place he could still experience complete freedom of movement.

Two postage stamps issued by Sri Lanka in Feb 1998 honouring Arthur C Clarke's contribution to global communications

I am an Asimov girl, and I have always thought of Clarke as the less skilled writer though greater visionary of the two. Consider, The Fountains of Paradise (1979). It’s not his best book, I think, particularly in its characterisations. Still, I find it fascinating, both as a journalist and a resident of this island.

It envisions after all, a space elevator rising up out of ‘Yakkagala,’ a location which is quite evidently a version of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. In real life, Clarke was a frequent pilgrim to the 200m tall ‘lion rock.’ It is crowned today with ruins of the capital city King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) built.

The other great star of this story, the space elevator, is made possible in Clarke’s version by the discovery of a fantastically strong yet microscopically thin hyperfilament. We came one step closer to making the elevator a reality when diamond nanothreads were synthesised in 2014. To me, such discoveries make our ‘prophet of the space age’ genuinely intriguing for his predictions, if not for his characters and plots.

In March 2008, Arthur C. Clarke died in Sri Lanka, not long after his ‘90th orbit of the sun.’ His stated wishes for his life had been that he see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life; that mankind would kick our reliance on oil, and that Sri Lanka would see peace.

Arthur C Clarke in a jovial mood in his garden in Colombo, circa 2000

What kept Clarke in Sri Lanka all those years? Is it possible that one of his greatest motivations was one he never voiced?

The England that Clarke left behind in the 1950s, was the same one in which Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency in 1952. In Sri Lanka, sex between men was also illegal – under the same inherited colonial law – but prosecutions were almost unheard of. Still, although widely accepted among his acquaintance as gay, Clarke took care to never openly identify himself as such.

Yet years later, Clarke trusted himself to local police in a way that I find interesting. In 1998, just before Prince Charles was to visit the island and confer a knighthood on Clarke, a story broke in the Sunday Mirror (UK) levelling allegations of paedophilia against the author.  In the investigation that followed in Sri Lanka, Clarke must have known that he was trusting his fate to a police force with whom he had to be circumspect – even to admit his sexuality would put him in a criminal realm.

Gunawardene remembers the wait to hear the verdict from the authorities. Clarke, he says, though clearly under great strain, did his best to stay occupied and productive. The investigation finally acquitted Clarke of the charges and he received his knighthood (more than two years after he was first listed for it).

Arthur Clarke with his adopted Lankan family, the Ekanayakes, circa 1999

A few days after I visit the house on Barnes Place, I speak with Kavan Ratnatunga, an astrophysicist and close personal friend of Clarke. The two men met through the Astronomical Society which the author founded in 1960. Ratnatunga says the monthly meetings in Colombo were “the focal point” of his social life at the time. (Also in the group were several other young students who are now considered notable Sri Lankan scientists and researchers.)

Ratnatunga, who would go on to work on the Hubble Space Telescope, remembers the excitement around 1969 when Clarke was invited to narrate the landmark lunar landing of Apollo 11 along with CBS newsman Walter Cronkite and astronaut Wally Schirra.

“We didn’t have TV and so we didn’t see the landing on the Moon live. All we could do was wait for Arthur to come back to Sri Lanka after these space missions, and once a month we used to have meeting at the American Centre where all the space videos would be shown.” Clarke’s 16mm copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey would be put to even more use. When the Sri Lankan government introduced restrictions on Western films appearing on screens in local theatres in the 1970s, Ratnatunga, then secretary of the Lionel Wendt Film Society, arranged for annual screenings of 2001.

Throughout these years, Nalaka Gunawardene remembers that the author’s acquaintances were startlingly diverse – from prominent archaeologist Senake Bandaranayake to progressive Catholic priest Father Mervyn Fernando to actor Gamini Fonseka, as well as a number of prominent politicians including Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and JR Jayawardene.

Clarke used his influence with the latter group to lobby for what would become the island’s first marine reserve at Hikkaduwa and championed environmental issues all his life. As he grieved for the lives and landscapes devastated by the Asian tsunami of 2004, Clarke found himself thinking it would soon be 60 years since he had conceived of the idea of the communications satellite – famously publishing a paper on the subject in Wireless World magazine in 1945. Looking to the future of the technology again, in a 2005 issue of Wired, he wrote “the Asian tsunami becomes a test for information and communications technologies (ICTs) in terms of how they can support humanitarian assistance and human development.”

Clarke would, however, respond to questions about Sri Lankan politics with much more circumspection, staying within the self-inscribed boundaries he saw as coming with his status of a guest in the country.

Through the particularly violent decade of the 1980s – marked by the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983, and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) revolt against the government that began in 1987 – Clarke kept his views out of the news. He did however, install an electric fence.

Sir Arthur Clarke on dune roller at Hikkaduwa beach

Today the fence is dismantled and fans who arrive are usually allowed in with little fuss. While much memorabilia remains, the ‘Clarkives’ themselves had straddled two continents, with several boxes of documents shipped off to his remaining relatives, and still more archived in research centres such as that in Minehead, Clarke’s birthplace in Somerset. The Clarkives have now been brought together and airlifted to a third continent, where the material is to be preserved, indexed and made available to researchers at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

The house itself is still home to the Ekanayakes – the Sri Lankan family Clarke adopted as his own. They maintain the place much as it was. Even the garden remains unchanged, with its wall of tall Ashoka trees, an anatomically incorrect cement sculpture of a T-Rex and line of little tombstones marking the graves of Clarke’s six beloved dogs and one monkey. His last companion, a ferocious Chihuahua named Pepsi died in 2004.

Clarke chose for his final resting place the quiet sprawl of the nearby Borella cemetery, writing in his will that he wanted a funeral free of state interference or religious rituals. His other stipulation was that he lie by the side of Leslie Ekanayake; Leslie, whom he dubbed “the only perfect friend of a lifetime” in his dedication in Fountains of Paradise, had died over three decades ago.

Clarke’s own stone bears the line of his choice: ‘He never grew up, but he never stopped growing.’

This piece was first published by Commonwealth Writers on April 17, 2015 at http://www.commonwealthwriters.org. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Arthur C Clarke Estate. 

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