Special guest contribution by D C Ranatunga
A simple, unassuming, down-to-earth person. That’s how I like to describe Sir Arthur C Clarke based on my observations during the few occasions I met him.
I first met him in October 1972. As Sri Lanka’s representative of the newly-formed Asian Mass Communications Research & Information Centre (AMIC) based in Singapore, I had to organise its first regional seminar and workshop in Colombo. AMIC Secretary-General, Dr Lakshman Rao gave me a free hand in planning the event. I had to decide on the venue, the chief guest, the keynote speaker and a list of local participants.
The theme of the seminar was ‘Mass Communication Teaching and Training’.
Mass communications was not a fashionable word then, at least in Sri Lanka. We only talked about information, news and journalism. Colombo University's Faculty of Humanities taught journalism as part of their curriculum. The situation in the Asian region was different. The list of participants from the other countries was quite formidable, the majority being university academics.
Newspapers published by privately-owned companies played the dominant role in disseminating news across the country. The state-run radio was the only other medium of information.
Through the then Director of Information, Sarath Amunugama (currently the Minister of Special Assignments) I invited the Minister of Information, R. S. Perera to grace the occasion as chief guest. He readily accepted. Galle Face Hotel was chosen as the venue.
As for a keynote speaker, I had to think hard of a person who was close to the subject as well as someone of stature who would impress the foreign delegates. I thought of Sir Arthur (then Mr) C. Clarke and made contact with him. The simple man he was, without any fuss he agreed to come. I let him decide on a suitable subject and when I asked him what facilities he wanted, he told me he would look after everything.
Those were the days when the 35 mm slide projector was the sole piece of equipment available to illustrate a talk or to view enlarged pictures. The computer was hardly known. Television was something strange. Possibly Sir Arthur was one of the few persons in Sri Lanka who knew about television. (He used to say how in the mid-1970s busloads of locals used to come every day to see his television set - the only one in the country - when he was receiving foreign TV transmissions via a satellite dish donated by the Indian government).
Well ahead of the scheduled time, Sir Arthur arrived at Galle Face Hotel (one of his favourite spots in Colombo) bringing with him his own 35 mm projector and a screen. He set them up himself and freely moved with the delegates before and after he delivered the keynote address.
He also distributed copies of a lecture he had delivered when he was made an Honorary Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society in recognition of his study of communications satellites. The title of the lecture was 'Voices from the Sky: The Past, Present and Future of Communications Satellites'. I treasure to this day the autographed copy he gave me.
Stamps featuring Sir Arthur
On 19 February 1999, the Philatelic Bureau released two stamps to commemorate 50 years of communications in Sri Lanka using Sir Arthur’s photograph in both stamps. It was a fitting tribute to a visionary. Being a stamp collector I was keen to get his autograph on the First Day Cover.
My friend Nalaka Gunawardene who was helping Sir Arthur with his work, arranged for my nine-year old grandson Binu (then a student at Royal College, Colombo) and myself to see him.
As we walked in to his office at his home at Barnes Place, Colombo 7, he greeted us warmly. Clad in colourful sarong and bush shirt, the be-spectacled world renowned science fiction writer was sitting at his writing table with a tiny pet dog on his lap.
We spent quite some time chatting and left with two autographed covers. Those moments are cherished by both of us.
A couple of years later, I had a further encounter with Sir Arthur. In October 2001, I requested for an article from Sir Arthur for a proposed publication on the city of Colombo. He was quick to respond but alas, the publication did not get off the ground.
After informing his office, I kept the manuscript back. It made such interesting reading. I had asked him to touch on a few basic things like what made him decide on Sri Lanka is home. His short answer was "Ï had enough of 30 years of British winters" but he went on to explain the pluses of Sri Lanka as compared with other lovely islands. He said he had not seen another land which concentrates so much diversity into so small a land area. The others have little culture and no sense of the past.
What has living in Sri Lanka meant to him? He wrote: "It has been a process of constant discovery and inspiration. I have lived here through much of the island's post-independence period witnessing its triumphs and travails and sharing its joys and sorrows. I have tried to assist its higher education and technological development."
Sir Arthur recalled how he first got a glimpse of Colombo one afternoon in December 1954 travelling in the P&O liner' Himalaya' on his way to the Great Barrier Reef. The little he saw was enough to make him come back a year later to explore. In 1956 he made Colombo his home.
After discussing the changes he has seen in Colombo over the past few decades, he ended the article thus: "Now confined to a wheelchair owing to Post Polio, I have no intentions of leaving Sri Lanka again - I am perfectly contented to live the rest of my life never going far from Colombo. My garden holds the graves of several beloved pets, and one day - though I hope not for a long time - some of my own ashes are to be deposited alongside them."
[About the writer: D C Ranatunga worked as a journalist at Sri Lanka’s largest newspaper publisher Lake House from 1956 to 1969. He later held many communications and marketing related positions, and has also been a media educator and trainer. Author of several books, he continues to write regular columns to Sri Lankan newspapers.]