Archive for May, 2011

Sir Arthur C. Clarke: parts 1, 2 & 3

May 31, 2011 in Sir Arthur C Clarke | Comments (0)

July 30, 2001




Went to see Arthur C. Clarke [b. 1917 – d. 2008].  He lives in a large compound in Colombo 7. The house has a nice garden on the side – but nothing opulent. He lives upstairs and his apartment and offices are accessed through a stairway on the side. One drives through a gate that opens mysteriously, by remote control. The stairway to his part of the house has a huge mural plastered over it – a blown up moonscape.

The stairway leads to a large office, stashed with computers, files etc. The walls are lined with commemorative plaques (‘my ego-room’ he said later). From there, one of the office staff led me into the study next door – a huge, pleasant room, lined with wooden bookcases. He was sitting behind the large desk at the far end of the room – in a wheelchair, dressed in a batik shirt and sarong. The sarong was loosely tied and kept coming undone. He has an alert, lively face, and a radiant smile. His hair is very thin on top and he has a belly shaped exactly like a pot. When I entered he waved and came shooting out from behind his desk, propelling himself in his wheelchair. He was full of energy and good cheer and had a hundred stories to tell.

We sat on a sofa, under a very sleek airconditioner. An array of remote controls was spread out on the table in front of him. He reached for one, saying ‘We don’t need this arctic air,’ and switched off the a/c – to my dismay for it was actually quite hot in there. Then he dispatched one of his people to get me a drink. ‘What would you like, hot stuff, cold stuff?’ I asked for a Coke/Pepsi but was given some kind of sharbat. He said: ‘I don’t know what it is but it will keep you from perishing of dehydration at any rate.’

He spoke in fits and starts and would break off every now and then to breathe deeply. ‘It’s when people like you come that I get too excited and then this happens.’

We talked about the situation in Sri Lanka and he said he didn’t know where it was going but things didn’t look good. Made a long face and said: ‘The war’s been going on for twenty years now.’ I asked whether he was pessimistic about the situation and he said: ‘I believe in self-fulfilling prophecies so I’m an optimist.’ But he shook his head in a rather dire way.

‘Have you ever thought of going back to England?’ I asked.

‘Never,’ he said, in a tone of flat certainty. ‘Never, ever.’ But after a moment’s reflection he added: ‘Of course, if things become catastrophic, I’ll have to leave. But I could probably go to Australia since the whole family’s there.’

I said: ‘Of course the government gains a lot from your presence here.’

‘Yes, I bring in a lot of money.’

‘And your presence is a kind of vote of confidence…’

‘Not of misplaced confidence, I hope.’ He sounded dubious.




He showed me his pictures and books: pictures from his days with the Apollo program, with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong; a poster of Apollo 13 signed by Tom Hanks; a beautiful picture of Elizabeth Taylor. A couple of months ago he was visited by the Admiral of the US Indian Ocean fleet.

‘As I was just saying to the Queen, I hate to drop names …’ He laughed uproariously and then added: ‘I’ve met the Queen and Prince Charles twice.’

His walls are plastered with pictures of his knighting.

There was a picture of H.G.Wells on his wall. ‘It’s the only picture signed by H.G.Wells and myself.’ Then he added: ‘I never met him you know.’

The thought that he might have met H.G.Wells amazed me. ‘When did Wells die?’

‘In 1945 – he lived to see the atom bomb, which he had foretold.’

There was a whole wall of books signed to him. Also a picture of George Lukas, superimposed on Darth Vader. He said years ago Kubrick had asked him to do a screenplay of a Brian Aldrich story, ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Kubrick (‘Stanley’) figured a lot in his conversation. ‘2001 [A Space Odyssey] has had an unexpectedly long life…’  When Stanley asked him to do this other screenplay he’d said he do it for free because of all that Kubrick had done for him. Apropos nothing, he said: ‘Every time I write the date this year it gives me pause. When I wrote 2001 [A Space Odyssey] it seemed so far away.’

I said: ‘I’m sure Orwell felt the same way about 1984.’

‘I never met Orwell,’ he said. ‘I met [his wife] Sonia though – she’d come to the White Horse.’

‘The White Horse on Hudson Street [in Manhattan]?’

‘No, the White Horse in London. All of us science fiction writers used to go there.’ [I think he meant the White Horse in Soho:]


He’d spent a lot of time in the Chelsea Hotel in New York he said – had written 2001 there. In 1998 on his triumphant return to New York, he’d stayed there again. Later, talking about the Galle Face Hotel [in Colombo] he said: ‘It was the Chelsea East’.

I told him the Galle Face Hotel was not what it had once been. ‘It’s the only hotel,’ he insisted, ‘the Chelsea East. And of course I always stayed in the Owner’s Suite.’

Showed me pictures of Taprobane – the island of the southern coast of Sri Lanka where Paul Bowles had died. ‘Did you know him?’ I asked.

‘Paul Bowles? No, but he used to stay at the Chelsea in New York.’

One of the pictures on his wall belonged to a series in which he was dressed in a solar topee. He explained that he’d acted in Lester James Peiris’s film of Leonard Woolf’s Sri Lanka novel. ‘I felt I’d acted in Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf.’

He asked if I played table tennis and I said, yes. So then he invited me to go to the Otters’ Club with him and I accepted. This set in motion a complicated chain of preparations, in which his office staff served as nurses. They were very attentive and prompt – I think he runs a tight ship – no elderly victim, he. But first he wanted to tend to his e-mail – he gets about 200 a day.

‘And do you have a web site?’

‘Four hundred,’ he said, ‘or at least a friend of mine has recently compiled a list of four hundred worth visiting.’

‘Are any of them official?’

‘I’m sure many of them are, in one way or another.’

About the sale of his books, he said: ‘I have no idea how many of them are out there in the world. It could be 20 millions or 50 million or even more. No idea. There are so many pirated editions!’



Ratnagiri Journals

May 30, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

Ratnagiri, March 7, 1998

King Thebaw [the last sovereign ruler of Burma] is incarnate in this town: his name is everywhere and everyone knows him. I ask people about him and they answer: ‘Yes, Thiba-raja, he was a prisoner here (bandh karke rakha tha)’. Went to see the Palace, which is a Polytechnic Insitute now – quite grand, but not quite as much as one might think.

Very run down, with huge and ugly modern buildings all around it. Has a splendid view of the southern headland of the bay of Ratnagiri – and the river and estuary. The river is called the Kajali River and the estuary is the ‘bhate ke khari’. The view is spectacular.


On the way to Satjelia, Sundarbans, 2000

May 27, 2011 in Encounters | Comments (0)


May 26, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


‘Horse-latitudes. A space between the westerly winds of higher latitudes and the trade-winds, notorious for tedious calms. The name arose from our old navigators often throwing the horses overboard which they were transporting to America and the West Indies.’


From: The Sailor’s Word-Book, by Admiral W.H. Smyth, Blackie, London, 1876.




Sacred Trash

in Current Reading | Comments (1)


Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Schocken, New York, 2011.

The story of the Cairo Geniza – that great treasure-trove of documents from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo – is both fascinating and immensely complicated. It is a tale filled with interesting characters, extraordinary coincidences, deplorable errors and astonishing discoveries. I touched upon some aspects of this story in In An Antique Land and I remember thinking at that time: ‘Why hasn’t someone written a book about this? It would read like a thriller.’

Yet I can’t say I was really surprised that such a book had not been written. To call the task formidable would be to greatly understate the case: no one could even think of tackling it without being conversant with medieval Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and a wide range of European languages. In An Antique Land deals with only a small set of Geniza documents – the letters of Abraham Ben Yiju – and it took me years to acquire the necessary linguistic and orthgraphic skills. To write about the full range of Geniza documents – which include not only letters but also liturgical and scriptural texts, poetry, community records and much else – would be far beyond my abilities.

Well, I am glad to say the story of the Geniza has now been told and it does indeed read like a thriller. Sacred Trash is entertaining, lucid, enormously erudite and extremely well-written. Between them the writers possess all the scholarly equipment and narrative gifts that are required for the telling of this tale, and they have done a marvelous job of it.  The Geniza is one of the world’s richest and greatest archives: Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have given it the biography it deserves.

Angkor, Interview: 2

May 25, 2011 in Angkor Interviews | Comments (0)


Angkor Diaries, January 1993

Interview with Mr. Pich Keo, archaeologist and curator (part 2).

Q. When you arrived in Angkor on the 15th of January, 1979, what was it like?

A. ‘I can’t tell you because I love so much Angkor Wat. Before, Angkor Wat, and every [other] temple in Angkor was clean. But when I came to Angkor for the first time, everywhere there was forest – Angkor was invaded by the jungle. Just after Liberation. I went to Angkor directly, in January. The moat which was around the temple had no water and the Khmer Rouge had placed mines everywhere.’

[note the mines in the foreground; they were all over the complex in 1993]


Mr Pich Keo: ‘Inside the Temple, everywhere we saw jungle. A lot of images of the Buddha were broken. The second gallery was mined by the Khmer Rouge. The principal entrance of the Bayon temple was destroyed by them – they cut a big tree and tree fell on the gate. You can see an apsara with a bullet hole. Many blocks of stone were taken away by the Khmer Rouge to make roads and collective granaries.’



Angkor, Interview: 1

May 23, 2011 in Angkor Interviews | Comments (0)


January 1993

Interview with Mr. Pich Keo, archaeologist and curator.

Mr Pich Keo: I finished my studies in 1971; I have a degree in science d’archaéologie. In 1973 I became deputy curator of Angkor. In 1974 and 1975 I became interim curator. In April 1975 after the Khmer Rouge came [to power in Cambodia] myself, my family and all my workers were taken away from Siem Reap [the town nearest to Angkor]. We were taken to a place about fifteen km east of Siem Reap. Everyone, my sons and my colleagues from Angkor Conservancy, became farmers. Every day and every night we worked hard in the rice fields to make dykers and small canals for water. Very hard work and very little to eat – for four years. Some of our workers died – killed by the KR. About twenty – they were accused of being military in the Lon Nol regime. And most of them died of nothing to eat. All families lost member. I lost my mother, father and grandfather in 1975 – nothing to eat. My father-in-law, my mother-in-law, my brother and sister and sister-in-law, they were taken to Kompong Chhnang province and all of them died.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial, Phnom Penh, 1993
















My wife was still with me in Siem Reap and was still alive. My younger brother was also alive, but he was living separatelyy from the family. Just after Liberation – which was on January 10th (1979) in Siem Reap – 7th January in Phnom Penh; three days later in Siem Reap. Immediately, with some of my workers I came to Siem Reap, walking. No bicycle, nothing. We had to walk and we decided to come to Angkor directly. On the 15th of January 1979 myself and my family, we came to live in front of Angkor….



To be continued

Debbie’s book

May 21, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

‘The Convert’ just released in New York. ‘Mesmerizing’ – New York Times Book Review.




Stand corrected

in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Re my last post: Thomas Abraham writes:

‘Don’t know if you’ve seen this but saradindu badyopadhyay was published by Puffin –quite some time ago, when I was at Penguin.′


I stand corrected!



Two Bengali Writers

May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)


It’s clear that the emergence of a vibrant new industry of translation is transforming the literary landscape of India. At an airport bookshop the other day I was delighted to come upon Moti Nandy’s football novels, Striker and Stopper, in a handsome new English edition. I had never expected to see these books outside Bengal – no more than I’d expect to see ‘shukto’ or ‘murighanto’ at a branch of Café Coffee Day.

I read Striker and Stopper thirty years ago (the books have the same titles in Bengali). I loved both books – they are beautifully constructed, well-told stories, with some riveting descriptions of football matches. I also felt that there was something new and admirable about what Moti Nandy was attempting – writing about sport in a gritty, realistic, unglamorized way. I’d never come across anything like it in Indian fiction. It always seemed to me a great pity that the books were unknown outside Bengal – kudos to Hachette India (and its head, Thomas Abraham). Of course a translation industry cannot exist without good translators, and fortunately there are some very gifted young translators in Bengal today. Arunava Sinha, who has translated these two books is one such (Achintyarup Roy, who translated my own Hungry Tide into Bangla is another).

By an odd coincidence I recently happened to meet Bobby (Aparisim) Ghosh, who was for many years the Baghdad correspondent for Time magazine. He told me that Moti Nandy was his uncle and had died in 2010. I was very sorry to hear this – I had always hoped to meet Moti-babu, but somehow the opportunity had never arisen.

And on the subject of translations: it’s a crying shame that so little of Saradindu Bandopadhyaya’s work is available in English. His ‘Sadashiv’ stories made a huge impression on me as a boy – I remember them vividly to this day. The stories are about a boy in Shivaji’s army – an unlikely subject you might think, but Saradindu had a truly capacious historical imagination. His historical fiction ranged over many centuries and covered many different places: it deserves to be better known.

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