On Arthur C. Clarke

Date of Publication: 2001-11-01
Language: English

In 1996, when The Calcutta Chromosome was awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Prize for Science Fiction I was both astonished and delighted: good fortune is never more welcome than when it arrives unheralded. No less unexpected than the award was my recent meeting with Sir Arthur C. Clarke himself, in Sri Lanka, in July this year.

I had travelled to Sri Lanka to speak in memory of Neelan Thiruchelvam, the parliamentarian and peace activist who was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1998. For me this was a highly charged journey for several reasons: because of the sadness of the occasion, for one, but also because I had lived in Colombo in some of the most impressionable years of my childhood. My family left the city in 1969 and in the thirty-two years since, I had never been back.

A few days before I was to leave for Sri Lanka, Colombo's Katunayake airport was raided by Tamil Tiger guerillas: some dozen aircraft were destroyed. On July 27, when my plane landed, the runway was flanked with wreckage on either side. Through the scarred glass of my window, I spotted a blackened pile of debris that ended in the intact tail section of a plane. Not till then had I ever properly reflected on how fragile a machine an aircraft is.

I was to speak on the evening of July 29. Just as the ceremony was about to begin, a messenger came running into the auditorium. "Sir Arthur is downstairs," he whispered breathlessly. "He would like to have a word with you."

I knew of course that Sir Arthur lived in Colombo, but it had never occurred to me that he might seek me out. Nor had I thought of trying to meet him: so famous a man, I had assumed, was sure to be besieged by admirers and would, if anything, be grateful to be spared my importunities.

Sir Arthur was seated in the front seat of a red Mercedes. His face was alert and lively, his smile brightly impish. He'd heard I was in the city, he said, and had decided stop by to ask if I could come to see him the next day.

There was a time in my life when I was a glutton for science fiction. I remember, as a child, devouring Edgar Rice Burroughs' interplanetary novels (which I always preferred to the 'Tarzan' books). But my appetite for the genre was sustained I think, largely by the ethos of my birthplace, Kolkata, which has a passionate, if curiously ambiguous, relationship with the sciences. One of the city's greatest offspring, Satyajit Ray, had a lifelong interest in science fiction and I like to believe that my own interest derived partly from his stories. Of all the unmade movies that punctuate the history of cinema, none more richly deserves to be lamented than Ray's unrealized project for a film about a friendship between a village boy in Bengal and a marooned extraterrestrial - a project that long predated Spielberg's E.T.. What Ray would have brought to the project we can surmise only from the evidence of such films as Paras Pathar ('The Philosopher's Stone'), which is, to my mind, not only a neglected masterpiece but also, essentially, a work of science fiction.

One of Sir Arthur's tales, on the other hand did indeed become one of the unquestioned masterpieces of cinema. This was of course, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey which was based on an Arthur C. Clarke story and screenplay. I first saw 2001 as a schoolboy and have seen it many times since. And now here I was, speaking to the man who had foretold the arrival of the omniscient machine: I could not have been more surprised if HAL had whispered soft-voiced from the heavens.

"Yes of course I'll come..." As the red Mercedes drove away, I recalled a vision of a spangled galaxy, dancing to The Blue Danube on a darkened screen.

I went to see Sir Arthur at his home the next day. Being an inveterate chronicler, I made notes soon after. This is what I wrote:

Sir Arthur lives in Colombo 7 - which is the only neighbourhood, as Michael Ondaatje points out, that has an anthem: 'I'm in Heaven, Colombo Seven...' The house is spacious and airy in an old-fashioned way but there is nothing opulent about it. The compound is entered through a gate that slides mysteriously open at exactly the right moment, set in motion by a remote control in some invisible hand. Sir Arthur shares the house with a Sri Lankan friend who lives on the ground floor, with his wife and children. Sir Arthur lives upstairs and his apartment and offices are accessed from a stairway on the far side of the main portico. A huge picture hangs over the stairway: a blown-up photograph of a moonscape. There is a large office upstairs, staffed by several people, and stacked with banks of computers, files and so on. The walls are lined with commemorative plaques, awards and the like ('this is my ego room', Sir Arthur remarked later).

A member of the office staff led me into the study next door. The room was large and cool, with shelves of books stretching from floor to ceiling. Sir Arthur was sitting behind a huge desk at the far end of the room, in a wheelchair, dressed in a batik shirt and sarong. He waved cheerily when I stepped in and came shooting out from behind his desk, propelling himself energetically on his wheelchair.

The walls around Sir Arthur's desk are hung with pictures and memorabilia. Some date back to his time with the Apollo space program: there are photographs of him in Florida with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Prominently hung are two movie posters: one of Apollo 13, signed to him by Tom Hanks, and the other of Darth Vader, with a picture of George Lukas superimposed upon it. People visit him all the time, he said, from all around the world. A month before he’d been visited by the Admiral of the US Asia-Pacific fleet. He interrupted himself: "I hate to drop names," he said, "just as I was saying to the Queen the other day..." He burst out laughing but then, momentarily, his voice turned reverential. "Of course, I have met the Queen and Prince Charles. Twice." Among the photographs around his desk, there were several of the ceremony in which he was knighted.

He pointed to a picture of H.G.Wells. "It's the only picture signed by both Wells and myself." I looked: it was. It was evident that he took pride in belonging to a specifically English lineage of science fiction. "I never met him," he said, "you know - Wells." The thought that he might have met Wells astonished me: I could not imagine that their lives might have overlapped.

"Wells died in 1945," Sir Arthur said. "He lived to see the atom bomb, which he had foretold." I could sense a kinship with the prophetic aspect of H.G.Wells; Sir Arthur himself had famously foretold many of the technological innovations of the 20th century - computers, the Internet, communications satellites, space exploration and so on. This is what sets good science fiction apart from every other genre: the world follows where it leads.

Kubrick ('Stanley') figured large in our conversation. Sir Arthur asked if I'd seen A.I.. I said no and he was disappointed: he'd been hoping for a report on the film. Many years ago, he said, he’d done a screenplay of the Brian Aldrich story on which A.I. is based; Kubrick has asked him to, and he'd done it free, because of all that Kubrick had done for him.

"2001," he said, "had an unexpectedly long life... Every time I write the date this year, it gives me pause. When I wrote 2001 it seemed so far away."

I said: "I'm sure Orwell felt the same about 1984."

He nodded. "I never met Orwell," he said. "I met his wife Sonia though. She'd come to the White Horse."

"In New York?"

"No. The White Horse in London. All of us, science fiction writers used to go there." He'd spent a lot of time in the Chelsea Hotel in New York, he said. That was where he wrote 2001. In 1998, when he'd returned to New York for a triumphant visit, he'd stayed there again. He asked where I was staying in Colombo, and I said, 'The Galle Face Hotel.'

His face lit up. "Ah. That's Chelsea East!"

He showed me a picture of Taprobane, the island off the southern coast of Sri Lanka where Paul Bowles had died. "Did you know him?" I asked.

"No. But he used to stay at the Chelsea too, in New York."

There was an inscribed photograph of a young and ravishing Elizabeth Taylor. When I commented on it, he sent me off to look at a pen-and-ink drawing, a portrait of a classically beautiful woman with huge eyes and a perfect, oval face. I thought for sure it was a reproduction of a Renaissance Grand Master drawing. But no, it was a portrait of a friend of his, from Singapore: "the world's most beautiful woman", he said. Her name was Shanni Thiruchelvam (not related to Neelan Thiruchelvam).

He reached for a copy of one of his books and signed it to me. I asked if he kept a tab on his book sales and he shook his head. "I have no idea how many of my books are out there in the world. It could be 20 million or it could be 50 million or even more. No idea. There are so many pirated editions."

I told him about the airport and the wreckage that still lay strewn beside the runways. His face turned sombre; he said he didn't know where it was all going but things didn't look good. "The war's been going on for twenty years now." I asked if he was pessimistic and he shrugged. "I believe in self-fulfilling prophecies so I'm an optimist."

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

"Never," he said, in a tone of flat certainty. "Never ever."

I changed the subject. "Do you have a website?" I asked.

"Four hundred," he said, brightening. "Or at least a friend of mine has recently compiled a list of 400 sites about me that are worth visiting. There are probably many more."

"Are any of them official?"

"I'm sure many of them are, in one way or another."

At times he would break off to breathe deeply. "It's when people like you come that I get too excited and then this happens."

He glanced at his watch and looked up with a glint in his eye. "Do you play table-tennis?"
"Yes," I said, a little surprised.

"Good. Then you can come to the Club with me. It's time for my game. We can have a match..."

The Club in question was the 'Otters': a swimming club where, by an odd coincidence, I myself had learned to swim as a child. I found the place much changed but it still held many memories. We sat by the pool and Sir Arthur ordered some milk for himself and a lemonade for me. "I've been coming here for more than thirty years," he said. It struck me that I might have seen him there myself, on my way to my swimming lessons, decades before. Perhaps it was he who had sparked my appetite for science fiction: mysterious indeed are the ways of prophets.

We climbed a flight of stairs to the table tennis rooms. Sir Arthur had left his wheelchair behind and was leaning heavily on his driver's arm. He explained his rules to me: he stands in one corner, holding on to the edge of the table for the support. On his side, only half the table is in play; otherwise the game proceeds as usual.

When we began to play I quickly discovered that he was a master of this abbreviated game: he shot into an early lead. With a considerable effort, I managed to equalize at 20-20. "Oh a deuce game!" he cried. It was clear that he wasn't going to go down easily. Nor did he: he won.

I was done for the day, but not he. On my way out, I saw him waving to somebody else. "Come on; let's play; let's see if you can beat me..."

I could tell that he would be playing for a good while yet.

Amitav Ghosh

November 1, 2001