Arthur C Clarke: My Vision for Sri Lanka in 2048


Sir Arthur Clarke, who died last week, was buried at Colombo general cemetery at his request. That ended a 52-year-long association the author had with his adopted home.

His interest in diving and underwater exploration led him to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he settled down in 1956. He pioneered diving and underwater tourism in Sri Lanka through his company Underwater Safaris, and played an active role as a public intellectual and as a patron of art, science and higher education. He served as Chancellor of Sri Lanka’s technological University of Moratuwa from 1979 to 2002.

Although he became the island nation’s first Resident Guest in 1975, Sir Arthur always remained a British citizen. The Sri Lankan government presented him the Lankabhimanya (‘Pride of Lanka’), the country’s highest civilian honour, in 2005. In December 2007, government officials, scientists, artistes and diplomats came together to felicitate Sir Arthur on his 90th birthday.

During the past few days, there was a good deal of coverage, editorialising and reminiscing in the Sri Lankan media about Sir Arthur, whom a former foreign minister once called a ‘one man cheering squad for Sri Lanka’. Most of this coverage looked back to recall the highlights and anecdotes of the sarong-clad, table tennis playing, myth-busting icon.

As Sir Arthur would have said, that was necessary – but not sufficient. His business was talking about the future and helping to shape it. So I dug up from my own archives a 1,100-word essay that I had written for The Sunday Observer in Sri Lanka a decade ago, for a series titled Sri Lanka in 2048. There, leading artistes, scientists and other public figures were asked to outline their personal vision for the year Sri Lanka would complete 100 years of political independence (the series marked the Golden Jubilee of this event).

Upon re-reading the essay, which was in Sir Arthur’s first person narrative, I found that it was still fully valid, and even more relevant a decade later than when it was first written. So I passed this on to Pramod de Silva, editor of The Daily News, the sister newspaper of the Observer, which ran it on 22 March 2008 – the day of Sir Arthur’s funeral. I found that quite appropriate – the physical remains were going on their final odyssey, but Sir Arthur’s vision would – hopefully – propel Sri Lanka to a better future for decades to come.


Here’s how he opened the essay, My Vision for Sri Lanka in 2048:

“A guest must be careful about what he says of the host: contrary to popular perception, I am not a Sri Lankan citizen — only a resident guest. Yet, having lived here for 41 of my 80 years, I now regard this alone as home, and have visions and hopes for my adopted land.

“Half of all Sri Lankans alive today were not even born when, in December 1954, I had my first glimpse of the then Ceylon — when the P&O liner Himalaya carrying me to the Great Barrier Reef paused at the Colombo harbour for half a day. What I saw on a single afternoon tempted me to come back a year later to explore, and by the end of the 1950s, I had developed a life long love affair with the island.”

Taking stock of Sri Lanka’s already high human development indicators, Sir Arthur noted:
“It has been said that the biggest remaining challenge in terms of human health and welfare is not so much to add years to life, but to add life to years. For a country like Sri Lanka that has already achieved high levels of life expectancy and other impressive social indicators, this is indeed the next major challenge. The vision for the next fifty years should be to develop ways of improving the quality of life of all Sri Lankans. Difficult though it certainly is, such development will have meaning only if it is socially and environmentally sound.”

He then talked about two areas that were crucial for the socio-economic development of his adoptive land: energy and telecommunications. But he knew these physical improvements would not, by themselves, create a better society until and unless lasting peace could be achieved:
“The biggest challenge for all Sri Lankans in the coming century would be achieving better communications and understanding among the different ethnic, religious and cultural groups and sub-groups all of who call this their motherland. For material progress and economic growth would come to nothing if we allow the primitive forces of territoriality and aggression to rule our minds.

Read the full essay on the Daily News website

Related essay: Rebuilding after Tsunami: Sri Lanka’s challenges by Arthur C Clarke, January 2005

Photos by Rohan de Silva, Sir Arthur’s personal photographer

Arthur C Clarke: Of Nukes and ‘Impotent Nations’

The past few days have been particularly hectic for me as I was Sir Arthur Clarke’s spokesman for the past decade, and remain so for the time being. While handling literally dozens of media queries and requests from all over the world, I somehow managed to find the time to write an op ed essay on Sir Arthur’s life-long crusade against nuclear weapons.

This essay is based on a feature I wrote in 2002 for the now defunct (and sorely missed) Gemini News and Feature Service, but I rewrote it completely before sending it off to my newspaper editor and senior journalist friends across South Asia. It has so far appeared in full in:
Daily News (Sri Lanka), 22 March 2008
New Age (Bangladesh), 23 March 2008
The Hindu (India), on 30 March 2008
The News (Pakistan), 30 March 2008
Excerpts have been carried on the website of Himal Southasian (Kathmandu).

Here’s the 900-word essay in full with the Gemini illustration that accompanied my original article.

Arthur C Clarke: Of Nukes and Impotent Nations
by Nalaka Gunawardene
Colombo, Sri Lanka: 22 March 2008


“Do you know about the only man to light a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?” Sir Arthur C Clarke was fond of asking his visitors a few years ago.

Clarke, the celebrated science fiction writer and space visionary who died on March 19 aged 90, loved to ask such baffling questions.

In this instance, the answer was Theodore (Ted) Taylor, a leading American nuclear scientist who designed atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently he just held up a small parabolic mirror during a nuclear test — the giant fireball was 12 miles away – and turned light into heat.

“The moment I heard this, I wrote to Taylor, saying ‘Don’t you know smoking is bad for your health?'” Clarke added with a chuckle.

In fact, he took an extremely dim view of both smoking and nuclear weapons, and wanted to see them outlawed. But he was aware that both tobacco and nukes formed strong addictions that individuals and nations found hard to kick.

Years ago, Clarke had coined the slogan ‘Guns are the crutches of the impotent’. In later years, he added a corollary: “High tech weapons are the crutches of impotent nations; nukes are just the decorative chromium plating.”

Living in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey was acutely aware of tensions between neighbouring India and Pakistan – both nuclear weapon states.

British-born and calling himself an “ethnic human”, Clarke offered a unique perspective on nuclear disarmament. His interest in the subject could be traced back to his youth, when he served in the Royal Air Force during Second World War. As a radar officer, he was never engaged in combat, but had a ringside view of Allied action in Europe.

Shortly after the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the War, he wrote an essay “The Rocket and the Future of Warfare”. In that essay, first published in the RAF Journal in 1946, he said: “The only defence against the weapons of the future is to prevent them ever being used. In other words, the problem is political and not military at all. A country’s armed forces can no longer defend it; the most they can promise is the destruction of the attacker….”

Arthur Clarke’s continued his advocacy against the weapons of mass destruction to the very end. The lure and folly of nuke addiction is a key theme in his last science fiction novel, The Last Theorem, to be published later this year. He completed working on the manuscript, co-written with the American author Frederik Pohl, only three days before his demise.

From his island home for over half a century, Clarke was a keen observer of the subcontinent’s advances in science and technology. He personally knew some of the region’s top scientists – among them Indian space pioneers Vikram Sarabhai and Yash Pal, and Pakistan’s Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam.

When India carried out nuclear weapons test in May 1998, Clarke issued a brief statement saying: “Hindustan should be proud of its scientists – but ashamed of its politicians.”

He chided the mass euphoria that seemed, for a while at least, to sweep across parts of the subcontinent. He signed the statement as “Arthur C Clarke, Vikram Sarabhai Professor, 1980”.

That was a reference to three months he spent at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabd, in western India, lecturing about peaceful uses of outer space. It was the only time he held the title ‘professor’.

Clarke’s direct associations with India went back further. In the early 1970s, he advised the Indian Space Research Organisation on the world’s first use of communications satellites for direct television broadcasting to rural audiences. Preparations for the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) Project were underway when India carried out its first “peaceful explosion” of an atom bomb in 1974.

“I can still remember Vikram telling me how Indian politicians pleaded with him to ‘build a teeny weeny (nuclear) bomb’,” Clarke recalled in an interview in 2002.

Cartoon: Indo-Pak nuclear and missile rivalry as seen by Himal Southasian

He returned to the subject when delivering the 13th Nehru Memorial Address in New Delhi in November 1986, which he titled ‘Star Wars and Star Peace’. He critiqued the Strategic Defence Initiative (which President Reagan called ‘Star Wars’) – a nuclear ‘umbrella’ over the United States against missile attacks. Clarke argued that SDI was conceptually and technologically flawed, and that its pursuit could hurt America’s lead in other areas of space exploration.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rejoined from the chair: “Forty years ago, Dr Clarke said that the only defence against the weapons of the future is to prevent them from being used…. Perhaps we could add to that, we should prevent them from being built. It’s time that we all heed his warning….I just hope people in other world capitals also are listening…”

While campaigning against nuclear weapons, Clarke was equally concerned about all offensive weapons. “Let’s not forget the conventional weapons, which have been perfected over the years to inflict maximum collateral damage,” he said in a video address to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Pugwash Movement in October 2007. “If you are at the receiving end, it doesn’t matter if such weapons are ‘smart’ or stupid…”

As tributes to Arthur C Clarke from all corners of the planet confirm, he commanded the world’s attention and respect. His rational yet passionate arguments against warfare were heard, though not always heeded in the corridors of power and geopolitics.

For such people, he had the perfect last words from his own hero, H G Wells: “You damn fools – I told you so!”

Pugwash Movement on the death of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarke embarks on his Final Odyssey…

AFP/Getty Images

Sir Arthur C Clarke’s funeral was held on March 22 afternoon in a manner that he would have approved: no decorations, no gun salute or any other governmental involvement, no religious rites of any kind, and no funeral orations.

Both his families – the Clarkes and Ekanayakes – were present, as were hundreds of his friends, fans and Sri Lankans from all walks of life. The local and international media bore silent witness. The Sri Lankan police and army soldiers stood by, in silent salute.

Everything went according to plan, and there was no commotion or chaos. Even the weather was cooperative: it seemed as if friends in high places ensured that afternoon thunderstorms that have characterised most of March in Colombo didn’t happen.

Tamara Ekanayake, the second daughter of Hector and Valerie Ekanayake – Sir Arthur’s adopted Sri Lankan family – made a single, short and passionate speech.

She said:
“You gave your time, your undivided attention and most importantly love to those around you so readily.
We thank you for the times you listened; we thank you for the times you laughed; we thank you for more than you could imagine.”

She added:
“As family, we feel so privileged that you left your mark on us. Your footprint will never fade, if anything it will only magnify what we do.”

Tamara also revealed what Sir Arthur had wanted on his tombstone:
Here lies Arthur C Clarke
He never grew up
But didn’t stop growing.

Goodbye, Uncle Arthur – Read full text of Tamara Ekanayake’s tribute

As wished by Sir Arthur, the funeral was short, secular and devoid of any pomposity that so often characterises Sri Lankan funerals. It was all over in a few minutes.

Sir Arthur’s final odyssey also united all of Sri Lanka’s radio and TV channels, who observed one minute’s silence from 3.30 to 3.31 pm on March 22, even as the author’s burial was underway. Although this unity lasted for all of 60 seconds, it was no mean feat, as the cacophony of over 16 terrestrial channels and more than two dozen FM radio channels almost never speak in one voice (which is to be celebrated as media pluralism). The request for this minute came from the Sri Lankan government whose offer of a state funeral was earlier politely declined by the late author’s family (as he wished no involvement by either British or Sri Lankan governments).

Many international news wire services and websites have carried stories about the funeral. See, for example:
ABC Australia coverage
Reuters AlertNet story
AFP story

AFP Getty Images photo

AFP/Getty Images photo shows Sir Arthur’s younger brother Fred Clarke paying his respects to his illustrious brother on March 21.

Images courtesy AFP/Getty Images as available on

As Sir Arthur’s spokesman, I also want to thank all our friends in the media – journalists, producers and photojournalists from national and international media – for their interest, cooperation and solidarity in the past few days. Yes, they chased me like a pack of newshounds day and night, but it was all in the line of duty. And I hope they were happy with how I did mine – being always available, willing and forthcoming with information, voice cuts, TV soundbyes and image access.

Image courtesy Daily Mirror Online