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