Sir Arthur C. Clarke – A Tribute
By Rohitha Bogollagama, M.P. - Minister of Foreign Affairs
As I started to pen these lines of tribute in memory of that visionary genius Sir Arthur C Clarke, who slipped away from our midst last week almost unobtrusively, my mind instinctively flashed back to the ceremony held on 16th December 2007, at the Central Bank Auditorium in Colombo, to mark his 90th birthday. It was in the fitness of things that the First Citizen of his adopted homeland, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was on hand to personally greet Sir Arthur and preside over that grand ceremony, befitting his stature and fame. President Rajapaksa decided that Sri Lanka should honor Sir Arthur for his monumental contribution to humanity in the fields of science and literature and his selfless service to our nation, in particular over the half a century he had made Sri Lanka his home.
The officials and staff of the Foreign Ministry rose to the occasion and organized this magnificent event under state patronage at short notice - 10 days to be exact. We were indeed privileged to host the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who was the first man to walk in space, a personal friend of Sir Arthur for 40 years, and eminent scientists such as Dr. Michael Zolensky from the NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Dr. Sarath Gunapala, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Professor U R Rao, Chairman, Physical Research Laboratory of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Dr. Sajid Mirza, member of the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) of Pakistan who graced this occasion.
Sir Arthur was a man of many parts with diverse interests and talents. He shot to worldwide fame with his accurate prediction of the advent of the communications satellite, way back in 1945 at a time such ideas were dismissed out of hand as fanciful and far-fetched. Sir Arthur’s passion for undersea exploration brought him to Sri Lanka in the early 1950s and in 1956 he decided to settle down in the island. He founded his diving company, “Underwater Safaris Ltd” in 1959 thus introducing professional diving and underwater tourism to Sri Lanka.
Sir Arthur would perhaps be best remembered internationally as a science-fiction writer, par excellence. I can state without fear of contradiction that Sir Arthur through his eminently interesting books which captivated and enthralled millions of readers of all age groups across the world, popularized science-fiction as a distinct genre in literature. His avid interest in films was apparent even as early as 1962 when he financed the production of the first full length Sinhala color feature movie “Ranmuthuduwa”.
Sir Arthur shared an Oscar nomination in 1969 with the renowned Hollywood movie director / producer Stanley Kubrick for his screenplay of “2001: A Space Odyssey” Sir Arthur delighted his local fans in his cameo performance as Leonard Woolf, playing the role of a magistrate in “Beddegama”, the 1978 Sinhala movie adaptation of Wolf’s celebrated book “A Village in the Jungle”, directed by Dr. Lester James Peries.
Sir Arthur was an indefatigable campaigner for nature conservation and various environmental causes. He was a vocal crusader to protect Sri Lanka’s coral reefs, which were being threatened by illicit mining and was instrumental in persuading the Government to declare Hikkaduwa as the country’s first marine sanctuary. He lent his voice to the campaign to save the island’s elephants from extinction, as well as calling for the use of renewable sources of energy. In fact, the second of his three wishes, which he expressed on his 90th birthday, was his earnest desire for humanity to give up its addiction to oil and adopt clean energy sources. He said “Climate change has now added a new sense of urgency. Our civilization depends on energy, but we cannot allow oil and coal to slowly bake our planet.”
Sir Arthur was decorated with many prestigious honours and accolades by his adopted homeland. In 2005, he was conferred the highest civilian award – “Sri Lanka Abhimanaya” (Pride of Sri Lanka) for his exceptionally outstanding and most distinguished service to the nation. In the same year, the National Arts Council bestowed on him the “Sahithyaratna” (Gem of Literature) lifetime achievement award and in 1986, the President awarded him the title “Vidya Jothi” (Luminary of Science).
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration has drawn inspiration from the efforts of Sir Arthur to develop Science and Technology in Sri Lanka. The Mahinda Chinthana policy statement of the Government speaks of plans to increase the national IT literacy from 20% to 60%. A programme for the development of small and medium scale industries to manufacture computer hardware has also been proposed with foreign collaboration as well as plans to increase the number of computer software engineers and IT professionals, in order to make Sri Lanka a regional centre for IT Dissemination Networks in Asia.
Speaking on the occasion of Sir Arthur’s 90th birthday celebration, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised Sir Arthur that his government would do its utmost to make a reality of the last for his three birthday wishes, namely to establish lasting peace in Sri Lanka. However, as Sir Arthur himself acknowledged “But I am aware that peace cannot be just wished - it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence”. The people of Sri Lanka have reposed their faith in President Rajapaksa, who has the tenacity of purpose, the indomitable courage and conviction of mind to stay the course with patience and determination to achieve this noble objective, that all of us so dearly yearn.
President Rajapksa also pledged on that occasion that his administration would initiate work on the commissioning of Sri Lanka’s first satellite. I am sure that the realization of this ambitious vision would have made Sir Arthur truly proud of his adopted homeland.
Through his life and work, Sir Arthur touched the lives of the entire humanity and had carved out a niche for himself in posterity. As a science-fiction icon, his place in history is assured; for Sri Lanka and her people whom he deeply loved, Sir Arthur’s demise has left a void that is hard to fill. His service to the nation will however remain forever etched in the annals of our history.
- Asian Tribune -
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