SRI Lanka's 50th Independence Day celebrations seem to have been jinxed from the very beginning. First South African president Nelson Mandela, who had confirmed participation as guest of honour, postponed his visit to the island nation by a month. Then with two weeks to go, Tamil rebels struck with a devastating bomb blast at the country's most sacred Buddhist temple—the Temple of the Tooth—in the hill station Kandy, proposed site for the Independence Day festivities on February 4. This forced the government to shift the venue to the capital Colombo after millions of rupees had already been spent on giving Kandy city a facelift.
And since superstition has it that bad things come in threes, Sri Lankans were reconciled to the probability of another disaster. It came in the form of a controversy involving British-born science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who has lived in Sri Lanka for more than 30 years and is one of the country's favourite sons.
Less than a week before Independence Day, 80-year-old Clarke decided to go public with a confession most people in Colombo had known for decades. In an uncharacteristic interview to the British tabloid The Sunday Mirror, Clarke allegedly admitted that he was a paedophile and then went on to defend paedophilia, arguing that if the child had consented, it should be no one else's business.
That did it. The international media, which had arrived in Colombo to cover the Independence celebrations and chief guest Prince Charles' visit, found it had a better story to chase. Anyone who knew Clarke was hounded while the writer locked himself up in his house in the exclusive Colombo 7 residential area.
The alleged confession was especially puzzling, given the fact that while in Sri Lanka, Prince Charles was to carry out an investiture ceremony in Colombo to confer knighthood on Clarke making him Sir Arthur. Clarke was among 25 knights and four life peers named by British prime minister Tony Blair in December. But Clark, who is confined to a wheelchair due to post-polio syndrome, could not go to London where Queen Elizabeth normally carries out the ceremony.
With the British media giving wide publicity to the remarks, there was no way Prince Charles could go ahead with the ceremony and a diplomatic way out was found. Clarke, without denying outright what he had said in the interview with The Sunday Mirror, issued a denial of sorts. "I am outraged by The Sunday Mirror's allegations and I am seeking legal advice," he said in a statement. "In view of the nature of this story, I have asked that my investiture be postponed in order to avoid any embarrassment to the Prince of Wales during his visit to Sri Lanka."
Within hours of the statement being issued in Colombo, a spokeswoman for the prince in London confirmed that Buckingham Palace had accepted Clarke's request and postponed the ceremony. There was no word as to when it would be held. But chances are that it is unlikely to happen at all.
"I do not know why Arthur had to make these remarks at this point of time. He has been sexually inactive for over a decade. His activities were well known among people in Colombo. It would be a pity if Clarke ends up being known for paedophilia rather than for his visionary scientific predictions," says a spokesman for Colombo's gay community. However, he added that he has known Clarke for well over two decades and could confirm the story. "Of course, it is true. He preferred young boys up to about 14 years old," he stated.
WHILE the international media gave wide publicity to the alleged remarks, Clarke found a friend in the Sri Lankan newspapers. None of the English daily newspapers carried the story and the language papers too played down the issue to such an extent that for 48 hours senior cabinet ministers were unaware of the controversy. In fact, the English newspaper The Island, which never published The Sunday Mirror allegations, carried his denial in an inside page.
But there is no gain-saying that the alleged confession has put the Sri Lankan government in a tight spot. Last year, the country had introduced some of the toughest laws in the world against paedophilic activity to counter impressions that Sri Lanka is one of the favourite destinations for paedophiles. Said a senior police officer: "We will investigate the allegations and decide the next move once we find out whether it is true or not."
Activists against child abuse too played down the incident, pointing out that it is better to go after active paedophiles and paedophilia rings rather than waste time on confessions made by a man who has been out of it for decades. "I can say confidently that none of the activists have any evidence against Clarke. If we had we would not have been idle," said Arun Thampoe, legal counsellor for Peace, the country's premier organisation campaigning against child abuse. But he clarified that misdeeds by a famous person do not make similar misdeeds by others less serious. With both the media and activists soft-peddling, the police also can be expected not to show too much enthusiasm in investigating the allegations, which could send Clarke to jail for up to 20 years.
Arthur C. Clarke is not only a famous science fiction writer but for the past half-a-century he has been making accurate scientific predictions. He became world-famous when a network of geostationary communications satellites came into being in the late 1960s. When he outlined the possibility of this in 1945, few took him seriously. An Intelligent computer "HAL 9000" which he envisioned in his 1968 book 2001: A Space Odyssey became operational on January 12 last year at the University of Illinois in the United States.
He shared an Oscar nomination with Stanley Kubrick for the best screenplay for the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He followed it up with two sequels 2010 and 2061. Last year he wrote what is likely to be his last book 3001: The Final Odyssey which became an immediate bestseller. Launching the book in Colombo last March, Clarke made a few more predictions. He said petroleum products would be replaced in the early part of the next century by other forms of energy and, looking at a glass of orange juice he was holding, added: "The amount of energy in a glass of orange juice is infinite and we will be able to tap it." Some feel that the master of science fiction is entering the twilight of his career both as a writer and a man who can see the future. Maybe Clarke has a clue about how the world will remember him—that is, whether remarks made in a moment of indiscretion could overshadow all his achievements.