Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Arthur C. Clarke, Mrs. B and My Fan Letter

by Sachi Sri Kantha, April 16, 2008

"And I had an ulterior motive for writing to TIME. They are sending a man here to do a story on me, which should be out in a month or so – and it might be embarrassing if the local politicos thought I was too friendly with a magazine which the PM dislikes (with some reasone.) Hence my letter – which friends of all political persuasion say was fully justified."

The multi-talented science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, the most renowned foreign resident in Sri Lanka, passed away on March 19th, at the age of 90. I had a one-letter interaction with him in 1976. It may not be inappropriate to bring this to light now, since considering its brevity and the unusual format (also most probably without any copies kept in his files!) in which it was sent to me, I believe that his short response to my fan letter will have a miniscule chance of appearing in any of Arthur Clarke’s future anthologies.

Srimavo Bandaranaike and her son Anura

Mrs. Banadaranaike and her son Anura

First to the setting and circumstances: In January 1976, I had just completed four years as an undergrad at the University of Colombo. As I have indicated recently in my obituary notes to the late Anura Bandaranaike [vide, Anura Bandaranaike – A Candid, Contra View], Time magazine had published the infamous ‘Bandaranaike family tree’ in its December 15, 1975 issue. This particular issue was banned in Sri Lanka, since that one page feature showed the then prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her courtiers in a not so favorable light. In response to this feature, the Colombo Daily Mirror of January 1, 1976 carried a short front page pro-SLFP item. In this box-feature, Arthur Clarke was quoted as having made an objection to the Time magazine’s expose of the Bandaranaike ‘Family Tree’. Clarke noted that nepotism was prevalent in the United National Party as well, and that its pejorative moniker is ‘Uncle Nephew Party’. The bottom line of this pro-Sirimavo spin was that, at that time, Anura Bandaranaike was on the Director’s panel of the Daily Mirror’s then publisher. Thus, it became apparent that the Daily Mirror’s rebuttal to Time magazine’s expose, by using Arthur Clarke’s name as a vehicle, was sponsored by the retainers of Bandaranaike family.

Having read this pro-Sirimavo spin in the Daily Mirror, I thought that I would better send a letter to Arthur Clarke, expressing my disappointment in getting his name enmeshed in the local political propaganda. So, I wrote him a fan letter (a copy or details of which I haven’t preserved!). But I still remember the thrust of my epistle. I had made a request to Arthur Clarke not to allow his name to be used for local partisan politics, and not to allow his name to become tainted because of this.

Arthur C Clarke letter page 1According to my diary entry for 7 Jan 1976 (Wed), on that day I received this letter from Arthur Clarke, in response to my letter to him, sent on 3 Jan 1976 (Sat). His letter (carrying the date 6 Jan 76) was typed in red ink, on the two page form letter he then used to side-step and disengage the usual horde of autograph hunters, and assorted help seekers. I was pleased that (1) he didn’t consider my brief letter as belonging to this horde, (2) he thought that my letter deserved a response and (3) he had placed his signature at the end, in the somewhat unconventional letter typed in red ink.

On page 1 of his form letter, he typed in red “Dear Mr Sri Kantha – pl see over”. Then, in page 2 (where some space was available), he had typed his response. To quote the details (with the words in large case font, underlined, and within parenthesis and dots, as well as the typo- error in ‘reason’, as in the original):

“6 Jan 76

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I’m well aware of the danger you mention – which is one reason why I’m on good terms with Mrs. B, J.R., Pieter, N.M….but avoid getting too friendly with anyone.

In explanation – I was taken aback when the letter appeared locally, and had not intended or expected this.

And I had an ulterior motive for writing to TIME. They are sending a man here to do a story on me, which should be out in a month or so – and it might be embarrassing if the local politicos thought I was too friendly with a magazine which the PM dislikes (with some reasone.) Hence my letter – which friends of all political persuasion say was fully justified.

All good wishes.

[signed] Arthur C. Clarke”

For the uninitiated who may wonder about the identities of the Sri Lankan politicians noted by initials/first name, here are the details: Mrs. B (Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then leader of ruling SLFP), J.R. (J.R. Jayewardene, the then leader of opposition UNP), Pieter (Pieter Keuneman, the then leader of Communist Party) and N.M. (N.M. Perera, the then leader of Trotskyist LSSP).

Arthur C Clarke letter page 2For the curiosity-minded, I provide the scans of the two original pages from Arthur Clarke’s letter, since the details provided in his form letter also make interesting reading about how he handled his mail from fans and other publicity seekers who wished a sip from his cup of reputation. I should add that this one and only letter I received from Arthur Clarke was not preserved properly due to some lack in my foresight. It got smudged from a cycle of ‘pasting-retrieval-pasting-retrieval’ in my autograph books and files. But still its form and content remains preserved. I regret now that I disposed the envelope which carried this letter to me from Colombo 7 to Colombo 4, where I resided then.

Though I treasure this 1976 postal letter from Arthur Clarke, it is ironic that some of the advances in telecommunication science prophesied by him in the mid-20th century have made postal letters somewhat obsolete now. The only letters that I eagerly wait to receive now via regular post come only from my mother and a few aged kin for whom the computer is not an essential item.

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