A Visit to Arthur C. Clarke’s Home in Colombo, Sri Lanka
My Favorite Travel Experience
I stood in Arthur C. Clakre’s home, in his office, next to his wheelchair, at his desk, surrounded by his books, videotapes, plaques, photographs, trinkets, trophies and memories and a loud sob escaped me. And then another, followed by the unstoppable avalanche of tears that you have no choice but to let happen. Regardless of who is around.
I am not sure why I cried like that. It was probably a mixture of excitement, disbelief that I actually got in and awe that I was standing there, where that genius of a man wrote, created and researched some of the best hard sci-fi books ever gifted to mankind.
Obviously, I am a huge fan.
Arthur C. Clarke’s Books
I came to Arthur C. Clarke’s work pretty late in life.
I had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey as a child. of course. I never really understood the bit with apes throwing around the bones, but the music and the scene stuck. I picked up the book in 2011 and a whole new world opened up to me. I finally got it.
Since then, I have read 19 of his novels and stories collection, some of them several times. (Like any organized reader, I keep a list in Goodreads)
I love his utopian worlds, the hard-sci fi angle that offers the real possibility that someday we will get there.
So, naturally, I wanted to see where he lived and worked, where he typed out, probably my favorite of his novels, 3001: The Final Odyssey.
Going to Sri Lanka
As soon as we booked the trip to Sri Lanka, I knew I would have to go and look for Arthur C. Clarke’s home in Colombo. I had sifted through the internet and stumbled on a post where someone has done the same and managed to get in by “bribing” the house help.
The purpose of our trip was to visit our Sri Lankan friend’s family and her village and to take a short trip to Kandy and Bentota. We had hired a guide who doubled as our driver throughout the trip because we were traveling with our then six-month-old daughter and we weren’t equipped for any solo exploring adventure. Not that we are the kind of people who pursue great adventure anyway.
I told our guide that I wanted to visit Arthur C. Clarke’s home, thinking that everyone must know where such a great man lived. I had even found an address on the Internet.
Arthur C. Clarke had rarely left his residence in Sri Lanka for the last 40 years of his life. Even his famous Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and it’s subsequent sequels were filmed in that very room.
His “ego chamber” he called it.
But, in my opinion, there was nothing ‘ego’ about it. It was just the opposite. A tribute to the riches of creative life and a minimalist living on the outside.
Getting into Arthur C. Clarke’s Home
We happened to be in Colombo during the Sri Lankan New Year, so the streets of the city were almost empty when we set out to find the house. While we drove to the address I had stumbled upon the internet, our guide Vijith pointed out that it may not be the right place.
“He was famous, this guy?” Vijith asked.
“Yes, very,” I said.
“And he was white, English?”
“White, English people don’t live here. We should go to Barnes Place.”
He was right, I had the wrong area, but the right house number, the right street address. After two hours of driving around Colombo, we finally got there. The house was one of several big old homes in a gated and guarded compound.
“You won’t get in,” one of the guards said. “There were some Americans who wanted to get in this morning, but they didn’t let them.”
Vijith, undeterred by this warning, rang the bell anyway.
It was a warm, humid, April day and my husband, children and I, unaccustomed to the climate, were sweating profoundly.
Nobody came to the door. Vijith rang again and, again, nobody came. I wanted in, I really did, but also, I was worried that someone would show up and chase us away for having been so persistent.
“There has to be someone home, a housekeeper,” Vijith said.
Side Note: A good rule of traveling to most places: have a local with you, they know the ways of the people and I believe that should be a takeaway for any foreign trip.
An elderly housekeeper came out. She was on her way to a temple for the New Year’s, Vijith translated. They spoke in Sinhala.
There was an exciting discussion taking place (although it always seems that way when you don’t understand the language). It looked to me like we wouldn’t get in.
But by now, I could feel the energy, I was there, I was so close, I had to, I just had to get in.
The woman looked at us, she wanted to see who we were and what we looked like. Vijith introduced us. A family, just a nice family. She stared at us for a few moments and then, just like that, she opened the gate.
Exploring the Ego Chamber
It started right there, my sob. It collected in the back of my throat the moment the gate was open and I walked in. It was a meditative experience of being in the moment, being right there, in that place, right now. Not wanting or needing to be anywhere else.
The housekeeper led us up the stairs to Arthur C. Clarke’s part of the house. There was an obsolete intercom, his name on the wall next to it, the stairs and the sign that says “Mars 35,000,000 miles”, the fully-equipped radio room, and finally his office.
Me by his desk. And the sob.
The housekeeper looked at me. She asked Vijith why I was crying.
“I don’t know, I can’t believe I am here, thank you for letting us in,” I said. “Did you know him, please ask her if she knew him!”
They talked for a while.
Yes, she knew him, she had worked in the house for 15 years, she used to do his laundry. She went to show me his bedroom, his wardrobe, bathroom, a rooftop where he used to have his telescope. She also pointed to three small graves in the garden where he buried his beloved chihuahuas.
In for a Cup of Tea
“Are you letting everyone in?” I asked.
They don’t, she said, but the owners, the Ekanayake family said that if people looked decent and well-intentioned let them in. (Arthur C. Clarke had shared the house with his Sri Lankan family, the Ekanayakes)
Apparently, while Arthur C. Clarke was alive, he used to invite everyone who would come to his doorstep for a cup of tea.
Yes, that was it, that was the feeling I got from the experience in the house, in that room, I was welcome, I was let in for a cup of tea.
While he called the room his “ego chamber” the room was more minimalist than anyone would have expected, it reflected outward the man capable of envisioning and then writing the amazing worlds we encounter in his books.
And akin to this, there was no bribe asked for or given at the doorstep of his house. (although I did end up giving a small tip to the lady for her time and enthusiasm and for recognizing that I needed to be let in for a ‘cup of tea’)
A Memory Keeper
The room was full of memorabilia, certificates and thank you plaques, his books in different editions and languages, but also all the science books, philosophy, religion, I could not stop taking pictures of his bookshelves. The trinkets given to him by other people, some of them famous, small gifts and photographs he had kept.
A ‘shrine to himself” they called it. (I have to link this article because it is such an opposite to what I experienced)
It was evident from this beautiful room, that this was a man who lived his life and cherished other people. A man able to write those books not only from the scientific point of view but from the point of view of a fellow human being.
The fact that he could reach that kind of fame and be happy (and I have no doubt that he was happy in that house) to live in a small part of the house, consisting of a simple bedroom (bed and one single. tiny closet with a few drawers), an office, a radio room and equipment in the hallway.
Yes, that was the Arthur C. Clarke who exuded from his books.
Not once did I feel any need to touch anything on the many shelves in the room.
I was an observer, breathing in the energy, taking it in in a way that didn’t require me to take any photographs. No, I was there in the moment. I still, four years later, remember it all.
A Tribute to a Simple, Rich Life
The room showed me that he lived as we should live, a renaissance life. He was a scientist, a futurologist, a science-fiction writer, an undersea explorer, a tv host, an entertainer, all within the limitations imposed by polio he had as a child. He had no niche, he didn’t need a niche. As far as I could see, he took it all. Appreciating the moments while creating outwardly, giving pleasure and inspiration to so many.
And all of that living his working life remotely, something he predicted for all of us back in 1964.
And while I had missed that cup of tea with him, I will get to have one over and over, through the work he left behind.