MAN WITH MANY IDEAS
RAMANADAPURAM: He has had no formal schooling, but his capabilities range from linguistics to electronics.
That is M Ali Manikfan from Minicoy Islands, now settled in Vedalai, a coastal village near Mandapam in Ramanathapuram District (Tamil Nadu).
A ten minute walk along the beach from the meeting point of road and the sea at Vedalai, takes one to a solitary hut. The minute one touches the wicket gate, Gelet alerts his master with a loud bark and a small but wiry man in his mid 50’s sporting a goat beard, wearing lungi and banian, and a white turban emerges. His handshake is as warm as his smile and he shows his neat hut where everything, except the human beings and the dog Gelet, is improvised.
The hut draws power from the wind-mill installed atop a Palmyra stump. Manikfan explained that the wind-mill worked a motor which charged a car battery kept in a corner of the hut.
Manikfan, who is locally known as the “wonder man from Minicoy” has a refrigerator which works on the heat produced from the cooking oven. He bought an old refrigerator, tinkered with it and placed the fridge close to the cooking oven with the narrow end protruding beneath the compressor of the fridge. To keep the fridge going even after the cooking was over, his wife kept the embers alive.
Manikfan has an interesting bicycle. It is roller driven. He has fitted it with an old power sprayer motor. The cyclist has to pedal only a few rounds to start the motor and once the lever is released it engages the roller and the cycle becomes a locomotive. Manikfan and his son, Moosa had been to Delhi on this power driven cycle which, does 60 to 70 kilometers a day and is capable of 35 kmph. Manikfan has patented the fabrication, which he claims is better than some of the petrol driven two-wheelers on the road today and far cheaper too.
Dr. S. Jones, as the Director of the Central Marine Fisheries Institute, (CMFRI) now retired had found young Manikfan 23 years ago in the Minicoy Islands and brought him over to Mandapam which was then the CMFRI Head Quarters and engaged him for collecting and identifying marine life specimens. In the book “Fishes of the Laccadive archipelago” Dr. Jones a marine biologist says thus about Manikfan “The very book bears testimony to the part played by Mr. M. Ali Manikfan of Minicoy Islands. He collected the maximum number of species and ascertained the local names.”
Though he had no formal education, Manikfan started life as a teacher and became an army clerk, before his love for the sea overtook all his other pursuits. He had mastered a dozen languages. French, German, Russian, Latin, English, Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil and his mother tongue Divehi. Manikfan knows a bit of Sinhalese too. But how did he manage to learn so many languages? If you ask him he would only smile, but, if you press him for an answer he would say. “Let us say it is a God given gift”.
Manikfan’s biggest achievement according to him is that he played an important role as worker-supervisor in the making of “Sohar” a replica of the ship by which Sindbad the Sailor had made his legendary 9.665 km voyage 1.200 years ago. The journalist voyager, Mr. Tim Severin chose Mr. Manikfan for the job on the recommendation of Dr. Jones in 1981. It took Manikfan and his men one year to build the ship at Sur in Oman. This ship was designed by Mr. Tim Severin, who wanted Sohar to be identical to the Arab ship in Sindbad’s voyage. And so the 27 meter long replica was built of aini wood, handpicked from the forests of India. The hull was painstakingly fashioned from manually shaped planks laid edge to edge with tolerance of less than 1/64th of an inch. The planks were then sewn into position with handmade coconut fiber rope, drawn tight around a wad of coconut husks. The finished vessel was made up of, among other materials, 75000 coconut husks and four tons of coir rope.
Mr. Severin cruised in Sohar for seven months and eight days and in his book, Sindbad Voyage published in 1982, he referred to Manikfan’s contribution in building the ship.
Manikfan now lives on a two acre coconut grove with his wife, three daughters and his grandson, also Ali Manikfan who seems to be taking after his grandfather. The boy does not attend school but is being coached by his grandfather. Seven year old Ali Manikfan (Jr) is reading the second standard school books and he has a good fluency in English.
The Minicoy man keeps pigeons and bees and a donkey too. Though the donkey seemed out of place there, he explained that he needed the donkey’s manure which he said was better than that of cattle. He does not get much about these days and feels that his seafaring days are ending. Manikfan is now doing research on fresh-water fishes rearing and raising output of coconut trees. He is working on the theory that coconut leaves, which drop, should be chopped and buried around the trees instead of being used as fuel, and shrubs and creepers should be allowed to grow freely in the coconut groves for better yield. Another very interesting theory of his, which is contrary to that held by the agricultural department, is that the coconut tees should not be watered, they should be allowed to find their nourishment. If you water the trees, the roots will stop growing, and if you are not able to water them, for instance during a drought, the roots will dry up as the ready made feeding is not available” Manikfan says.
He has a fresh water pond just a few yards away from the sea and is raising carps, cutla and rohu. The fingerlings were brought from Mettur Dam in Salem District. “My main idea is fresh-water prawns, but I need help”, he said – Staff Reporter