Ali Manikfan, who hails from Lakshadweep, had studied only till the seventh grade. But, this year, he was awarded the Padma Shri in the category of ‘Grassroots Innovation’. Know the incredible story of this scholar without a degree who knows 14 languages!
It was 1981 when the famous actress Nargis Dutt breathed her last. The same year, as the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan was sworn in, and the Infosys Company was established in Pune.
Meanwhile, ‘Ali Manikfan’ calmly awaits Tim Severin, an Irish sailor in Minicoy, the southernmost island of Lakshadweep. He had a small briefcase in his hands, which consisted of two pairs of white Arabic dresses. He was fully prepared for the journey to Oman.
For Manikfan, the most significant work of that year was yet to be done. Tim had given him the task of building the ‘Sohar Ship’, which he had to make like the ship of Sindbad. Tim also travelled in it once. Tim was welcomed on the island of Minicoy. Minicoy was known for his sailors. Also, ropes used for constructing Arab ships in the medieval period were supplied from here.
The next few days, the two spent together collecting coconuts, hand-rolled with good quality coconut straw. Manikfan arranged for Aini, a type of wood. It is extensively used in making the famous ‘snake boat’ of Kerala.
Tim needed a supervisor for his work. Then Manikfan’s name was suggested to Tim by Dr Santhappan Jones, a marine biologist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI). Tim is shocked to learn that his supervisor has not even received schooling.
Tim describes Manikfan in his book, The Sindbad Voyage, “Manikfan is one of the millions.” He can speak 14 languages and learn more in the subject he is interested in. Ever since I started thinking about him, he has been ‘one person in a million for me. He met his recommendation. ” He speaks of Manikfan’s ‘sense of dignity and respect for abilities’ in his book.
Manikfan and Tim arrived in Muscat with 30 carpenters to build an 80-foot-tall and 22-foot-wide ship from traditional things like wood and coconut coats. Manikfan tells Web News Observer, “We worked round the clock all year round. We cut the girl’s leash from Dasti saws, and instead of metal, we used wood. The ship was named Sohar, which is also the name of a city in Oman. Tim travelled 9,600 kilometres from Oman to China on that. ” The ship is now housed in the National Museum of Oman.
Regarding a virtuous and knowledgeable person like him, it isn’t easy to believe that 82-year-old Manikfan is leading a private and simple life in Olavanna in Kozhikode district, Kerala. Their ancestors lived here earlier. He is self-sufficient. He grows food for himself, raises fish, grows coconut trees and generates electricity from solar energy.
To his neighbours, he is similar to his grandfather. After retiring from CMFRI, he is enjoying his life in Olavanna. Many of his neighbours were surprised to see him on TV when he was awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, in January this year. He was awarded in the category of ‘Grassroots Innovation’.
Manikfan does not want any honour and award. He says he felt pretty hesitant when so many people came to his house to greet him. Many times he used to get his wife to go for him, answering phone calls. While he is sleeping or busy, his wife used to ask those callers to say so.
Talking about this incident, he says, “Don’t get me wrong, I am honoured to receive the award. But I wouldn’t say I like recognition or popularity. I want to live like a flower in the desert, which blossoms and withers. ”
Manikfan of humble and soft-spoken nature has made many achievements in different fields, such as shipbuilding, marine research, geography, astronomy, fisheries, agriculture and sustainability. Even though he has only studied till the seventh, he has a lot of knowledge of the language. He can speak 14 languages such as English, Hindi, Malayalam, Arabic, Latin, French, Russian, German, Sinhalese, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu.
We also found out about Manikfan’s past in the Lakshadweep archipelago, how he voluntarily left school and later became such a great scholar.
‘ I school to go off to, learn it. “
Manikfan’s father was a clerk in the court, and his grandfather was a fisherman. From a very young age, he had become familiar with the sea and the world of fish. He often accompanied his grandfather to his work. While there, he learned about fishing. He moved to Kannur, Kerala, for his education. After a few days of education here, he came back. He says, “During my schooling, I found formal education very theoretical (theoretical). That means where the lesson is taught, but what and how to use it in real life is not given. I used to think about how much education would help me learn life skills? Compared to school, I have learned a lot from sailing. ”
Along with helping his grandfather, he also worked for free at the lighthouse and meteorological department. Here he learned to fly hydrogen balloons to assess the weather. He knew Star Gazing. During this time, he also changed many jobs. From a teacher to a clerk, and finally, in 1960, he was employed as a lab boy at CMFRI in Rameswaram.
At CMFRI, he learned a lot about fishing. Many officials of this centre were very impressed to see how easily they could identify 400 types of fish. He says, “My grandfather taught me how to identify fishes based on colour, feathers and thorns.” Dr Jones saw my talent and hired me. I have caught many rare species of fish. As a unique identity, the department named a fish in my name also after me – Abudefduf Manikfani. ”
After returning from Oman, he voluntarily retired and moved to Vedalai, Tamil Nadu. There he started working in a garage, where he once opened a car engine. It was from here that his first invention began. In 1982, he built a battery-powered roller cycle and travelled to Delhi with his son.
He also worked in sustainable agriculture and converted 15 acres of barren land into a small forest. In Weddalai, he built his home using traditional items and installed windmills to generate electricity. In 2011, he moved to Olavanna.
In the last six decades, Manikfan has made many trips and also lived in different places. He says that this has been his school. The most prominent witnesses to his faith are his four children, who, like his father, never received formal education. He further added, “My son is in the Navy, and all my daughters are teachers.”
He says, “Of course I left school, but never stopped learning. Nature teaches you to be self-reliant, and in a way, people are also teachers. If you listen to people carefully, you get to learn a lot from them.”