March 16 was the 80th birthday of Ali Manikfan, well-known marine researcher, ecologist, cosmologist, shipbuilder, polyglot and scholar. When we called him up, a vibrant, youthful sound responded. The man who has seen through eight decades of knowledge is still vigorously pursuing his passionate mission. “See what the newspapers carry these days,” he complains. “It is sad that we are yet to get a clear idea of what the exact lunar calendar is. Some even go to the extent of believing that a single day in the lunar calendar represents two or more in the regular calendar. I’ve been trying to correct this misconception for long.” Then, after a small pause, he laughs. “But there are people who think the moon rises in the West. Can you believe it?”
Maybe we can. But what one cannot believe is the life story of this grey-bearded, simpleton-looking wise old man, who was born as the second son of Moosa Manikfan and Fathima Manika at Minicoy Island, Lakshadweep, in 1938. His parents sent him to Kannur to pursue his education but he returned soon, as he strongly believed nothing teaches him better than the nature.
After his Class VIII, he did not return to the kara, as the residents of Lakshadweep call the main land. He loved to spend time at the lighthouse and the observatory or meteorology department, where he learnt to fly Hydrogen balloons to study the weather. As he needed sea travels, he studied navigation techniques and this required some star gazing, too, which he started to learn.
Manikfan then briefly spent some time in Kolkata only to come back to where his heart was — the island. He got employed as a primary school teacher and later as a staffer at the observatory. In 1960, he joined the Central Marine Research Institute at Rameswaram as a lab boy and voluntarily retired as a museum assistant 20 years later.
This experience and his boundless love for nature has led to the discovery of a fish, Abudefduf Manikfani, which is named after him. His contributions have also helped marine biologist Dr Santhappan Jones, who in his book, Fishes of the Laccadive Archipelago, has specifically mentioned Manikfan’s contributions.
In 1981, Irish adventurer Tim Severin gave Manikfan a big ‘break’ by asking to help him build a ship, to replicate the adventures of Sindbad. He approached Dr Jones for technical help, who, in turn, sought the assistance of Manikfan. A team of 31 led by Manikfan reached the ship factory of Muscat with all the materials — including the wood and coir — sourced from Kerala. The ship, named Sohar, 80 feet long and 22 feet wide, was completed in one year and 22 people including Tim travelled in it from Oman to China. The ship is still kept in Oman, as an honour to Tim and Manikfan.
A polyglot, Manikfan knows 14 languages, none of them he has learnt formally. He is now after the biggest dedication of his life — standardising a ‘unified lunar calendar for the Muslim world’. He has devoted many years to preparing a unique Hijri calendar that is based on the movements of the moon. He headed the Hijra committee too, until he left the position after some differences of opinion five years ago.
He now resides in Kozhikode but is hardly ‘settled’ as his missions are incomplete. The ‘University of the Universe’ never closes its doors, after all.