Townsfolk of Olavanna in Kozhikode would often see an upright, lean man in Arab attire walk towards his house. They only knew that he was a retired official from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) living here and was originally from Lakshadweep. When television screens flashed the name of Ali Manikfan among this year's Padma awardees, the people of Olavanna were surprised to learn that it was their unassuming retired marine official from Lakshadweep.
Mohammed Basheer and PR Ramachandran, employees of a private firm in Olavanna, said, "He is lean and frail but would walk straight and with a twinkle in his eyes, but we never knew who he was until the news flashed that he was awarded the Padma Shri."
Manikfan, who is currently living in a rented accommodation along with his wife in Olavanna, was sent to Kannur in Kerala for studies but after Class 5 he did not pursue formal education and returned to Minicoy, his hometown in the Lakshwadeep islands. He was a keen observer, knew almost every fish that inhabited the sea off the Minicoy island and this observation turned into a passion for fishes. This motivated him to study more about fishes, their origin and everything about them.
The research in fishes got him a job at the CMFRI where he discovered a rare fish which has been named after him - Abudefduf Manikfani.
He can speak, read and write 14 languages including French, German, English, Arabic and others, and uses seven of these to communicate.
In 1981, he was invited to Oman to make a ship, a replica of the one believed to be used by Sinbad, the Sailor, during his voyages. He was invited by the Irish voyager Tim Sirven who wanted it to be made without metals. Ali and his team made a 27-m long ship using timber and coir in a year. It was named "Sohar" after the town of Sohar in Oman. Tim and his team travelled 9,000 km from Oman to China on it and it is now kept in a museum in Oman.
Manikfan told IANS, "Those days metal was not used for making ships and hence we had to replicate one using timber. This ship sailed up to China from Oman and is still kept at Oman museum."
Another major interest of Manikfan is the lunar calendar and he has built one based on the New Moon and on astronomical algorithms.
The multifaceted personality has also invented a bicycle with roller motor and travelled to New Delhi along with his son Musa.
Another of his interests is agriculture and he has converted a barren 15 acre land at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu into a lush green farmland using indigenous methods of cultivation. He has also created residential premises using traditional materials.