A life’s mission

Volumes of Hortus Malabaricus at K.S. Manilal's house PHOTO: S. Ramesh Kurup   | Photo Credit: S_RAMESHKURUP;S_RAMESHKURUP -

A paragraph. The mind tussles with memory to wrestle out names — of things, titles and places. K.S. Manilal says it was a paragraph that changed the course of his life’s work. But to remember what it said is an effort for the 75-year-old professor emeritus now. He tries, gives up. But after silence that stretches for a few moments, the words burst out eloquently. “The plant’s part if applied on the left toe improves the clarity of vision in the right eye.”

At that moment, when a bunch of incorrigible Latin words he picked out from Hortus Malabaricus, the 12-volume, 17th century work by Dutchman Hendrik Van Rheede became lucid, Manilal knew he had to know what the rest holds. “Of course, they knew the plant’s medicinal properties. But what struck me was the link between the left toe and the right eye.” Translating the volumes of Hortus from Latin to English and Malayalam and interpreting it in modern scientific terms have taken away a large chunk of Manilal’s career — well over 40 years. For his dogged perseverance with little support from elsewhere, the botanist was honoured by Van Rheede’s country; Queen Beatrix bestowed on him Netherland’s highest civilian order — Officer of the Order of Orange — Nassau in 2012. “The Consul General came to Kozhikode to give him the honour,” pitches in wife Jyotsna, Manilal’s constant aid. She takes baby steps with him as he slowly finds his way after a stroke partially paralysed him eight years ago. She pitches in too when he struggles with names of students and books or to recall incidents.

There were many things about Hortus that drew Manilal to it. Having grown up in Kochi, tomes on the plant wealth of the region was natural curiosity for any botanist. “Also nobody really knew anything about it. Their awareness began and ended with the title and to think this was a really important text to us. First-hand information about it was nil. I had to start from scratch.”

His father, a “voracious reader” and lawyer, had meticulously piled up whatever paper cuttings he came across of these volumes. Manilal’s first interaction with the physical volumes were at the then Dehradun Imperial Forest Research Institute which he visited for a study tour as a post-graduate student at Sagar University. “In the first instance, I spent four days there and copied down all the Malayalam names in the 12 volumes.”

Later when he joined Calicut University as faculty in the 1960s, he went back to Hortus. What stood between any scholar and the volumes was intimidating Latin. “It was not easy; learning Latin then.” Yet he began with the small paragraph which unlocked the co-ordination between the left toe and the right eye. “I had approached Father Pathroni for help. Being busy, he had said if it was a small segment he would help. That is how I went with that paragraph to him,” recalls Manilal.

The paragraph’s message bolstered Manilal’s conviction to translate Hortus. He banked on Father Anthony Mukkath in Kochi to teach him Latin. “Every month I would travel to Kochi for 2-3 days and spend time with him. A lot of work was done that way over months.” But soon, Mukkath passed away. “By then I could manage with the basic language I had learnt. Translating each volume took me 3-4 years. Now I look back and wonder how I did it.”

The task for Manilal was never of a mere translator, but of a botanist. He scouted the regions mentioned in the volumes searching and verifying the 740-odd species mentioned in it.

“The location where some plants were found was mentioned. So that helped. In other instances, the plants had migrated. In the sense, they were not found at the location mentioned in the volume but in nearby areas. I could find all except one, a plant called ‘chentani,’” he says.

After decades decoding Hortus, when all was done, Manilal bowed to the Kerala University’s request for copyright. He did so shunning offers from other publishers.

Though Hortus took much of his time, other publications and papers complete his repertoire.

Among it is the Flora of Silent Valley, an extensive study he carried out with three research students, documenting over 950 plant species and thereby preventing the establishment of the controversial hydro-electric project in the ecologically sensitive region. “An earlier study had recorded only 240 species in the region. Our study, funded by the Department of Science and Technology, took us four years. The terrain was difficult, filled as it was with wild animals and reptiles,” he recalls.

He also studied the plants of Kozhikode, the city now home.

The Flora of Kozhikode documents the plants in what he calls Greater Kozhikode region extending till Ponnani along the Chaliyar.

“I did it at a time when no local plants were studied and had documented over 1,000 species.”

As the botanist who has discovered 18 new plant species struggles with the finer details of his past, Manilal says, “Sometimes I do feel recognition has come from outside but not our own people.”

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 5:32:59 AM |

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