“Things were cheaper, clothes were different and women used to wear the saree or the osariya all the time,” says Paramanathan Manikkam who has certainly seen a lot during his lifetime of one hundred years.
Manikkam was born in Malaysia and celebrated his 100th birthday yesterday, May 8. “I was a three-month-old baby when I came to Sri Lanka and lived in Rakwana,” he says. Manikkam has seen the country change from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, from the colonial period to the post colonial era.
And from then to now, the changes our little island has seen have been vast and Manikkam has lived through them all.
Smartly dressed in white shirt and sarong, this sprightly gentleman who doesn’t look a day over 70, lives at Dev Siri Sevana, an elders’ home in Mahabage.
He has tried his hand at quite a few occupations but the one which seems to stand out is the time he was a tram car driver. This was in 1924 and he continued to work in various jobs till 1975.
“I started off by having to clean the tram car which I did for around a year and then I was involved in lane changing,” he explains. It was later on that he learnt to drive the tram car. “I used to drive the tram car between Fort and Borella,” Manikkam says. No, he never had any accidents. Asked if it was a tough job he says, “Not at all, all I had to do was press buttons!”
After being a tram car driver he moved on to work at a company in Slave Island and later on at the then Central Hospital on Horton Place. However, he found work at the hospital tough and decided he needed to take a year off.
He then joined a Gas company in Dematagoda where he worked for a considerable period till bad eyesight hindered his work.
In those days he stayed with a friend, whom he calls Chandra Aiya who worked at the Paddy Warehouse on McCallum Road. Chandra Aiya would help him by giving him Rs.50 for his meals and tea, he says.
Manikkam lost touch with his family after the riots of 1983 and after moving around he came to stay at Dev Siri Sevana.
“We will be having a low profile programme to bless him and commemorate his birthday,” says Fr. Maxwell Doss, the director of the home. Fr. Doss says Manikkam is careful with his meals and avoids eating tomatoes, pineapple and ice cream due to fear of catching a cold.
He had to undergo a cataract operation last year and he was able to go ahead with it because of his good health. Fr. Doss explains that the Lions Club of Kelaniya conducts a free medical clinic for the home and among the residents, seven were selected for the operation but only Manikkam was able to undergo it as he was in good health.
Manikkam is generally a lively person and gets about on his own. “He used to walk around the garden but as of late he seems to confine himself to the main corridor of the home,” Fr. Doss says.
“Anula looks after me like a mother,” Manikkam says of W. Anulawathi who works at the home.
Dev Siri Sevana is run on contributions from the public. “Accommodation, food and medication are all provided free of charge,” says Fr. Doss. The home has 34 residents who occupy the rooms each with four beds and a small garden.
Fr. Doss says that children from Lyceum International School, Wattala as well as trainee nurses from the nearby Nursing School come to visit them.
“I want to take them to Galle Face one of these days to enjoy the fresh air and see the place,” Fr. Doss says. No doubt 100-year-old Manikkam will be among them.