Dressed in a white robe, a tall man emerges from a modest thatched hut in a village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. After locking the front door, Mani Manithan adjusts his cap, runs his fingers through his shoulder-length locks then starts walking – backwards – briskly, navigating his way through narrow mud lanes leading to the main road, 200m away. Glancing over his shoulder every once in a while, he doesn’t miss a step, deftly avoiding a dog sleeping and an open gutter that runs by the side of the path.
Walking up to the bus stand he proffers a smile to a few people waiting there and when a bus rumbles up, begins walking – backwards again – to the door and hoists himself up. A few travellers pause to stare at Mani, 46, who is walking backwards in the bus looking for a seat. The shopkeeper relaxes before 20 minutes later getting off at his destination. He looks over his shoulder as he crosses the busy road to reach the mobile phone shop that he operates. Standing sideways he unlocks the shutters, then walks – backwards again – into the store.
When a customer walks in and asks for a certain brand of phone, Mani navigates his way backwards to fetch it for him, and surprisingly, the customer doesn’t think it’s odd that Mani walks like that.
That’s because 25 years since he first started walking in reverse, Mani – a double post-graduate in English and Sociology – no longer turns heads in and around his home district of Tirupattur. It’s his own private protest against war and violence, but has now become a way of life for the bachelor.
“I first began walking backwards as a mark of protest against the violence that is increasing across the world,” he says. “Countries and people are fighting each other. There’s so much bloodshed everywhere. The decision to walk backwards was not to turn my back against this violence but to attract the attention of people and make them think of ways to bring about world peace.”
Mani has undertaken several marathon walks from his state. In 1989, he notched up 482km in reverse from Tirupattur to Chennai to protest at the communal violence that had rocked parts of the country.
What Mani’s unusual lifestyle has brought him is not just fame and attention in his village but across the country and even as far afield as Japan and Germany. He’s been interviewed for TV and newspapers across India and even a few in the UK, and his novel way of protesting has also caught the attention of authorities at Guinness World Records who, he says, have already spoken to him and are considering including his “achievement” in the next edition of their book.
A regular speaker on nuclear issues and the environment, he was invited by a nuclear non-proliferation organisation to Japan in July this year to give a talk on global peace. “I was very happy because I was being noticed in a country so far away from home,” he says.
Mani said that although he could not visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki during his week-long trip, he didn’t forget to offer a silent tribute to those who lost their lives during the Second World War.
“Those two places are stark reminders of the ill effects of war and nuclear power,” he says.
“Japan has decided to reduce its reliance on nuclear power and is looking at renewable sources like sun and wind. But India aims to source 25 per cent of its power from nuclear plants. It appears that our government has not learnt from what happened in Fukushima [where a reactor that was destroyed by a tsunami began to spew nuclear waste into the sea leading to a grave ecological disaster]. Given the track record of our country in disaster management, if a Fukushima-like disaster happens we will end up losing hundreds of thousand people,” he told the forum.
Even in Japan, Mani walked backwards. “Walking on the streets of Tokyo was an amazing feeling. The city is so clean and neat and everything orderly. I was amazed,” he says, admitting that the local people were puzzled to see him walking. “Some curious passersby came to me and asked why I was walking backward. See, this is what my mode of protest does – it makes people curious about the cause.”
Mani says the turning point, so to speak, in his life came when he was 21. “The civil war in Sri Lanka had flared up in the late Eighties and I was very upset with the number of people being killed there,” he says. “I felt somebody should start to do something about it.”
He decided to start walking in reverse, “To remind people that as a society we have become regressive over the years. Civilisation is going backwards. We need to fix it before it is too late. I felt this strategy of mine would attract people to the cause of peace and make them forget about violence.”
Mani admits that taking his message to the common man through his unusual walking style has not been easy. Initially when he started off walking backwards, he injured himself quite a bit.
“The doorway to my house is very low, so I would often bang my head against door frame while entering or exiting. Also, I used to trip on stones or bump into people while walking in the streets. I have even been hit by slow-moving vehicles such as bicycles and autorickshaws several times. Fortunately, none of them has resulted in a major accident.”
Bumping into people and things was not the only problem Mani faced. Some of the people in his village too were not supportive of his cause, he says.
“Every now and then curious people would come over and want to know why I was walking backwards. The insensitive and uneducated ones would ask if I was mad,” he says. “The educated people, however, were more keen to know what my motive was.”
At first he not only walked backwards but decided to remain silent. “I wanted to make a strong statement against violence and felt silence was the loudest sound in the midst of all the agitations that are ongoing in the world. I used to keep a pen and paper handy and would reply to people’s queries in writing only.”
Mani would reply to questions by writing on a sheet of paper he used to carry around. Mani’s father Ayya Kannu, 75, a farmer, and mother Paapa, a home maker, did not raise an eyebrow when he announced how he was upset with the issues plaguing the planet and wanted to protest against them.
From 1989 to 2006 Mani refused to utter a single word but says he decided to break his silence when he decided to stand for elections for the post of President of India – a job he hoped to get “so my voice would be heard internationally and I will be able to contribute to the cause of global peace”. However, his nomination papers were rejected on technical grounds and Pratibha Patil went on to become President in 2007. However, he decided to continue talking so he could advocate his message better.
“Even as a child, Mani was a sensitive boy,” says his mother. “I don’t understand much about what he is doing but all I know is that he is doing some good for society.”
His father agrees. “He is very compassionate and empathetic to those who are poor and needy. During his growing up years, he would also be protective of his friends and would never indulge in any fights.”
Ayya believes that the books on Mahatma Gandhi that Mani used to read could have led him to choose the path to protest against violence. “He used to read a lot of books on Gandhi and his non-violence movement and it was Gandhi’s teachings that prompted him to take up this novel mode of protest.”
His best friend and neighbour, Devendran says, “When Mani began his mission many would poke fun at him and some even nicknamed him ‘Reverse gear’. Initially even I, his good friend, thought he had gone mad. But when I learnt about his motive and mission, I developed a sense of respect for him.”
Since Manithan has been walking backwards for the past 25 years, his body has grown attuned to it. “Walking normally is more of a challenge – my mind has forgotten how to do it. I have become very comfortable walking like this,” he says climbing down a steep staircase of a market in the town. “It’s almost impossible for me now to walk forwards. I guess it’s like telling you to walk backwards,” he says.
He insists his unusual routine does not in any way interfere with his daily life. “I’ve perfected the art of walking backwards up stairs, across roads and while using public transport. My life has been full of struggles, sacrifice, achievements and protest so I have no problem continuing my backwards walking until we achieve world peace,” says Mani. “And if that means until the end of my life, then so be it.”
An excellent student, Mani is attending classes to earn a diploma in engineering. “He is our hero,” says 16-year-old Vishnu Krishna, one of his classmates. “The whole class loves and respects him. He is very disciplined and focused on his studies. Mani sets an example and brings positive energy to the class and his classmates directly or indirectly are made aware of social causes.”
Pulling down the shutters of his shop at the end of the day, Mani steps backwards and walks to the nearby tea shop where he sits down for a cup of chai before heading back home. “I know peace would not be easy to achieve but I am happy I am doing my bit and attracting attention to the issue,” he says, before flagging down a bus that will take him home.