'As Old As You Feel'

It’s a saying that George Thachil of Kerala lives up to, and one that he would have you live by too

By Maria Elizabeth Kallukaren, March 27, 2017

It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that at 85, nothing riles George Thachil more than seemingly well-meaning people from his neighbourhood and beyond, cautioning him to slow down and give up much of the often back-breaking work he loves doing.

Single-handedly tending to his considerable garden in his hometown of Angamaly in Kerala, India, mending and fixing practically anything and everything that falls apart around the house, and “if there’s nothing wrong to fix” then going into his workspace to finish many a little project, George and his hands are always at work.

If it’s not odd jobs that involve plumbing, carpentry and electrical wiring then it’s bigger ones such as remodelling the bathroom or erecting a fountain to beautify his garden.

Next door men and women his age and younger might sit hunched in chairs, content to nurse aching backs and limbs, having long given up on many activities. Not so Mr George, age 85.  

When they see him pottering around his two-storey house, a chorus of advice pours forth: ‘At your age, you mustn’t be doing this; at your age, you mustn’t be driving; at your age, you mustn’t be cycling; at your age, you mustn’t be climbing stairs and lifting heavy things.’

Now 85, George schedules his morning hours to his latest workshop projects.

“They make you feel old,” says George. “The general attitude is that if you are 60 or 70, then you are finished. Nothing more is expected from you … just prepare to go six feet under. And I think that is rubbish.”

How it all began

There is very little that George doesn’t know about electrical and mechanical things. It all began for him as an 8-year-old in Angamaly. He received an electric shock while fiddling with a gadget. This literally “sparked” his interest in electricity. The inquisitive little boy began to ask people about electrical things and looked up books on electricity.

“By 12, I was a half-baked electrician,” says George the son of a school headmaster and fourth among four brothers and three sisters. He would peer into electronic circuits, and amplifiers, pull apart old alarm clocks and spoilt radios, buy spares, and reassemble them into workable devices.  “I have an aptitude for electrical things,” he says. “I am very confident that even if I don’t know anything about it, I will still open it up, strip it, look into it and then be able to put it back together again.” 

With department colleagues in HAL (1959), George is seated in the bottom row, third from the right. 

At 18, George was well into work, having joined the Indian Air Force in Kanpur — or Cawnpore as the city in North India was more commonly known in British times. Working in various capacities beginning with being an Air Traffic Controller, George switched to the aircraft manufacturing division, which later on became the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). In his spare time, he continued nurturing his interests.

“By 19, I was a self-taught automobile mechanic,” he says. The opportunity arose when he found a dilapidated 1931 model vintage car propped up on four bricks and covered with tarpaulin in someone’s backyard. “I liked it immediately and offered to buy it. Instead he asked me to take it for free. So I brought it home and opened it up.”

Very soon, having replaced a few damaged parts and fitted new tires, George could push the car around. Then came stage two: stripping the engine and understanding how it worked, with the help of a friend. The engine was then reassembled, a new battery put in and before long, the car had spluttered to life. 

For the next five years George drove the vintage model around, having redone the upholstery and fixed a canvas convertible cover as its roof. “It was quite a novelty for everyone in town!” 

Life in Zambia and Zimbabwe

Before long, an opportunity arose for George to go to Zambia. By then, he had been working for HAL in a civilian capacity after having taken voluntary retirement from the Air Force. On the recommendation of the Air Forces Records Office, the recently married young man was offered a position in the Zambian Air Force.

He spent 11 years in the country, before deciding to move back to Kerala when the Zambian economy began deteriorating. By then George and his wife Leela had had two children. “We found it difficult to adapt in Kerala,” he says, prompting him to set off again for Africa.

“This time I landed in Zimbabwe, which had just become independent.” Over the course of a month, George managed to get a job in the country’s Air Force headquarters.

George had access to big lathe machines and drilling machines in Zimbabwe. He crafted hand-made metal works like these.

A helicopter from scrap

The Zimbabwe Air Force was looking for an eye-catching exhibit for their pavilion at the annual agriculture show. 70-year-old George  decided to make an exact replica of a Italian helicopter that the Air Force had.

Using scrap material around his workplace, he built the 10 x 5 foot chopper. “It could be moved forwards and backwards by remote; you could turn the rotor blades too.”

The helicopter, with George’s name inscribed on it, was a big draw at the exhibition. To this day, it is brought out for various exhibitions.

A while later, the Air Force needed floodlight towers for a football ground. They turned to George. “I designed it,” he says, going on to supervise the building of 6 towers, each 70 feet high and fitted with 24 floodlights.

'It is all self-taught’

As a consultant in the engineering department, George had plenty of spare time during which he would work on the big lathe and drilling machines to make a variety of objets d’art. After office hours, he would work in his car garage fixing cars and motorcycles.

“There is no technical or mechanical work that I don’t know,” he says. “Carpentry, plumbing, electrical, electronics, steel works, sheet metal work, welding, soldering, machine shop work… it’s all self-taught.”

For instance, while in Zambia, someone gave him a black and white television. Its picture tube was broken. Scouting around, George found another damaged television set with an intact picture tube.

“The only thing, was it was slightly smaller,” George recalls. “So I modified the cabinet to fit the new picture tube … connected everything and it worked!” It was something George would repeat in Zambia, when his station commander approached him after a car accident that damaged the car’s front end. “He wanted me to fix it, so no one would find out about the accident,” says George.

Through pure coincidence, he was able to find the same car model, but with a damaged bumper. “ ‘This is what we will do,’ I told the commander, ‘we will cut the car in half and join the front with the back of this one… have it repainted and upholstered.” And that’s what George did.

Finally after being employed for 57 years — the last 10 as engineering manager at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Zimbabwe — George decided to call it quits and retired to his hometown of Angamaly.

George was 77 when he designed and created the water fountain at his residence in Kerala.

A healthy brain in a healthy body

George credits his boundless energy and enthusiasm to his exercise regimen in his youth and his long distance running, yet another passion. These days he does a little weight training, yoga and simple exercises at home.

He advises the young to keep fit and reap the benefits as age advances. George would love to see a change in mindset all round — both among the elderly as also among the younger set in Kerala. The state has the highest proportion of elderly people in India (12 per cent of its 32 million population is above 60 as per the 2011 census).

 “Whatever be your age, when you keep thinking, when you keep doing things, your brain is active and that keeps your body healthy.” Don’t write a person off just because of his or her age, he says, an attitude all too common among the medical fraternity. “When I go see a doctor, they try and tell me ‘there’s no need for you to do this at your age’, but I insist on finding out what’s wrong with me. And I tell them: ‘next time I come here, it might just be that I don’t find YOU here’.” 

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