Knight at 99

Mangaluru’s nonagenarian traffic warden and his squad are making roads safe

Cop alert: 99-year-old Joe Gonsalves in his uniform, complete with his badge and baton | Oshin Grace Daniell Cop alert: 99-year-old Joe Gonsalves in his uniform, complete with his badge and baton | Oshin Grace Daniell

Mangaluru is seated at the junction where the Netravathi and Gurupur rivers join the Arabian Sea. But this is not your typical laid back, seaside town. Offering a contrast to the beautiful beaches and scenic coastline is the nightmarish traffic on city roads. Call it Mangaluru’s own Jekyll-and-Hyde act. But, the cheerful people, spicy seafood and stalls selling steaming neer dosas are the same across town.

If you are a tourist in town, there is the Pilikula Biological Park, the Milagres Church… and do look for the 99-year-old traffic warden. One can find him at traffic hotspots and busy areas in Hampankatta. He always has a smile for those who obey traffic rules; others receive a polite nudge and some suggestions, kindly put.

“I am not 99-years-old, I am 99-years-young,” says Joseph Gonsalves, aka Joe, the chief traffic warden of Mangaluru. Somehow, it sounded similar to the new catchphrase that Arnold Schwarzenegger mouthed in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)—“I am old, but I am not obsolete.” Joe was ready to spill his life story in the first phone call itself, but it was a tale of intrigue; the kind that called for a visit.

Manoeuvring through Mangaluru traffic is a bit like playing Temple Run. You are never ready for the next move. The roads are bumpy; the dividers, dilapidated and the autorickshaw drivers are qualified to audition for the next Fast and Furious. As we reach the Falnir area, Joe calls to give directions: “Just come straight; I am standing at my balcony. It is hard to miss me.” And, he was right. His khaki uniform, the shiny stars on his epaulettes, cap, baton and fancy mask stand out against the background of his beige-hued apartment. He waves, and signals to take the stairs.

To point a finger is very easy, but we should not be in fault-finding missions but fact-finding missions; it is only then can we find an answer.
I cannot stay idle, so I put on my uniform, take my car and go on rounds in the evening. Over the years, I do get tired. But I try not to get over tired.

The first car in the parking lot is his white Swift Desire with ‘chief traffic warden’ marked on the back glass. “They made a lot of noise when I bought the car three years back,” Joe says. “Hanumantharaya, Deputy Commissioner of Police (law and order), handed over the key of the new car to me at the Mandovi showroom. They have also given me a siren, which I can use in case of an emergency.” Joe still drives around the city like a pro. And why not, he has been behind the wheel for over 80 years now!

“When I was young, there were only three cars in my area,” he says. “Two were owned by Englishmen and the third one was the bishop’s car. It was a Morris 8 and every time it passed the hockey field where I used to play with my friends, we would put our sticks away and kneel down to get his blessings. I had such admiration and respect, not only for the bishop but also his car.” Joe drove for the first time when he was 19. “I drove a Morris 8,” he says. Interestingly, Joe says that Mangaluru’s first car was owned by his son-in-law’s grandfather; “a French car—De Dion.” His love for cars is clear from the excitement in his voice. His hands look frail, but they are always in the air, animating his tales.

Joe’s flat has a retro, English vibe to it. Be it the couch or the blinds, or the bar counter, the elements talk about celebration, togetherness, love and, also, a few poignant memories. “I had a bigger place before, but it was too big for me so I moved into a smaller space,” he says. Without wasting any time, Joe shares the stories behind every photo on the walls. The walls also showcase the certificates and accolades he has received. “All I want to do is to give back to the community,” he says. “I want more and more youngsters to come forward and take part in this mission to make our roads safe.” Word has it that he is quite resourceful when it comes to his pet project.

Old is gold: Joe gonsalves controlling the vehicles at a traffic hotspot in mangaluru. Even at this ripe age, he voluntarily serves the people  of his town with his polite road safety suggestions | Twitter@MangaloreCity Old is gold: Joe gonsalves controlling the vehicles at a traffic hotspot in mangaluru. Even at this ripe age, he voluntarily serves the people of his town with his polite road safety suggestions | Twitter@MangaloreCity

“Serving the public is a social responsibility and everyone should do this,” he says. “When we think of doing something good for the society, we get various options to do so. When I decided to serve people, I got the idea of being a traffic warden. Assistant Commissioner of Police Udaya Naik supported me. My one hope and request to all, especially young people, is that they should join this squad in large numbers,” he says.

Joe also conducts awareness programmes in schools and colleges. “We tell students their role was not just to study and get degrees but to reach out to people,” he says. “To point a finger is very easy, but we should not be in fault-finding missions but fact-finding missions; it is only then can we find an answer.” The key message, he says, is for everyone to ‘respect the lives of other people’. This, he says, would make the roads a safer space for both vehicles and pedestrians.

An old photo of Joe with his grandmother and sisters. An old photo of Joe with his grandmother and sisters.

Being chief traffic warden is a voluntary service. They are also called civil enforcement officers (CEOs). They enforce civil legislations such as the issuing of parking tickets. CEOs are employed by the local government to help maintain free flow of traffic and safety of pedestrians in their jurisdiction.

Lakshmi Ganesh, former DCP (crime and traffic), Mangaluru, and present additional SP of Bengaluru says: “There aren’t many people who are interested to take up this task of road safety. Joe is extremely energetic, and also interested in this service. He motivates youngsters and inspires everyone on the road. When people see him serving at this age, they have an immense sense of respect for him. The important thing is the desire to serve and Joe has a serving heart.”

Joe says that he has not been given a target or a set number of tasks. “My only objective is to keep the road safe and help manage traffic,” he says. “I have an efficient team of 14 members who help me with the mission. They are all very committed.” According to Joe, two-wheelers, three-wheelers and buses cause most of the problems. “I am never rude to anyone, I am always very polite and courteous to everyone. And people respect me for that,” he says. During the pandemic, Joe and his team were asked to stay away from the roads for their safety. “If something happens, nobody is willing to come forward and take up the responsibility or bear the expenses,” he says. But this has not stopped him from serving. Once in a while, he takes his car out and inspects the traffic management on city roads.

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, my children have become my advisers now,” he says. “They say, ‘Daddy, take it easy.’ Although I am not taking it easy, I try to control myself.” The moment he completes the sentence, his phone rings. It is his daughter reminding him to keep his mask on all the time. Did someone say coincidence?

“I have four children, three girls and a boy,” he says. “I am very fond of my family; I love my children, my grandchildren and great grandchildren very much. And they are very supportive of my work. They always check on me and try to spend time with me whenever they can.” Three of his children are in the US and one is settled in Mangaluru.

A portrait of Joe and his late wife, Irene. A portrait of Joe and his late wife, Irene.

Joe divides his time between India and US. As a matter of fact, he is a US citizen. “The first thing I wanted to do when I went to US was to get my driver’s licence,” he says. “My children were a little apprehensive initially, but later they were fine. I passed the oral test, but I was extremely nervous about the practical test. Before the transport officer could get in, I opened the door for him. I put the seat belt on and looked at him. Before taking off, I made it very obvious that I adjusted the rear-view mirror. He made me do a short drive, and then I had the backing test. At the end he said, ‘You’re through!’ That was one of my happiest days.”

His children maintain a separate car for him in the US. “The people in the US are very polite,” he says. “Be it doctors, police officers or traffic officers, they are courteous to the public. This is something I like about the States. I have driven from one state to another in the US; in India, I have taken long journeys from Bombay to Madras, and Kolkata to Mangalore multiple times during my working years.”

However, life was not always rosy for him. He lost his parents when he was 18 months old. “I was brought up by my grandparents and three elder sisters,” he says. “Being the youngest boy, I was petted and spoiled by my family. I never really studied well in school, but my teachers knew that I was intelligent so they kept promoting me. Realisation dawned on me when I got to first form that if I don’t study well, I won’t get anywhere. Then I started doing well, in high school and in college. I was also good in sports and received several prizes.”

After his undergraduate studies, he left Mangaluru and went to Bombay as there were not many job opportunities in his hometown. “It was in Bombay that I met the love of my life, Irene. You could call it love at first sight,” says Joe. “She used to claim that she brought me all the luck. But, hands down, my wife was a strong support in every walk of my life.” Joe turns his head to have a quick look at Irene’s photograph and it was clear that he misses her a lot. Irene was 91 when she died in 2017. They were married for 65 years.

Joe worked for a British pharmaceutical company in the sales and marketing division. He developed new products, decided on packaging concepts, and was also in charge of advertising. He ended up as marketing director. “They put me in some of the most difficult units and I excelled there,” he says. “The company selected me for advanced training in management at the Institute of Marketing in London, of which I am still a member. I worked with the company for 29 years. I got promoted to big branch of the company in Madras and then to the biggest branch of the company in Kolkata.”

After retirement he used his professional skills to help a variety of institutions. He was on the boards of Father Muller’s Hospital and Medical College, St Joseph’s Workshops and the Catholic Board of Education. He helped the formation of a foundation for St Aloysius College in US, of which he is the vice-president. There is all this and much more in his kitty of achievements.

Although he lives a retired life now, Joe is a man of discipline. He starts his day with yoga, attends holy mass and recites rosary prayers with a friend of his. “I cannot stay idle, so I put on my uniform, take my car and go on rounds in the evening. Over the years, I do get tired. But I try not to get over tired,” he says.

Joe is also updated with the latest technology. He has a computer room where he sits and explores the internet. As he scrolls through his phone to show videos of his work and family, his face lights up. He is even on LinkedIn with an updated profile of his work and education. He manages his phone and all his other gadgets, including Alexa, with zero hassle. “Alexa, play waltz music,” Joe commands. The device does not pick it up at first, but our man does not stop. He commands again and the famous ‘Blue Danube’ plays. His face breaks into a wide smile and he begins to sway across the room with the grace of a seasoned dancer.

From the way he laughs and hosts guests, one could say that the man loves company. Apart from having vivid conversations, dancing and playing cards, he also enjoys food. “I eat anything and everything. My refrigerator always has two flavours of ice cream. My favourites are butterscotch and mango,” he says with child-like joy.

Although he enjoys eating mutton and other meat, he sticks to what his house help prepares. “She eats fish, chicken and vegetables only, so I stick to her list,” he says. Complaint? Absolutely not. He adores the 21-year-old and treats her like his daughter. He even hints at his guests to compliment her cooking. That says a lot about him as a person; his kindness and empathy. 2020 might have been disappointing, but Joe hopes to do more in 2021. Interestingly, his birthday falls on January 1, which makes stepping into a new year very special for him. And the next year is going to be even more special as he advances from nonagenarian to centenarian. Definitely, waltzing into his 100s. Now, that is not a sight you get to see every day.

WHO ARE TRAFFIC WARDENS?

Traffic wardens/parking attendants are officially called civil enforcement officers or CEOs.

These officers are part of the uniformed service of the local government. Equipped with communication equipment, CEOs are in constant contact with other members of the local authority such as police community support officers. They help combat anti-social behaviour and crimes.

THE DUTIES OF A CIVIL ENFORCEMENT OFFICER

* Patrolling public streets and car parks

* Identifying parking infringements

* Issuing parking tickets

* Monitoring feed from CCTV cameras

* Reporting suspected abandoned vehicles

* Dealing with public inquiries

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