Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXIX No. 2, May 1-15, 2019

And Madras gently weeps…

-by Ranjitha Ashok

Page 4
Cartoon by Biswajit Balasubramanian

You can almost hear the conversation:

You: Muthu, the title? No editing, please?

Big Chief: Why not?

You: Trust me, there’s a whole bunch of people out there who’ll get the reference, and…

Big Chief: What reference?

You: (faint, but pursuing) Muthu, just let it be, no?

And he would… in the end.

This was a game played all the time. You’d bung in references loaded with the zeitgeist-of-your-era, and Muthu would come right back at you….all for effect, of course. He always supported you ultimately, and he invariably knew what you were talking about – he just wanted you to earn the right to pepper your work as you pleased.

(A small diversion here – the ‘Muthu’ bit. This manner of addressing him was not out of disrespect or over-familiarity, but a direct order from the Chief himself. Few had the courage to question such orders. You certainly didn’t.)

So, it was ‘Muthu’ right from the beginning.

More than 25 years ago, you remember.

That’s really what the last few days have been about.

Remembering.

Every single detail – however slight.

You can almost sense that signature slightly askew, perceptive smile.

And hear him warn: Don’t over-write.

Well, you’ll try.

So – your particular Muthu-story.

It’s around ’94, and you’re at an “Ok-now-what?” point in your existence. The insatiable time-gobblers in your life, your kids, are now firmly ensconced in a school routine; the home is chugging along – some hiccups and speed bumps, yes, but it’s becoming clear that your rather casual, whenever-possible, free-lancing is no longer enough. Your Significant Other – who does get the occasional ‘Really Good Idea’, bless him! – notices the growing restlessness with some amount of trepidation (understandable…being first in line should an explosion occur) and says: I think you should go and see Muthu.

Eight words.

One sentence.

And an amazing new path opens up in a life.

(See, Muthu? I avoided using ‘one’s life’… you’d like that, having always seen the word ‘one’ as slightly pompous if used in ‘first-person reference’!)

So, you gather up a few ‘pieces’ you’ve recently written and trot off, having dutifully fixed an appointment.

You walk into a room that so clearly represents the Life Literary, you instantly draw a deep soul-affirming breath, taking in the essence of books, paper, typewriter ribbon and ink…. this being back in that era.

Books are piled everywhere, spilling over …and there on a sofa, telephone ringing constantly next to him… your future editor.

Looking back, you can’t help thinking that Life sometimes drops the ball at big moments. Surely something as momentous (for you – not for the Chief, obviously) should have come with an impressive background score? Not necessarily ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’….but at least a couple of bells chiming… something?

Instead, there is silence. You sit nervously on the edge of your chair, as he cursorily glances through your pages. He then looks straight at you over the rim of his glasses, and says: “You know, a lot of people come to me, saying they ‘want to write’… a couple of pieces later, I never see or hear from them again.”

Clearly, a gauntlet has been flung down.

You pick it up, grimly telling yourself, and him, that you’ll make sure to stick around.

And you do.

You remember your early assignments.

A profile on someone… you get so carried away, you give him 3500 words. He gently asks you to understand the difference between disciplined journalism, and an essay in a school paper written by an ill-prepared student short on material, but filled to the brim with a need to impress.

A bit diplomatically-challenged?

You now smile to yourself, and think ‘yes’.

You remember interviews, where the first ten minutes would be taken up by an irate interviewee with a gripe against Muthu, ranting in full spate at you….before calming down, allowing you to coax answers out of them.

But his bluntness never bothered you – it was actually exhilarating, crossing swords, the arguing. And that’s a privilege reserved for those he cared about, you learn in time. Also, pretty early in this process, you’ve seen through the curmudgeonly mask to the compassion beneath.

Not exactly a ‘baa-lamb’, our Muthu, but definitely not as much of a bear as he liked to pretend.

Slowly, your work grows, from articles and ‘features’ to book projects. The city opens up for you. Naturally. The magic password is Muthu himself. And your world, your writing, begins to change, expand.

You remember your first book project – the history of Spencer’s.

When the book is completed and launched, you are so thrilled, you tell your father you’ll bring a copy across to Bangalore on your next visit.

“Make sure it’s signed,” he tells you, and you excitedly sign your name with a flourish on the title page.
You bear it across triumphantly, and present it to him. He opens the book, sees your name. His face drops in disappointment, and he mumbles: “I meant Mr Muthiah’s signature.”

Feeling sink-into-the-ground foolish, you later narrate the incident to the Chief, who shakes and rumbles with laughter as only he could.

You remember another book that dealt solely with buildings and building material….things you know nothing about. When you protest, you are told every assignment cannot be ‘fun’ or laden with ‘dreamy soulfulness’, and expecting they should is a display of the ‘worst kind of work ethic.’

That makes you so mad, you complete all your interviews in record time. And when you go: “So there”, you see the smile, and ruefully salute his tactics.

At one point, the Chief decides to bring you on board a certain library committee….you have no way of judging how useful you ever were. All you know is – there should have been relevant background music here as well, as a ‘significant moment’ alert. Because his decision has the very fortunate, albeit inadvertent, result of bringing into your life those who have gone on to becoming the dearest of friends, enabling transformation in your reading, your thinking, even setting your feet firmly on a spiritual path you had always sought, but hadn’t known how to find. His decision also leads to some memorable lunches involving the sub-com ladies and the Chief, with Singapore Slings playing a major role in increasing both volume and indiscreet exchange of gossip.

While the Chief was on the committee, there were lively spats here as well. On what books to keep and what to discard. Here too, the Chief had very decided opinions. No poetry, and no short stories…what he had against this genre was beyond everyone, but he disliked them.

You remember when the A-musings column began. You didn’t think then that they’d sustain for ten whole years; that you’d get a book out of them.

Even here, nothing escaped the Chief’s sharp eye and instincts. When a bout of laziness meant a crazy, last minute dash to meet deadlines, other readers were nice about that fortnight’s column. Not so the Chief, who’d direct one of his piercing glances at you, drawling, “Struggled a bit there, didn’t you?” But, for you, it was always a relief to have someone who calls it exactly for what it is….no masks needed at all.

Then, remembering all those book-related events, especially at the Madras Book Club. The Chief almost always got the annual subscription amount wrong in his standard opening speech, but was the most effective moderator and general whip-cracker. Fiercely protective of the manner in which the Book Club was run, the Chief never put up with any fractious behaviour, calling to order self-appointed orators, seeing through grandstanding cunningly disguised as a question.

The memories are endless; thousands of moments explode everywhere.

What more can you say?

Of someone who took the trouble to sit in the front row whenever you had to speak, so he could control, by a series of semaphoric gestures, your regrettable habit of talking extra fast when nervous?

Who, on what proved to be one of the last major book projects you’d work on with him, decided to put your name in as co-author…a stupendous honour as unexpected as it was sudden. In a world territorial about almost everything, here was generosity that ought to be, but rarely is, the very essence of a true guru. You’ll never know if you did enough to earn this or if you even deserved it. You can only feel blessed.

And what can you say about the sheer luck of finding someone who re-introduced you to the self you had forgotten somewhere along the way?

Who is actual proof of the statement that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Except you don’t know if you were ready; you just remember you needed a mentor to appear.

And he did.

So Muthu, whichever verandah of a grand old heritage building you now grace, sitting in a comfortable chair with those tall white columns behind you, surrounded by friends and conversation that will inevitably lead to stories, then to books, here’s to you, my friend, guide, philosopher, teacher…and most of all, a second father.
You will be missed every day.

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