Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 2, May 1-15, 2019
“I know you; the off spinner.” This is how Mr. Muthiah greeted me – in a gruff voice that carefully hid the friendliness underneath – when I introduced myself as Gowri’s husband in search of writing opportunities some 25 years ago. Little did Mr. Madras realise that he would be stuck with me for decades, if only intermittently. Not long afterwards, he gave me my first assignment, that of proof-reading a book of 127 pages, which brought me my first cheque (for Rs. 381) as a freelancer. He believed in compensating anyone who did anything for him – and the cheque was never delayed.
For the next few years, I assisted Mr. Muthiah in several projects, which included books he either wrote or edited for publishers. It was an exciting new world for someone who had just found his calling, for want of a better description, and the debt of gratitude I feel for Mr. Muthiah for practically resurrecting my career is immeasurable. (S. Krishnan of The Hindu, Preeti Mehra of Businessline and N. Sankar and Chandra Sankar of the Sanmar family are some of the others I owe my second innings to). For a couple of years, I also assisted him with Madras Musings, seated daily at the very dining table where our first meeting took place. His meticulous eye for detail and constant search for excellence were an inspiration to me and the small army of freelance helpers, from aspiring journalists and photographers to researchers and columnists, he had gathered around him. The other aspects of his personality to catch the eye were his obsession with heritage and his love for the city he had adopted and had adopted him. Once I got to know him well and allowed myself a few liberties with him, his stern exterior notwithstanding, I occasionally teased him about his fondness (as I alleged) for British rather than Indian heritage, and he laughed it off good-naturedly. One of his first books to include a small contribution by me was At Home in Madras, a handbook to the city in all its many aspects. My favourite book was Athletic Gold, a blueprint for preparing India’s athletes for international competition by Olympian Eric Prabhakar. Though this excellent manual was probably then consigned to the dustbin by government and sports bodies, I suspect someone more enlightened discovered it subsequently and took its message to officialdom and sports persons alike, judging by India’s recent emergence as a serious competitor on the world arena in some disciplines, especially the brilliance of our women athletes. Mr. Muthiah did not stop with editing such works, but passionately advocated the propagation of their contents.
Hagiography is something Mr. Muthiah abhorred. The author of many biographies, mainly corporate, he would never consent to writing sycophantic paeans of praise, however eminent the men or women he wrote about. Institutions could not escape his critical gaze, either, and the higher and more powerful the office, the greater his courage while espousing causes close to his heart. His herculean efforts to stop the demolition of the IG’s office on the Marina standing up to the might of the state government was a sterling example of his fearlessness.
Mr. Muthiah was a proud man, and a truly humble one – proud of the value of his and his indefatigable team’s work, of the history of his beloved Madras, of the talents he unearthed and nurtured, but also genuinely modest when it came to listing his virtues (which he never did). A stubborn, demanding, hard-to-please boss, he did not hesitate to own up when corrected, or praise good work generously. Finally, he was a wonderful host and pleasant travel companion, as my good friend S. Anvar and I found out during our road trips together in the 1990s.