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

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

Hello, Girl!

–Shobha Menon

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My father, the late R.K.K. Menon, a veteran journalist in his time was a good friend of Mr. Muthiah. At our first formal meeting over an editing assignment brief he was giving me, our conversation was filled with my innumerable Yes, Sir’s . A few minutes of that, and he said, “Cut out that Sir…call me Uncle”! And it was precisely at that point that my life changing journey with Uncle Muthiah began.

‘Hello, Girl’, was his usual greeting whenever I dropped in on him, mostly mid-morning…‘By 11ish, and don’t come half hour earlier’ he would joke! During those quiet times, he would generally discuss ideas on his beloved city to follow up for Madras Musings, institutions to discover nuggets about, and people to contact. And as usual, he would take out that meticulously compiled directory (laminated precisely to prevent damage!) to pick out the chosen contact.

In his gentle firm way, he nurtured my interest in civic concerns and stretched writing thresholds. In the early years, he would actually call me every other day, generally around 8.15 a.m. (when he woke up) to catalyse the ideas, to get me started! And once I gathered steam myself, to write on a plethora of civic and environmental issues in, he also modestly stepped back to guide only where he felt absolutely necessary. A perfectionist, he would occasionally fly off the handle if things were not how he felt they ought to be. But immediately after, he would be as gentle and gracious as ever, all upset forgotten… ‘Will you have some coffee, or rasam?’ was the next query.

Once my interest in civic issues led me onto founding Nizhal, a Trust for sensitive greening in urban areas, my time for Madras Musings came down and I could sense Uncle Muthiah’s disapproval. ‘Once you have started running behind the trees, you have no time for me!’ he would often say. ‘Do that and do this too’, he would say. But he also emphathised with the grass root level challenges I faced and would listen patiently and keenly to my outpourings, offering the names of helpful contacts he felt could support us in any way.

When Nizhal published a book on Heritage Trees Living Landmarks of Chennai he was delighted and actively supported its formal book release and the planning from start to finish. The environmental heritage of Chennai was also of keen interest to him. Our walk around the Kotturpuram Tree Park, where I showed off Chennai’s first Community Park and its successes, was truly special. And though Uncle Muthiah spoke little that evening, he promptly wrote a rare effusive note on our eco restoration work in his weekly column for The Hindu, ‘Madras Miscellany’! And a few years later on our organic farming work across prisons of Tamil Nadu, and with the historic Maadi Poonga and the community around.

I remember well our last meeting over a month ago, by which time his health was failing but he was still going as strong as he could with his writing commitments. And the sharing of our lives and routines and his affectionate peck on my cheek before walking me to the road, in spite of needing help to straighten up from the sitting position! ‘Once I am up, I am fine’! he smiled.

Thank you very much, Uncle Muthiah… for all the learning, thank you for being part of my life and Nizhal’s, for the support and kindness and encouragement you have always shown to us. Will miss you very much!

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