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

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

Subbiah Muthiah, the Madras legend

– Dr. A. Raman

Must have been the summer of either 1984 or 1985. Nicholas Casimir Raj, S.J., Principal of Loyola College, Madras – deeply enthusiastic in bringing about dynamic changes to the College – and I were discussing various college-related matters. Casimir had just returned from Santa Clara (California) and was bubbling with enthusiasm. One project we talked of was to replace the ‘calendar’ – that included monotonous information about the College and a few other details on academic matters, issued to students at the start of each academic year – with an attractively printed and handsomely illustrated ‘handbook’. Casimir and I went to TT Maps, a large and modern photo-offset printing facility in the neighbourhood of Madras. That is where I first met Muthiah. In the draft manuscript on the Loyola handbook, I had included a 5-page text, ‘History of the College’. As the printer, Muthiah had read through that part of my text. That opportunity formally ‘introduced’ me to him. He was then gathering information on Madras’s history, especially the book, Madras by N.S. Ramaswami of the Indian Express, Madras. Muthiah introduced me to S(amuel) E(benezer) Runganadhan ’s tercentenary volume on Madras (1939). This conversation instilled a desire in me to know about the town I was born in. He also spoke to me about various other authors, who had written on Madras. He fired the academic spark in me.

Because of the Loyola handbook project, I had occasion to meet him several times at TT Maps. Our guru–sishya relationship got strengthened. He used to alert me about his talks on Madras’s history held at various venues. I need to say here that he was wanted at various intellectual forums of Madras, since knowing about the past of Madras was considered something ‘new’ and ‘unknown’ to the people of Madras! I was a regular attendee at these talks. He used to invite me to his home in T. Nagar. In my interactions with him, he was absolutely enchanting and charismatic. I fell for his knowledge and I was being academically influenced by him to get interested into learning more about Madras’s past. He was so impactful that I started reading about the ‘olde’ Madras, which made me do my (amateurish) research on this subject, thus gradually sinking me into writing on Madras’s colonial-period history. At first, he encouraged me to write for the fledgling Madras Musings, compiling current literature on Madras’s history. I thought this was a beneficial and informative effort: (i) beneficial because this learning and practice would empower me to know about Madras’s past, and (ii) informative because, in the process, I would be informing my fellow residents of Madras about Madras’s past. The empowerment reinforced my confidence to take this subject on to myself, although I found it extremely challenging, simply because I have never had any formal training in history. At one time, he spoke to me about others who were passionately writing on various aspects of Madras, such as Sriram V., Theodore Bhaskaran, Randor Guy, and suggested, therefore, that I should focus on exploring evolution of science in Madras, between 1639 and 1947.

He trained me to think simply, but correctly. He trained me to search for accurate details and consult original documents. In that sense see he is my teacher and mentor. Whenever I was doubtful, I relied on his acumen and wisdom. He, not only with readiness in his face, but also with readiness in his heart clarified my questions. A great personality, who called a spade, a spade. On many an occasion, I have been chided and scoffed at for my errors and omissions. I remember his sharp response to me, when I misspelt Willingdon (Freeman-Freeman Thomas, 1866-1936) confusing him with Wellington, the capital of New Zealand from 1865, when he replied quoting ‘et tu?’ from Shakespeare. I revelled in his warmth of heart and kindness. He shined his knowledge and wisdom on many, like a selfless lighthouse tower. The words of Matthews (5, 16), Let your light shine before people in such a way that they see your good works, …, reverberate in me, as I write this piece with a deep sense of nostalgia.

He was a strong soul, who shed much light on Madras – an ugly and dirty town today, which had its genesis in 1639. He was so powerfully effective that he is seen by every admirer of the ugly Madras as ‘Mr. Madras’ in a prideful, metaphorical sense. His name has become synonymous with Madras. He has indelibly carved his name in the annals of the history of Madras. Although the Government had awkwardly changed the name to Chennai, the term Madras will live for ever, only because of the deep inscription Muthiah had carved in the stony pages of Madras. He not only inspired me as a dynamic and effective speaker in public forums, but also as a brilliant writer, who had a facile knack of communicating powerfully and impactfully. The Madras Day project, which has today grown to ‘Madras Month’ is solely because of him. We owe our deep sense of thanks in making us feel proud of Madras and its forgotten contributions to India at large.

He has left an unfillable void among a host of admirers and friends. A legend in every thinkable sense.

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