Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 2, May 1-15, 2019
S. Muthiah with Siva Panchanathan, Vijaysree and Subash Pereira at Taj Connemara, a favourite venue of his.
Sitting at my desk in Boston, in MIT where I edited strands of DNA for the Human Genome Project, I’d read S. Muthiah’s Madras Miscellany during breaks. I loved this column in The Hindu because it dealt with every aspect of my hometown, mostly its past. It was like learning interesting details of your mother’s life before she became your mother, and loving her more for it. One December, on a visit home, I rang up the man who wrote about Madras institutions, personalities, and neighborhoods. I had hoped to mumble my thanks and hang up but he asked me to drop in if I was free.
So, I first met the legendary chronicler of Madras at his residence in a cul-de-sac in T.Nagar. The gentleman treated me as an equal despite the years that separated us. We got talking. Turns out, he too had known the frigid winters of Boston, firsthand, as a student at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). His father, a Mayor of Colombo, had sent him abroad to become an engineer. Tinkering with machines was not his thing, but he didn’t want to disappoint an affectionate dad.
“But I should have never been given an engineering degree,” he said cheerfully. Writing saved the day. In the lab, three students were teamed up to run experiments. While the other two did the work, he carefully observed the proceedings and wrote reports which his instructors loved. The narrative won the team good grades. And one day, a flyer on campus caught his eye. The student newspaper was looking for recruits. He showed up at the office to be greeted with, “Can you write in English?” W.T. Keble, the headmaster of his school in Sri Lanka, the author of many books, had encouraged him to read widely, and to write. So he, and did write for the paper.
He was not miserable during his undergraduate days, I’m sure. When I took my husband to meet him, he asked him, not me “How is old Scollay Square?” From our blank stares, he realized we hadn’t heard of the place, but didn’t bother to explain, unusually enough. So, I went home to dig up more on this fairly recent piece of Boston history. You see what it means to come under the man’s influence? It is not Madras alone, you have to be alert and alive wherever you are. Turns out, this had been a tract of nightlife in Boston.
What then is Scollay Square?” wrote Pear Schiff in her 1952 New York Times best selling novel of the same name. “Ask any sailor whose ship lays up in the Boston Navy Yard…,” she wrote. Or ask any male college student, who made visits to Howard’s Temple of Burlesque (featuring Rose La Rose, Peaches, Irma the Body) a requisite part of undergraduate life, elaborates writer Susan Orlean. In 1962, Scollay Square was razed to make way for the staid plaza, Government Center. The disreputable square’s name was slowly erased from people’s minds. When I reached Boston, twenty five years later, nobody spoke of this place, which I found a mention of in Orleans’ Red Sox and Bluefish. If Uncle Muthu went to this place full of cafes “ripe with impropriety” as an undergraduate, why, I am happy for him.
In a 2011 interview with The Hindu, he said “Work keeps me going, so does good life. I still love my drink, I still love to gossip.” He mentioned that he always had a couple of drinks before dinner. “It’s a habit I got from my father,” he said. “The only difference is that while he drank only Scotch, I drink only Indian whisky. The best thing about Indian whisky is that no matter what brand you drink, it tastes the same.” I wonder how the newspaper’s readers processed this information. The prudish in Madras can outdo the original Puritans of New England when it comes to “vices.” Though he was a public figure, he didn’t care about projecting any particular image. Ardent fangirl, I loved him all the more for it.
“All my old girlfriends are still in Colombo,” he often said with a big smile. Once when he told me, “I don’t have that many friends in Madras,” I was taken aback. Of course, his best years were in Sri Lanka where he went to school and worked as a journalist after he got a graduate degree in International Relations from America. He came to Madras only when he was 40. Yes we make most of our best friends when we are young, in the first three decades of our life. But so many people in Madras were happy to be associated with him in any capacity. Wasn’t that enough? Can it ever be enough?
Though he had regaled us all with so many stories about Madras, my favorite was the one on Ice House, a landmark building, across from Marina Beach. This was a place where ice was stored in the 19th century. Back then, ships carried crystalline ice cut from frozen ponds around Boston to a few tropical ports (Later, they also sent crisp New England apples to these tropical climes.) Ours is the only city where the facility lives on though it has been remodeled extensively. The building resembles a pink wedding cake and now houses a museum for Swami Vivekananda but unlike Scollay Square, the name Ice House lives in public memory. This frozen water trade wins no mention in our history textbooks. To others it may be nothing more than a forgotten bit of commerce, but the journey of ice appears extraordinary to me, connecting as it does my two hometowns.
Subbiah, handsome Mayor of Colombo who drank two pegs of whisky every night, lived to the ripe old age of 97, and was active till the very end. At first he was not happy with his son’s career choice. but got on famously with him later. He encouraged his son to write a book on Chettiars, the merchant community they belonged to. Uncle Muthu believed he’d live as long as his father, but illness robbed the raconteur of half a dozen good years. There was no self pity even when he saw the end coming. “I will be back later this year. I will see you then,” I told him last month and he smiled that same boyish smile. “Why not?” the smile suggested.
I can’t believe I won’t see him again.