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

The Gentleman from Colombo

– Geeta Doctor

Long before he became the beloved Chronicler of Madras, society sage and Uncle Muthu to a new generation of writers, artists, social activists and heritage enthusiasts, there was another S. Muthiah, an elegant gentleman and boulevardier of Colombo.

“He did not just belong to high society of Colombo, he was right up there with the best,” recalls Rohini Shankar, architect and designer. She remembers how he and his friends would be guests at her family home in Kurunegela in North Western Sri Lanka. “Of course, we were too young to mix with them but they were amongst the top people in the society of those days.” She gestures with her dainty diamond ringed fingers to indicate just how high up Muthiah was in those times.

Imagine him now in the Swinging Sixties at Mount Lavinia Hotel, Colombo’s most favored venue for the likes of Hollywood stars like Vivien Leigh, Lawrence Olivier and Kirk Douglas, still alive at 105. Do we add Alec Guinness and Willian Holden who also stayed there? They were there for the making of The Bridge on the River Kwai that was shot mostly in the jungles of Sri Lanka.

The Sun may have set on the Empire but it continued to rise on Mount Lavinia. At the Colombo Race Course men wore shiny white sharkskin suits and Sri Lankan society women wore their Channels and pearls. This is where Ted Fordyce, a tiny wizened Australian jockey raced and won the hand of the daughter of the man who had hired him. In one of his Metro columns Muthiah remembers Dhanalakshmi Fordyce: “Tall willowy, dusky, Tamil-looking Dhanalakshmi, Rasathy to many of us, was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. She was one of the first students at Darpana in Ahmedabad and later danced with Mrinalini Sarabhai’s troupe.”

The most beautiful of the Burgher women, Sinhalese women with Dutch antecedents, the famous artists and designers of that time, the Bawa Brothers, Barbara Sansoni, the textile diva, Ena de Silva, sculptor, George Keyt, artist were some of the internationally known people in Colombo. Muthiah’s father was the Mayor of Colombo. After sending his son to study in the U.S., quite a feat in those days, when everyone went to the U.K., Muthiah returned to join The Times of Ceylon. He was to remain there for 17 years, working under British editors and rising up to be second in command.

I can’t resist adding the story of how the Mount Lavinia got its name. When the first British Governor of Sri Lanka came to take up the post, he fell in love with a native woman. Her name was Lovina Appasuwa, of Portuguese-Sri Lankan descent. While he built his splendid Palladian style mansion on the hill overlooking the bay towards the Laccadives, he directed his engineers to bore a tunnel linking the wine cellar to Lovina’s house close by. Their love flourished in the wine cellar. Governor Sir Thomas Maitland could not however marry his gorgeous native woman who nonetheless became Lady Lavinia.

By the time I met Muthiah in the early ‘80s he had become as they say a family man. There was little left of the boulevardier in him except in his exquisite manners. He knew for instance to greet a lady in the manner of Maurice Chevalier; leaning lightly forward trailing a whiff of after-shave and murmuring “How are you my dear?” with the merest brush of lips on proffered cheek!

Valli I began to realise was the power behind the man. A company secretary who worked during the week, she typed his hand-written manuscripts, managed his finances, the two daughters whom he adored, and the household. When she passed away, so much earlier than him, something in him died. Even if to the outside world he picked up his pen, never missed a deadline for his Hindu Metro column, put the pen jauntily in his left side pocket and sallied forth.
That’s how I would like to remember him – straw hat, pen and binoculars in hand singing perhaps: “Thank Heavens for those fabulous days! Without Valli, what would a man like me do!”

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