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

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

What made Muthu write?

– S. Theodore Baskaran

When we were struggling to form a Board of Trustees for the Roja Muthiah Research Library in 2000, Muthiah was the first person we thought of. Sundar, the present Director of the library and I, met him. After a number of questions, he visited RMRL, then in a pitiful rented building in Mogapair. He got the concept of the library and agreed to become a trustee. That was a critical point in the growth of that institution. We could attract some more eminent names on the board. The library was of Tamil imprints, mostly unconventional library material. But Muthu saw the heritage value of the collection.

His presence in the Board of Trustees was solid and lent it tremdous strength. He would keenly follow the activities of the library and contribute. He gave us contacts to pursue and offered his counsel in times of trouble. That he was politically liberal and progressive suited us well.

Though he was keen on heritage and pushed the idea to Chennaites, as he could not read or write Tamil, he had a tendency to ignore that domain. For instance, the building in which Ramalingam aka Vallalar delivered his first sermon in Chennai never figured in his list. We often had discussions on such issues and Muthu was always polite and unfazed during the proceedings. The name change for Madras for instance. In one of the meetings of The Madras Gazetteer, for which I was a contributor, I said it should be Chennai Gazetteer. Muthu believed that Chennai was a fresh name chosen instead of Madras. The name Chennai has been in parlance for at least two centuries, I pointed out, and that what has happened is out of the two, one name has been chosen. He did not agree. But what I loved about the man was that he did not let such differences affect the relationship.

He had his critics, academics particularly who saw his work as a mere corpus of empirical details, lacking in analysis. They also looked upon Madras Musings as an elitist periodical that disregarded the vernacular tradition of the city. In fact M.S.S. Pandian wrote an article in an English daily on these lines. Two days later, Pandian, Muthu and I met at the end of a workshop in a beach resort near Mamallapuram. This article came up for discussion. Muthu was so balanced and calm during the chat that the evening passed on pleasantly, leaving intact the goodwill in all quarters.

I recall reading an article in Time magazine titled “What Makes Asimov write”. I often asked the same question about Muthu. He was prolific and that was also, I guess, his antidote to ageing. Till the last moment he kept tapping away. And he cared for fitness and never complained about the aches and pains of old age. Every evening you could see him walking energetically in the oval at The Madras Club.

Only a very few of my friends call me “Theodore” and Muthu was one of them. I met him nearly forty years ago and we remained friends, in spite of the dim view he took of civil servants. It is a friendship that has enriched my life as it did Roja Muthiah Research Library.

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