Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 3, May 16-31, 2019
When he held my hand and pressed it even as he was about to sign what must be the last of his books ( the 3rd volume and an index of ‘Madras: a 400-year record of the First City of Modern India’), I felt the emotions that were in him.
The time to bid goodbye could be any day, soon. Muthiah went quietly: the way he would have wanted.
We were not close – we didn’t meet often, we didn’t retire for a drink often, we hardly had long conversations on the phone.
In some sense, we understood our equations. And let them take us along.
I first heard his name when I began to freelance consistently for Aside, Abraham Eraly’s city magazine. The office was in Nandanam and I never got to see him there.
We got to know each other after I got into mainline journalism. And when I launched the first of many neighbourhood newspapers in the early 1990s, his eyes had lit up at the venture, he wondered how we made revenues when his own Madras Musings was struggling and when our weeklies had carved a space for themselves well, he acknowledged the effort and the content.
He began to source features from us for Musings; every picture and story credited and paid for. And over time, these requests became regular.
Our meetings became frequent at book launches, talks, workshops and seminars. And it was here that I picked up one of the many ideas that he harboured – Madras Day. A day to celebrate the City.
A few years earlier, I had launched the annual Mylapore Festival, which grew out of a Mylapore Kolam Contest. My experience on this front got better and one day, I told common colleague Sashi Nair that I was keen to make Madras Day happen. We quickly met up with Muthiah and in no time, a date was decided and a schedule drawn up.
The first Madras Day started with a heritage walk at Fort St. George led by Dr. S. Suresh and the stage shifted to Rajaji Hall inside Government Estates where two exhibitions, some contests, a quiz and a public meeting made the day’s event.
As the day progressed, more and more people were at the Hall and the final meeting got over well past 9 pm. Muthiah had not expected such a warm response. Nor had he looked forward to such a packed schedule. That week, he, Sashi and I were convinced that we had just launched a significant event.
2004. The year Madras Day was launched.
Year on year, Madras Day got bigger and bigger. And Muthiah worked on all his contacts and tapped all his resources to get people and organisations involved. There were a few cardinal guidelines – this would be a people’s celebration; it would not depend on corporate sponsorship and it would embrace all kinds of ideas as long as they were on, about and for the city.
As the Madras Day catalyst team got bigger, it would meet every June at Muthiah’s house in T. Nagar and over buttermilk or tea and biscuits, ideas would be popped up, debated and fleshed out.
Every time I met him, he would share a lead or make a suggestion for Madras Day. Be it in October, December or March. He was glad that this celebration had taken firm root, was a people’s movement and from a Day, had gone beyond a Week and was now Madras Month.
And at many a platform, if he made a reference to Madras Day he made it a point to mention Sashi’s and my name, as the people who rolled what was an idea that had remained with him for some years.
He was encouraging. And once he realised your capacity and work, he respected it. And let the world know about it. And whenever we wanted a wise man’s inputs on history and heritage, we always turned to him and his door was open.
– Vincent D’Souza
Author of an incredible number of books and columns, activist for numerous causes of public interest, founder of institutions, editor of a popular fortnightly journal – that was Muthiah, meriting entry into the Guinness Book for the sheer volume and variety of his accomplishments. The diligence with which he researched for details on a bewildering range of subjects, how he sifted them and made them into great stories are astounding feats. He successfully assumed the tasks of the brick layer and the builder and of the artisan and the artist.
Watching this extraordinary person at work was a lesson by itself. He preferred minimal interface with today’s technology, the disregard for which he did not conceal. He had his office in his home. The first floor was the living area and the ground floor his office. This arrangement failed to ensure that he worked in the office and not in the home. Almost always he carried his office to the home, to continue to work with his portable Olivetti typewriter, reclining in bed. The instrument became an extension of his body, mind and the senses and inspired his creative instinct. The Olivetti that he had been using from his Sri Lanka days, that is from the 1960s, finally yielded to the forces of entropy, as he was approaching his 80th birthday in 2010. When asked what he wanted for the big day, he said he wanted a new Olivetti typewriter! And a new Olivetti typewriter it was. It was procured after much searching because the device had become extinct. The sixty-odd year-old Olivetti was exhibited in a recent City function to celebrate his memory.
He was at peace with himself with the Olivetti in front of him. The fingers, mind and spirit seemed to work in unison. The output was entered into the desktop computer and thereafter technology was reluctantly allowed to take over. He felt most comfortable sitting at his dining-sized work-table surrounded by bundles of papers, drafts, magazines and newspaper cuttings. Almirahs all around him in the office were jammed with books, files and manuscripts. If he wanted to make a point and show you the reference material, he deftly pulled out that single sheet of paper from near the bottom of a huge pile. His hands seemed equipped with a recognising device like a radar. If it was a book that he wanted to show you, he would call out to his secretary by her name and say: “Upstairs, in the third cupboard from the left in the second tray on the left you will find a red bound book. Bring it.” I have not seen him going wrong on five or six occasions. For statistical purists, if that is a valid sample to measure his infallibility for document retrieval, he passed the test in flying colours. If the secretary still wanted more clues, he would recall, for her benefit, details of the occasion on which the red bound book came in to his possession.
The language came to him in a beautiful flow to suit the context, but he found it hard to satisfy the quest for perfection. He wrote and corrected and refined till it was flawless for every subtle nuance of expression. In the last few months, when he had to be hospitalised more than once, lying on the hospital bed, it was Work as Usual. Work was going on, either on the Olivetti or telling his associate as to where the draft needed improvement and re-phrasing. When he was not physically working, he was thinking of the theme for the next column or the format for the book project he was about to take up or the title for the work he had completed. He believed that the title was as important as the content. To him, it had to evoke reader-interest and capture the essence of the content. And it had to be short. Mentally, he must have debated over several alternatives before zeroing in on the final selection. Finding it was his eureka moment. It called for a “small” that evening which doctors had allowed him, recognising that he was a connoisseur and knew how to enjoy a drink.
At one stage when he could not work in long stretches, there was a couch near the work table and he would alternate from work table to couch and vice versa every half hour. Being keen to complete the two book projects of some importance that he was working on, he was seen racing against Time.
At one point, when he could not send the weekly column to The Hindu, he said that he had completed 958 weekly columns. He said, expectantly, that he wanted to complete the thousand. A little later, he resumed the chronicles every two weeks. It became 973 when he passed away. He was close to the very summit. It is fortunate that we lived in his time, enjoyed his social proximity and will for a long time bask in his intellectual glow.
– N.S. Parthasarathy