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Vol. XXIX No. 4, June 1-15, 2019

Little known stories of the Chronicler

– Parvathi Muthiah



As I pen these words, it has been exactly a month since my father, S. Muthiah, passed away. Over the past month, we have been overwhelmed by the number of tributes that have poured in. He has been written about, spoken about, posted about and tweeted about many times over. We are honoured that he has touched the lives of so many. Old fashioned man that he was, he would have been amused not just by the adulation but by the role that social media (which he called ‘new-fangled’ technology to be displayed on that thing, namely a computer or a smartphone) played in proliferating that adulation. Daddy, we hope you realise that the city was first apprised of your passing by a tweet!

Madras that is Chennai knew Dad’s many faces – chronicler, historian, journalist, corporate biographer, pioneer of the heritage movement in the city, crusader, mentor and some more that I may have missed along the way… Some have even spoken about his young, energetic wife, his two daughters who spurned the shores of his beloved city, his office staff, his old driver and even his long-time assets – his Olivetti (which we still have) and his Premier Padmini (which we sold after irreparable flood damage). We wondered if there was indeed anything his fans did not know about him. In fact, every memorial we attended and every tribute we read has revealed more facets of Dad’s life than we knew. And for this we are ever grateful.

* * *

Over the course of the month, we have been asked numerous times about his life before he became the voice of Madras’s heritage. So here are some little known stories, such as he was known to ferret out to put the story back in history.

Dad was a mischievous, spoilt young lad, the darling of his mother and grandmother. Sympathising with my own mischievous 8-year old, Dad would proudly recall his own days of riding his bicycle into the mounds of chillies and ‘vatthals’ that his grandmother had painstakingly put out to dry… and throwing his grandmother’s keys into the rather deep well in the backyard of her mansion in Kanadukathan… So anyone who refers to that mischievous glint in his eye, that’s where it had its origins…

Much has been talked about Dad’s education which spanned four countries. But not many know that he was a champion runner – both cross-country and middle distance – who apparently clocked the time to qualify for the Olympics 800m in the early 1950s, but went no further because of the small matter of citizenship. Or that his switch from the much-hated Engineering to International Affairs, as a recent conversation with a favoured grandchild revealed, was because he may have nursed a secret desire to become a diplomat…

A sister’s wedding and his father’s threat to cut off finances brought Dad back to India in 1951. The loss of his British-India passport kept him in this part of the world. India to Ceylon was the extent of travel allowed to the stateless young man. And it was Ceylon he chose, to become a multi-faceted journalist at The Times of Ceylon covering any number of topics ranging from Sport to Politics to Astrology and everything in between! Despite being the son of the erstwhile Mayor of Colombo and an accomplished journalist, his Indian birth meant that his citizenship bid was rejected a few years later. But he stayed on, ever hopeful, until he was turned down as editor. Finally, in 1968, Dad packed his bags and left the shores of his beloved Ceylon, an unwanted son…

Back in Madras, it was a journalist’s job that he went ahunting for initially but since there were no senior roles to be found, he settled for a job at T.T. Maps, then newly opened as part of the TTK Group. Despite the loss of his journalistic dreams, he threw himself into turning the ­company into one of the premier printing and ­cartographic units in the country. It is a wonder that the man who hated finance with a passion managed to run the company well for as long as he did!

In 1970, wedding bells finally rang. Mum and Dad were the most incompatible couple on paper. But, with Dad’s encouragement, the timid young girl from the heart of Chettinad who married the sophisticated, anglicised import from Ceylon transformed into the highly efficient, ‘young and energetic’ Company Secretary who ran his life in her spare time. She kept him grounded, the perfect foil for his idiosyncrasies. Dad was a gourmet, Mum his favourite Chef.

As a father, Dad was this towering figure of strength, the most liberal man we have ever had the honour to know. Our parents encouraged us to follow our dreams and be passionate about them. Education and diligence were their mantras. We were never led to believe that we were ‘only girls’ meant to be married off at the earliest. My sister chose to study Metallurgical Engineering in the harshest of conditions at Benaras Hindu University. That she was the only girl amongst a roomful of boys who had chosen this rather unusual stream, and so far away from home, did not deter either her or my parents. I chose to become a hotelier. While that dream did not last long and I turned to banking, I look back and realise the courage it must have taken my parents to sanction my choice of career against well-meaning advice of ruining my marriage prospects! Women’s lib, you say?

As a Grandfather, Aiyah was the most enthusiastic supporter of his grandchildren’s achievements. Distance and his work as the Chronicler of Madras meant rather infrequent contact with the grandchildren but whenever he visited or vice versa, his first gift to them was what he considered the greatest of treasures – books. His greatest gift to them though? The example that he set.

* * *

When Dad started Madras Musings in 1991, we lost our dining table, which had witnessed many an interesting family conversation, to the tabloid. From then on, his world revolved around fortnightly ‘Proof’ Days and encouraging everyone he met to write for the paper. Dad was the first Man from Madras Musings and Mum his Fair Lady. Over the years that mantle was handed over to Sriram V. and Sarada. With his illness, the ordeal of dealing with ‘Proof’ day was handed over too… But he never could let go fully. Even at hospital, he meticulously remembered to call Shankar, his typesetter, in order to supervise Sriram’s supervision… But, Sriram, isn’t it time the Acting Editor became the new Chief?

One of Dad’s last wishes was that the people around him continue talking about the things he loved and working towards the causes he was interested in. The greatest tribute his fans, his readers, his protégés can pay to him will be to carry on their journey. The joke amongst his close associates was his tinkling tumbler to call time – I can well imagine the tinkling and his gruff voice saying “It’s time to move on”!

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