As potted history of a Chennai that was Madras, this is a delight for the reader and the collector
The global village of Marshal McLuhan's imagination was a technologically distilled utopia where everyone and everything would be familiar and on sure ground — a network of personalised inter-relationships, like in a village. The real world, which has overtaken that vision, may seem more like a digitally taped dystopia of anonymous multitudes in a state of perpetual anomie. But not for S. Muthiah. Week after week he cuts through the clutter and clamour of modern and modernising Chennai and leads us to the quiet refuge of his weekly column, ‘A Madras Miscellany', where people, places, and events acquire identity, context, lineage and meaning, connecting the dots, each time, of a little narrative.
He has been at it for over a decade now. The city itself has continued to transform during this period, in terms of its demographics, architectural skyline, social dynamics, cultural milieu, and varied lifestyles. But far from being disoriented by this welter of change, Muthiah picks up the threads of continuity whenever and wherever he can find them and traces them as far back as they will take him. The littleness of the effort is deceptive. The bits and pieces of information he snaps up are the twigs and leaves of a mnemonic nest he has been patiently building for so long. It is an unhurried, serendipitous work in progress, open-ended, and perhaps never meant to be complete.
As a compilation running to 1200-plus pages, however, these disparate anecdotal titbits take on the size and scale of a tome. The weekly modest deposits, we now see, have grown into a rich memory bank from which one can draw at random. To use a book cricketing metaphor, the open-any-page-and-read value of the publication makes it a unique proposition. Cover to cover, the columns appear in the same sequence as they did in The Hindu, from mid-November 1999 to mid-November 2009. But the chronology of the matter in hand shuttles back and forth from the present, to the recent past, to the colonial.
Its dispersed, non-linear structure makes the experience of engaging with the book almost digital and opens up, to the tech savvy mind, the potential of an electronic video-game-like version. Or, an online avatar where interactivity with the reader, or the “mutualisation” that N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, writes about in his introduction, comes into its own in real time. The author will, no doubt, be aghast at such possibilities, having shunned the computer and the mobile phone as devices too modern for his taste and trade, and stayed with his time-tested Olivetti to churn out his weekly labour of love. The postman knocks to deliver or correct information and the telephone at home suffices to stay in touch.
Not surprisingly, there is a vintage quality to the recollection and to the telling of it. Those peopling these pages tend to be more patrician than plebeian. No parvenu has a place here. Nor is there much tolerance for the quotidian. Like the persona, the locations and occasions the author evokes may have greater resonance in an initiated peer circle. But the lay reader is not left behind. The excitement of rediscovery is as fresh and tingling each time, in each essay. By his very act of remembering, Muthiah redeems his chosen, or given, subjects from the proverbial shortness of public memory to make them snippets of material for his patchwork city lore.
Somewhere in these pages, he makes an oh-for-the-subaltern pass at the genre. But his approach is hardly that. The work does not, of course, seek or pretend to be a definitive historical account either. The factoids, flashbacks, and memorabilia are too dispersed across time and space to add up to be a sum of their parts. But as potted history of a Chennai that was Madras, this is both a reader's and a collector's delight.
Tailpiece: As one who grew up in the Madras of the Sixties and is yet to come fully to terms with the 21st century metropolis it has become, this reviewer is easily drawn into the period mood Muthiah so instinctively creates. And, leveraging this opportunity, the reader-reviewer turns postman to knock for the author's help in cracking a 50-year-old obsessive doubt. Who was the Montieth of Montieth Road in Egmore? It used to be a quiet tamarind-tree-lined residential street sated with the smell of the ripe fruit in summer. A future column, one fondly hopes, will tell.