Historian S. Muthiah on the joys and travails of writing 10 years of Madras Miscellany on a 50-year-old Olivetti

Ten years ago this month, when The Hindu decided to offer its readers MetroPlus, I was asked a couple of weeks before the add-on was to be released: “At the Bhavan (Bharatiya Vidya), students always heard you repeat over and over again that readers are much more interested in their neighbourhood, their town, than Burkina Faso, Beijing, Buenos Aires or even Bihar. We’re now doing something more in your line, so why don’t you write the talk?”

I offered a weekly column on Madras that would reflect my interests; So, on November 15, 1999, a Monday, ‘Madras Miscellany’ saw the light of day — and has been appearing every Monday since then, 514 columns in all by November 16 this year, when it celebrated its 10th birthday; the six columns missed only because The Hindu took a holiday on those days.

During the first years of Miscellany, I used to get around a bit more and the column reflected it. There was always a piece on something seen or heard in person. In that first column, my first item was on Dr. K.P. Misra, the cardiologist, speaking on his favourite subject, ‘Laughter for better health’. And the second item was on an INTACH heritage celebration that had eight- and nine-year-olds from a suburban school remembering Francis Day, Beri Thimmappa, and Andrew Cogan, the three founders who are still not remembered in the city.

A third item was an ‘in memoriam’ piece, but it too was based on an on-the-spot interaction, which had taken place in the past, with sports-crazy Minister S. Raghavanandam, who made a one-hour meeting on a Sunday morning last three hours as he punctuated it with dashes out of the room to watch a Test, return and relay the scores, followed by due comment on the state of play. Saving Moore Market very much took a backseat that day.

And, the fourth item, ‘A road by any name’, discussed a contemporary event, the necessity of dividing a road with two names, and wondering whether Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and Kalki Krishnamurthi didn’t deserve better.

There were two things about that column, and for a while thereafter, that were different from today. For one, there was always a striking cartoon by Surendra and, for another, there were four items instead of today’s three that sometimes gets reduced at the desk to two and, once, even to one.

Turning storyteller

I am often asked by the newspaper “Can’t you make your items shorter?” to which I smile, and nod my head and think: “I’ve moved from being a journalist to being a storyteller.” And, though adopting a more journalistic approach at the time, it was as a storyteller that I was introduced in those columns, the introduction reading, “Mr. S. Muthiah, ‘the storyteller of Madras that is Chennai’, is the Editor of Madras Musings. His special interests are Madras, teaching, sport, conservation and the environment. In the past, he has been associated with newspapers in Sri Lanka (not true, it was newspapers in Ceylon), the U.S. and the U.K.”

I’d like to think that all those interests have been reflected in the column over the years, only, nowadays, the stories take longer in the telling. And that’s meant a sacrifice of the cartoons, and photographs on many occasions having to be reproduced smaller than they warrant.

But, there seem to be enough loyalists who appreciate the detail enough to tell me in person, or through the postman, that I should put it all in a book. Well, may be, I’ll celebrate the decade with one, but, meanwhile, many who communicate have another regular query: “How are you able to keep the column going all these years?” While I enjoy writing it, the column has not been made possible by memory — I have a terrible one for dates and it is only a little better for people and events — but by help from several quarters. First, there’s the library I have built up on Madras, past and present.

Besides the books on Madras and Tamil Nadu, I collect souvenirs from various Madras/Tamil Nadu institutions, and there are piles of clippings from newspapers and journals. They are the despair of my wife, because I won’t let her arrange them in the three rooms in which they lie helter-skelter. That non-arrangement is an arrangement from which I can usually pull out what I want without too much of a search. Second, the library contains a welter of handwritten or typed notes collected over the years during my visits to the Tamil Nadu Archives and the British Library, and even more from a young student who dropped in one day and offered to help and stayed to create, in between studies and part-time work, whole files of archival notes and pictures of various Madras places, institutions and people.

Unfortunately for me, Rajind Christy, a Sri Lankan refugee, decided to go back to Colombo a few years ago. Third, there have been all the institutional histories I have written in the last 20 years. Researchers who have worked with me on these projects have dug up heaps of material focussed on the institutions but also beyond them — particularly of the times they began in and developed.

Last and most important of all have been my readers. There are those who keep the postman knocking, others have somehow discovered my telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, and yet others who send nostalgic recollections or heritage articles to Madras Musings. Regulars such as K.V. Ramanathan, Dr. A. Raman, Sriram V., K.R.A. Narasiah, Sudhakar Muthyalaya, Muthiah Ramanathan, Dr. G. Sundaram, Pradeep Chakravarthy, Theodore Baskaran, and the Roja Muthiah Research Library, to name a few, provide a wealth of material, clarifications and corrections.

In search of roots

Then, there are those who occasionally get in touch with a tidbit or two but who also raise questions that have me scurrying to find answers and wind up with an item or two. And, there are descendants of old India hands and Anglo-Indians who are settled abroad but keep getting in touch in their search for roots — and, in the process, I discovered Australian cricketer Stuart Clark’s connection with the Boosey family, the connection of Pete Best and his mother Mona with the Beatles and Madras, Col. J.C. Anderson’s connection with the city’s water supply as well as that of the Nicholas family, and Hugh Buchanan’s connections with the Stanley institutions in Madras, among others.

Over the last fortnight, I’ve had messages from two persons in the U.K. and one in Canada who plan to visit Madras in the next few weeks to track roots and would like to meet me. I’m sure there’ll be three stories for … Miscellany there.

I don’t touch a computer, but Srinivasan does it for me. Together, we use it little for information for this column, but these messages from abroad have led to several other family links and more information. But happiest of all, these contributors from abroad find themselves connecting with members of the extended family they’ve lost touch with; it’s great to learn from these correspondents having connections with old Madras hands that the Internet’s given them the opportunity to read the column, ask for information from it, and find themselves in touch with kin they never knew of.

Looking back over the years, as … Miscellany developed, it has gone from being my column to one that’s, to a great extent, its readers. It’s their stories, their leads, their queries that have made it what it is today, moving far from the time it was my observations alone. And for that, a great big ‘Thank you’ to all my readers, many of whom seem to have re-named the column ‘When the postman knocked…’

One other factor helped in evolving the column as it has. And, that is a second column I wrote for MetroPlus, starting from June 19, 2002. ‘Madrascapes’ ran for a little over 18 months, and travelling on the five main roads that led out of the Fort where the city began, it looked at the various city landmarks on and near them. By January 2004, I’d narrated the stories of most of those landmarks and, as I was going abroad, promised to continue looking at the Madrascape off the main roads on my return.

But, with a whole lot of work piling up, two columns a week was a bit of a burden and, gradually, much of the material meant to go into ‘Madrascapes’ began to prove welcome grist for … Miscellany’s mill. And, slowly, the column became even more heritage focussed, not only looking at the places and the institutions in the city but, more importantly, at those who significantly contributed to Madras and, in many cases, to modern India.

It’s been a pleasure doing it, particularly as it is easy to do for a hack with years of experience in research and compilation. With all the sources for ingredients listed above, all the chef has had to do is select the right ones, put them to the right proportions in the pot — and in this case a 50-year-old portable Olivetti — and stir, or should I say pound, well. And, as Poirot still keeps saying, “Voila!” Yes, there we are.

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