Colombo's loss turned out to be Chennai's gain. In 1968, S. Muthiah nearly became a citizen of Sri Lanka when the government fell and the new regime abolished the annual practice of granting ‘distinguished citizenship' to select foreigners who had spent a number of years in the island nation. His file, waiting on the foreign secretary's desk for clearance, went in the bin.
Muthiah, who was 38 then, had spent almost all his life in that country and had risen to occupy the number two position in Times of Ceylon , heading its Sunday paper. Since he had to be a Lankan citizen in order to become the overall editor, he saw no future for himself and decided to leave the island. The fact that he was still a bachelor made it easier for him to pack up.
“When you are young, you are ambitious. You want to run a paper. But without citizenship, I would have remained the number two forever,” says Muthiah, who turned 81 last Wednesday and who, in the last 42 years that he has lived in Chennai, has written, edited and ghosted nearly 30 books about the city. His latest book, A Madras Miscellany – People, Places and Potpourri , is due for release later this month. It's a compilation of the ‘Madras Miscellany' column he has been writing for The Hindu MetroPlus since November 15, 1999 — a column that continues to gently grab the reader by his arm every Monday morning and take him down heritage lane.
Thanks to the column, which made him a household name, Muthiah is commonly referred to as a historian — a title he disapproves of. “I am a chronicler, I am not a historian,” he says, rightly so. Muthiah is only a journalist — this year he completes 60 years in the profession — who has been demystifying history and historical practices for the reader. Even while in Ceylon, where he wrote a sports column, ‘By the Corner Flag', for 13 years, he relentlessly campaigned for taking cricket and rugby out of elitist institutions to the masses. “Today you can see the results. Except Kumar Sangakkara, almost all other players in the Sri Lanka cricket team are from the rural areas,” says Muthiah.
Chennai, by chance
For the Chettinad-born and Colombo-bred Muthiah, Chennai became home quite by chance. His parents were already living in the city when he came down from Sri Lanka and applied for a job in some of the best-known newspapers across the country. He was waiting for a reply when TTK, in collaboration with a German firm, happened to be launching TT Maps in Madras and was looking for a person to head the division. Muthiah grabbed the opportunity so that he could stay on with his parents. One of his first assignments in TT Maps was to bring out a booklet on Madras, and that kindled his interest in the city. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Muthiah's book Madras Discovered , first published in 1981 and subsequently renamed Madras Rediscovered , is considered the last word on the city's heritage. The book, whose seventh edition is due in December, gets thicker with every reprint. “The discoveries are not original; they cannot be original. There is always somebody who already knows — it's just that he does not know the value. For example, when I went looking for the Jewish cemetery after reading about it in the records, I found that it is being looked after by a family from Madras. Obviously, the family did not think this was something that should be publicised or known. And right next to the Jewish cemetery I found a Chinese cemetery, whose existence wasn't even known,” says Muthiah.
Chennai is notorious for neglect of its heritage, and if in the recent years there has been awareness about the need to preserve it, a chunk of the credit goes to Muthiah, ‘Madras Miscellany' and to Madras Musings , the subscription-based, heritage-centric tabloid he has been editing for the last two decades. The sustained campaign for preserving the past earned him an MBE in 2002.
Muthiah is also one of the architects of the Madras Day celebrations that take place now every August — an event that reiterates to the Chennaiite that his city dates back to August 1639 and is therefore modern India's oldest city. He is, however, not very happy with present-day Madras: he finds it “overbuilt, congested and dirty” and would any day prefer to live in Colombo, his first love. “But the big question is: would I like to live in the Colombo of today? The friends I grew up with are all gone,” he says.
Meanwhile, he soldiers on for Chennai. At 81, he is busier than most men half his age, maintaining an eight-hour working day. “Work keeps me going, so does good life. I still love my drink, I still love to gossip,” Muthiah smiles mischievously. “And I have a young energetic wife (she is a company secretary) who makes sure I don't have to worry about anything other than my work.”
After spending most of the day at his desk — ‘Madras Miscellany' is perhaps the only column in the country to be composed on a typewriter — Muthiah arrives at the Madras Club at five in the evening for his daily walk. The walk is invariably followed by a session of gossip with fellow elderly members of the club.
Back home, he has a couple of drinks before dinner. “It's a habit I got from my father,” says Muthiah, “He always had two drinks before dinner and lived up to 97. The only difference is that while he drank only Scotch, I drink only Indian whisky. The best thing about Indian whisky is that no matter what brand you drink, it tastes the same.”