S Muthiah and the writing of Madras Miscellany

Those of us who had the privilege of working closely with S Muthiah, the chronicler of Madras (he did not like the term historian), knew that Thursdays were sacred. He could not be disturbed that day as that was when he wrote his Madras Miscellany column to be published 12 days hence in the Monday edition of MetroPlus. The Chief, as I always referred to him, would make an elaborate production of it. He would first go to his library on the second floor and collect whatever reference material he wanted.

Having come down to the dining table, he would switch on the ultra-powerful table lamp and write whatever he wanted to in longhand. V Srinivasan and D Pushpa, his two faithful assistants, would then type this in, after which it underwent a few iterations. Towards the afternoon, G Shankar of Pace Systems (now Mot Juste Communications) would come in, collect the pictures to be scanned and go back to office to the needful. By evening everything would be in place, including the commentary on letters and additional points received from the vast and ever-growing readership; these falling under a section titled When The Postman Knocked. The correspondence was vast and varied. Branches of families reunited, people discovered ancestors. Several British families wrote in asking for help in tracing graves, houses and other markers.


Come Monday, when the column was published, the article would be carefully cut out, pasted on a sheet of paper, neatly dated and filed. Not for him the saving of soft copies. Yes, the Chief experienced great joy in putting Madras Miscellany together, as he did with all his work. By the time the column completed a decade in 2009, he noted with pride that 514 instalments had been published. He also added that the number would have been 520 but The Hindu did not bring out its paper on six Mondays owing to some holiday or the other. By the time he passed away, Madras Miscellany had appeared a record 973 times. It was his dearest wish that he touch 1,000 but fate willed otherwise.

S Muthiah and the writing of Madras Miscellany

To have kept the column going without a break spoke volumes about Muthiah’s work ethic and discipline. When he travelled abroad, he calculated the number of Mondays he would be away and wrote all the instalments before he left. Not for him the present practice of researching on the Internet and sending articles on the fly. Even the death of his wife did not occasion a break. The column that appeared immediately after her passing had an opening sentence addressed to her, stating that she would have wanted him to continue. And that was the truth.


If there was someone even more passionate about Madras Miscellany than he was, it was Valliammal Muthiah. And he paid her a handsome tribute in an interview — ‘Fortunately, I have a young and energetic wife… who manages the home as well as the finances. She makes sure I don’t have to worry about anything other than my work.’ Sadly, she passed away in 2013 and life became tougher for him.

There was however no stopping Miscellany. Who would have thought that the column, first suggested by Nirmala Lakshman to Muthiah when MetroPlus was born in 1999, would grow to have a life and identity of its own? He had wanted it to be called Madrasiana but Nirmala convinced him that Madras Miscellany sounded better. It was a unique tribute to a great city. It will be missed.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 10:20:02 AM |

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