Chennai

S Muthiah’s tryst with Mondays

For the last two decades, in the 973 columns he wrote for Madras Miscellany, S Muthiah charted the course of people’s lives, the unexpected twists and turns, their triumphs and tribulations. A tribute to the man who loved to put the story back into history

The office landline rings, and the familiar voice of Pushpa, S Muthiah’s assistant (‘Girl Friday’ as he affectionately referred to her), says ‘hello’. She calls at least twice every week — on Wednesdays to inform that the Madras Miscellany column has been emailed and on Fridays to check if we have received Muthiah’s hand-corrected copy of the same. But today is Saturday. “Muthiah sir passed away an hour ago. Earlier in the week, he had left instructions that you be informed,” she says. In passing on this news she reiterated what the MetroPlus desk had known all along — that city chronicler Muthiah was meticulous to a fault.

At last count (April 15, 2019), Madras Miscellany stood at 973 columns; since it first went into print on November 15, 1999, it has commanded a ritual that no other piece of writing published in the MetroPlus has. Friday afternoons had a dedicated half-hour allotted to it. Two sub-editors — it was always the ‘girls’ who edited the copy; the ‘boys’ were out covering cinema releases — would take charge. The white envelope titled ‘Press Material/ Urgent’ would be opened to reveal a note in Muthiah’s letterhead that began with a ‘Dear...’, followed by ‘Herewith Miscellany 973’. A few instructions on pictures and text later, it was signed off in blue ink with ‘warmest regards’. A separate stapled copy would contain the column that would be read aloud by one sub-editor, emphasising corrections and italics, while the other would keenly follow the text on the computer. In the early years, the words were a little smudged, composed as they were on an Olivetti Lettera, till Muthiah upgraded to an Underwood a few years ago, making his column perhaps one of the few in the country that took form on a typewriter. Corrections written in his squiggly hand were sometimes hard to decipher for the rookie sub-editor, and any doubts had to be cleared before 4.30pm which was when he left for his daily walk on the joggers’ track of the august Madras Club. There were often brief pauses during the reading to discuss the fascinating stories that came spilling out from the column. Often, long after it had been proofed, the sub-editors would ‘Google’ to read further on what Muthiah had written, drawing them into a labyrinth of information on Madras, the place he loved to call the first city of empire.

His writings, in his inimitable old-fashioned, witty prose, hold their own amidst the glut of literature on Chennai; they drove us to discover the visual, audio and olfactory kaleidoscope of the metropolis. Every Madras Day, he suggested new ways to look at an old city, and gave us a love for places and institutions.

Interviews at his house were always crowned with a good cup of filter coffee and interesting vignettes such as driving through picturesque Kashmir to get to Lawrence School, Muree (Pakistan), where he briefly studied before Independence, making him perhaps one of the school’s last old boys in India, and stories about his relatives’ houses in Rangoon.

Talking to him was reliving a world of forgotten people and places that have frayed around the edges in a way his love for the city had not. His column was more than an exercise in old-world nostalgia, the intervening centuries not taking away from the freshness of the telling.

The city will perhaps find another storyteller but, for now, MetroPlus will have to fill Friday afternoons remembering the man who, through his writing, best described ‘Madras nalla Madras’.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 8:32:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/s-muthiahs-tryst-with-mondays/article26910751.ece

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