To me, S Muthiah was always Mr Muthiah, and to him, Chennai was always Madras, so that is what I shall call them.
People who move to Madras, as my family did in the mid-1990s, are unsure at first of what to make of it. Madras has a reputation of being a tough city to get to know: its language distinct, its circles tight and self-contained, its sub-cultures difficult to access. Delhi and Bombay advertise themselves loudly: they tell us about the big things we’re supposed to like about them, and the big things we’re supposed to hate. Madras holds back. What’s the procedure, then? How do you relate to a city like that?
Mr Muthiah had an answer. He’d been a journalist in Sri Lanka for years before moving to Madras, and he wrote the first of his books about the city in 1981. A decade after that, he started Madras Musings, a slim, spare fortnightly that still soldiers on today. I grew up reading him in The Hindu, where his irregular pieces turned into a regular column in 1999. He called it “Madras Miscellany,” and it found its groove right away. The very first Miscellany narrated a funny story, which Mr Muthiah had heard from a well-known cardiologist. Then he weighed in on “this road name business”, told us something about Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy Road, and concluded with another story about a minister who perhaps loved cricket a little too much.
These were to be Mr Muthiah’s stock in trade for the next two decades: the anecdotes, the historical nuggets, the humane details of human lives. Mr Muthiah always said that he was a chronicler, not a historian, and he had it right. The historian is interested in the vast sweep of time; Mr Muthiah was interested in the people caught up within that sweep, and in the affairs of their days. Until he died on April 21, his energies barely dimmed. He pored through archives; he wrote letters and emails; he read old colonial tracts and family trees; he visited cemeteries and temples and boardrooms. Everywhere he went, he kept his eyes skinned for any connection to Madras. In a country that otherwise neglects its records and its histories, Mr Muthiah became a giant vault of Madras lore.
Nothing about Madras was trivial for Mr Muthiah. Here’s a mixed list – a miscellany, if you will: the Madras Gymkhana Rugby Football Challenge Cup, long defunct; the etymology of a suburb named Kolakaranpettai, which translates as Murderer’s Neighbourhood; the design of a building in Pachaiyappa’s College, modelled on an Athenian temple; the eternal confusions between two officials of the Raj posted in Madras, Robert Clive and Edward Clive; an iron pier built in 1861; the Madras cricketers AG Ram Singh and AG Kripal Singh; the economist Yashoda Shanmugasundaram, who taught at Ethiraj College; the old hotel D’Angelis, which had Madras’ first electrical hotel lift, and which hosted Douglas Jardine’s touring team in 1934.
This, then, was Mr Muthiah’s answer. How do you relate to Madras? You pay attention to it. You seek out its past, you admire its buildings, you tend to its beaches, you listen to its stories. You find charm in the ordinary, and delight in slowness. You take an interest in the lives that have passed through it, the quiet lives of a quiet city. Through his writing, Mr Muthiah showed us how to love Madras.
He was a fixture at events in Madras: book clubs, heritage festivals, theatre performances, quizzes, vintage car rallies, concerts, cricket games, always wearing a gnomic smile and dark trousers and a white half-sleeved shirt two sizes too big for him. He accepted and relayed gossip with relish; he knew that gossip was the lifeblood of a city. With new writers and journalists, he was unfailingly encouraging. What are you writing now? he would ask, and he would sincerely want to know. Like Madras itself, he had a generous spirit and a warm heart.
Mr Muthiah died on Saturday. His final instalments of “Madras Miscellany” appeared over the previous three Mondays, and as always, he told us about his correspondence. One reader suggested a signature campaign to save the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Egmore. Another narrated a story that intrigued Mr Muthiah. In 1948, the industrialist R. M. Alagappa Chettiar bought a fleet of Standard 8 cars from England, and when a guest at a dinner party enquired about these automobiles, Chettiar spontaneously gave him one as a gift. “I wonder whether anyone remembers the incident,” Mr Muthiah wrote. No matter; it was one final human moment chronicled, one final, tiny tile popped into place in his ever-growing, never-complete mosaic of Madras.
Samanth Subramanian is the author of This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War and Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast.