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Vinay Kamath

A requiem for S. Muthiah

Vinay Kamath | Updated on May 02, 2019 Published on May 02, 2019
S. Muthiah

S. Muthiah   -  S. Thanthoni

There are so many, who have come in contact with Chennai’s chronicler (not historian, as he always insisted!) S. Muthiah, who have a tale to tell of their association with him. With his vast circle of writers, friends and well-wishers Muthiah touched so many lives with his warmth, friendship and sharing. 
 Like many others I too have a Muthiah story to share. Rather, it’s many little stories, as I’ve known him for the past 30 years, as do many other journalists in the city of Chennai.
 It was in the mid-1990s, when I was with a TV news company, that we had done a short TV feature on the Sanmar group’s corporate sponsorship of Madras Musings. We interviewed Sanmar’s Chairman, N. Sankar, and Muthiah for the report. Madras Musings, a fortnightly English-language newspaper, was founded by Muthiah in 1991. 
 Published in tabloid format, the 18 to 22-page newspaper generally features articles on the history and heritage of Chennai city. When Muthiah found it difficult to sustain it, the Sanmar group stepped in and also roped in many other corporate sponsors to support the publication, which Muthiah tirelessly edited till his passing. Muthiah was glad for the media support for Madras Musings and, after that, our bond became closer and I used to meet him often, either at his home or at various events in the city.
 Along with many others, I had worked with Muthiah on his most ambitious project: Madras / Chennai: A 400-year record of the First City of Modern India. This was a project that Muthiah had assigned to the Association of British Scholars, whose membership comprises those from Chennai who have spent time in the UK doing either master’s or Ph.D programmes, or even short-term courses. I had done a short course in 1995 at the University of Westminster, London, on the Chevening Fellowship offered by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and became an ABS member on my return.
 This project was over a decade in the making as over 50 scholars of the ABS wrote on various institutions that sprung from Chennai. It was a painstaking exercise but Muthiah’s determination saw it through. He single-handedly edited the three volumes. The first of these volumes, titled The Land, the People & Their Governance, contains 17 articles on geography, history, religion, governance and law. The second book in the series is titled Services, Education and the Economy, and the third and final book, on Information, Culture & Entertainment, was released on March 11, 2019. 
 Muthiah, whose health was already failing him, had attended this event. In his short speech, he said, “People now are beginning to remember the unique facets of the city and are eager to learn more.” 
 He wanted the three volumes to be the definitive account of Madras that is Chennai and chronicled how most of India’s modern institutions had their birth in the city. He wanted the volumes to give the casual reader a wealth of information and the scholar a solid base from which to launch any research project. 
 The ABS gave the three-volume publication free to its members who had contributed to this project. As I had contributed to the chapter on banking, I was entitled to pick up the volumes from the publishers, Palaniappa Brothers in Royapettah. 
 As an aside, the banking chapter talks of the crash of Arbuthnot & Co in 1906, the biggest to rock Indian banking history till then. Reporting on the first days of the crash, The Hindu wrote, “The consequences of this sudden and disastrous failure will mean the ruin of many hundreds of families in southern India…” The name Arbuthnot is featuring regularly now in media as it is Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot, at the Westminster Magistrates' Court in London, who is hearing both Vijay Mallya’s and Nirav Modi’s cases. Would she have any connections to the Arbuthnots of Madras, I wonder? 
 So, it was on April 19 that I set out to Palaniappa’s office and picked up the three-volume set that came along with an index. Sitting in my office and going through the volumes I recalled, admiringly, Muthiah’s diligence and determination over the years in seeing this project through. Imagine my shock when I got the news the next morning that Muthiah had passed away. There was so much I had wanted to talk to him about the books, least of all that my name was spelt Kamat, without the ‘h’! But, of course, that was a minor issue, given the monumental work that Muthiah had put in to edit and get these books ready. Thankfully, he was around to see the launch of the last of the three volumes. 
 I had visited his home a few months ago to present him a copy of my first book, Titan: Inside India’s most successful consumer brand. Prior to writing the book, I had had a brief discussion with him on how to go about writing a book, given the fact that he was a prolific author himself. When I went to give him the book, he was just setting out for his regular walk at the Madras Club. He was a looking a little weak and said he was still not his normal self. As his friends and well-wishers over the years knew, his home was open house, and anyone who dropped in past 7 pm could settle down to a drink with him. Sure enough, he told me to drop by some other day and have a drink with him, as we had done on many earlier occasions. Alas, that is not to be. A legend in his lifetime; may his soul rest in peace.

Published on May 02, 2019
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