I am sitting with S Muthiah in a quiet corner of the Madras Club drinking coffee. Uncle Muthu, (as I’ve always called him), is a precise, soft-spoken man, with a cheeky sense of humour. “Let’s start with one thing, right? I’m not a historian, I’m just a chronicler of history. I consider myself an excellent hack writer,” he says, grinning, “because of a superb training in the old school of journalism.” Whatever he might say, this hack writer is one of the chief custodians of this city’s history. Since 1981, he has published over 35 books of history and biography, and has become synonymous, not just with the history of the “first city of modern India”, but also with its particular relationship to publishing and books.
As one of the founding members of the Madras Book Club and the Indian Review of Books, Muthiah has been on the literary scene since 1968, when he moved to Madras from Colombo. As a schoolboy in Sri Lanka, he was greatly influenced by a man called D B Keble, who opened a library at St Thomas’s Preparatory School and insisted that all the students read. The young Muthiah tore through the works of Sapper and Baroness Orczy, and maintains today that the freedom to read indiscriminately at an early age inculcated a lifelong voracious reading habit. At eight, he published his first newspaper article, and after his education, he spent four years writing serials for women’s magazines with tantalising titles such as “Meenakshi on the Estate”, before landing a job at the Times of Ceylon. The idea of writing a book, though, only came about when he started working for TT Maps in Madras.
“I was reading about Clive, Hastings, Yale—people you learn about in history, never realising the contributions they actually made…and all of them started out from Madras. I got interested in their lives and started collecting material about these ghosts of Fort St George.”
From his first book, Madras Discovered, to his most recent book, Anglo-Indians: A 500-Year History, Muthiah has consistently engaged with histories—whether they be about cities, institutions or individuals. At his Anglo-Indian book launch, Muthiah announced that he had been associated with ethnically mixed people like the Burghers in Ceylon or the Anglo-Indians, longer than anyone else in the audience. “It’s a story that goes back 80 years at least. I’m fascinated with ethnicity. Eventually, there will have to be a book about the Chettiars, after which I’ll get thrown out of the community,” he adds, chuckling.
Over the years, Muthiah’s singular muse has been the city born as Madras, now known as Chennai. Like most people who have lived through the vagaries of urbanisation he worries about the fate of heritage buildings and the sprawl of congestion. He bemoans the death of libraries, the increasing distractions of technology, the fact that publishers today are more interested in numbers rather than quality. He is very disturbed by the large numbers of Chennai engineering students who struggle with the English language and cannot answer basic general knowledge questions like who are the city’s Nobel Prize winners. Despite all this, he maintains that Madras-Chennai is the best city in India. Although, “Not quite as nice as Colombo!”