Monday, May 30, 2011

A young Tam-Brahm widow shows others the way

We have shifted temporarily to a new abode, waiting for our permanent home to get ready. It will take eighteen months or so, enough time to be able to make new friends. The new residence belongs to a friend of ours, and she’s been so warm and friendly that it’s almost as if we haven’t moved residence at all. One of the challenges, though, has been making friends with our neighbours. While a few smile and say hello, others simply walk away despite you being eager to make conversation. Wdell, I guess it takes time to get used to new people and new surroundings.

As with many buildings in the area, this one, too, was once an independent house. The owners decided to hand over the property to a private builder to get it demolished, and retained four of the eight flats. All this happened about ten years ago. We were just getting along making friends with some of them when we learned that one of the sons of the owner was down with cancer and was in his last days. Death comes often in different and unexpected ways, and that was how it arrived at their doorstep a few months ago.

One evening after dinner, Ravindran (he was only 55) told his wife he was feeling uneasy and all of a sudden collapsed. To cut the long story short, tests revealed he was suffering from a rare kind of cancer of the brain for which there was no cure. Two months ago, he had a bout of fits and after that there was no recovery; he lay comatose in bed, looked after and cared for by his wife.

As I was leaving for Kerala Saturday, the news came of his passing away. He had struggled for three months. Before that he had led a very active life, being in the medical business. A couple of people who had come to pay their last respects told me that he would invite every one he met to his home for a cup of tea or coffee, while extending his business card, and that most of those who had gathered would at one time or another have had a meal at his home. It was obvious he was respected and loved; the number of people who arrived as soon as the news broke out caught all of us by surprise.

Today, after my return from God’s Own Country, my wife and I went to meet his family. What surprised us again was the courage his wife showed. She said he had a peaceful end and it was good he didn’t have to suffer further. She had had her bath, was dressed as usual, and spoke about her husband as only she could. Her old mother listened quietly, seated in a chair nearby. Soon, Ravindran’s daughter arrived and she was all for her mother pursuing her interests and spending her time the way she wanted to, even if it meant learning to drive a two-wheeler or a car. How wonderful, I thought. If only we had more of such progressive-looking families. It was all the more surprising because they were Tamil Brahmins, well known for being some of the most orthodox, apart from being some of the brightest and strict vegetarians, of course.

The grandchildren apparently doted on Ravindran and the younger one, hardly four, kept inquiring at regular intervals where her thatha was. The answer they gave her: he had gone to meet and spend some time with Shirdi Sai Baba, whose picture adorned one of the walls at their home. I left their home buoyed with some strange energy, an inexplicable dose of optimism. Over the years, I’ve been used to older women (including my mother many years ago) deliberately withdrawing into a shell after the demise of the husband, most of them preferring to wear white or off-white saris. Of course, there have been more independent women, their numbers were small, but in Ravindran’s wife I saw a certain confidence, a certain maturity that transcended what most normal human beings are capable of. From up there somewhere, Ravindran must be looking at his wife with pride, happy that she has it in her to make life worth living after all. Deep inside her heart, he is always there, as fresh as memories can be, and she knows that in those memories and in her daughter and son and grandchildren she will find him every day and, together, they will keep her rooted ad help her reach out to a new world.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Goodbye and good riddance! People in Tamil Nadu want a clean government

Years ago, when M.G. Ramachandran, after the death of Annadurai, alleged that corruption had entered the party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and wanted financial details to be made public, he was expelled. He then went on form the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which later became the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Once he became chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1977, there was no dislodging him – for ten years he ruled, till his death in 1987. He faced no anti-incumbency factor, a pet phrase of politicians today to explain defeat. So, MGR must have done something right to be voted to power again and again – the nutritious mid-day meal scheme was his brainchild, and he also focused on giving children education. He was said to be a good man who had the welfare of his subjects at heart. Of course, in those days, the word ‘scam’ did not exist. Bofors had not then arrived.

In more recent years, voters in Tamil Nadu have booted out the two main political parties once every five years. This time, there is a lot more than the anti-incumbency factor that played a part. If MGR had alleged corruption in the DMK then, today, thanks to the 2G Spectrum scam, the Nira Radia tapes, and the media, especially the top-draw television channels, hell-bent on unearthing corrupt practices and bringing it to the public eye during prime time night after night, the public perceived the DMK rule and the rulers to be knee-deep in corruption. The money in question: hundreds and thousands of crores. Perhaps a lot of it was grapevine, gossip, hyperbole, call it what you want, but the public perception was that there was one family, the ruling family, that was amassing wealth beyond comprehension. Since the matter lies in the courts, it is improper to pass judgment, but suffice to say that public perception plays a major role in electing and removing governments.

Sadly, and this is not just about Tamil Nadu but about almost in every state in India, corruption reigns supreme. And common folks like us ask all the time: how do we weed out corruption. A question a bank officer asked me yesterday when I had gone to the bank to update my passbook. Old buildings in the area where I stay are getting demolished, and new multi-storey apartments will soon come in their place. But families are having to bribe officers and staff in various government departments, from electricity, to water and sewerage, to telephones, to get documents transferred. Builders openly say in private that they have to pay money to get papers and files moving in the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, for instance. Not small amounts – sizeable figures that are available on the tariff, And without doing so, clearances will just not come. I’ve also heard people say that under this government nothing works even if you pay bribes, but under the other government, you can rest assured that your work will get done. Sometimes, I wonder how all people know s much about what really happens.

Well, if M. Karunanidhi had a dream of his party getting re-elected again and to pass on the mantle to his sons, he’s received a rude jolt. At 86, there’s little chance of him gracing the corridors of power again. And judging by the blow the party has received, it is anybody’s guess as to whether the knives will indeed come out once the dust settles and it is serious introspection time. Will the party be able to hold together after all – we will have to wait and see in the days ahead. It’ll be an interesting wait.

Equally interesting will be Jayalalithaa’s initial performance. Pictures of the nocturnal police raid on Karunanidhi’s family, the screams and moans, are still vivid. But time (the time out of power) must surely have taught her a lesson. She is unlikely to be as adventurous this time; but if early indications are anything to go by, she will be firm and will do all she can to expose the misdemeanors of the previous regime. Already, word has gone out that the state is bankrupt. As always, there will be a honeymoon period, but it will not last long. She will, more importantly, have to focus on larger public issues – clean drinking water, good roads, employment, education, electricity, maternal and child health – issues that still plague even developed states such as Tamil Nadu decades after Independence.

The voting back to power of the AIADMK with such a massive majority is the people’s way of saying they want less corruption (you can’t think of a corruption-less state now, can you?) and less masquerading of family power. It’s now up to Jayalalithaa and her new team to deliver. I heard somebody summarize the DMK defeat as “caught Kani, bowled Raja”. A smart cricketing metaphor, if any were needed. But the message is that the people of the state now want a clean and efficient government. And if there’s no vindictive action, they’ll be happy they engineered the change. With age on her side, this is Jayalalithaa’s best chance to prove her critics wrong and aim for an innings as long as her mentor’s, a mentor who almost made her his political heir. After all, voters in Tamil Nadu are so generous - you just have to wait five years. Look at West Bengal - 34 years, and you might have almost lived your life!

Hoardings and pictures of Jayalalithaa dot the Chennai landscape; here are a few near Annadurai’s statue, on Mount Road. AIADMK flags greet motorists on the Gemini Bridge.

Friday, May 06, 2011

An association with the awe-inspiring master

To add a two bits more about Mr S. Muthiah, he inspires people around him, not merely because of the amount of work he performs and its breathtaking range, but also because of the high standards he brings to any work he takes up. If it’s deadline time and the copy is not perfect, the printer will have to wait. It’s as simple as that. It’s also his high moral standards. Years ago, he had told me he would never even recommended his daughter for a job.

It was while writing for Madras Musings and contributing to some of his books that I began looking at heritage in different light. I’m sure V. Sriram, who is fast making a mark as a writer and raconteur, will say the same thing. When Vincent D’Souza, editor, Mylapore Times, Adyar Times and Arcot Road Times, got the Mylapore Festival going and made a success of it, and then went on to launch Madras Day, it was Muthiah who soon took the initiative to call for meetings of the core team and arrange several events on behalf of Chennai Heritage, getting a comprehensive programme sheet produced, and actually extending Madras Day to Madras Week and Madras Fortnight. All this when he could have easily sat back and advised all of us. He chose to be hands-on – after all, it was a subject very close to his heart.

Muthiah’s association with Sri Lanka goes back to a father who came to study at Ananda College in 1916 and stayed on. V. Vr. N. M. Subbiah Chettiar, better known in Ceylon as M. Subbiah, was a stockbroker but he was better known for his involvement in Ceylon politics, being a nominated member of the Colombo Municipal Council for several years, deputy mayor twice, acting mayor several times and, most significantly, being the founder-president of the Ceylon Indian Congress formed in 1939 by 16 Indian associations in Ceylon. Later that year, after Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit, the Ceylon Indian Congress and the Ceylon Indian Association merged to become the second Ceylon Indian Congress. Subbiah stood for election to the Nuwara Eliya seat in 1947 and lost a close verdict. He left Ceylon for personal reasons in 1960 and settled in his village in India.

Muthiah studied in Ladies’ College, St Thomas Prep, where F.T. Keble was to prove the greatest influence on his life (getting him interested in reading, writing and editing journals). He was one of the first batch of students from this part of the world to go to the United States for higher studies immediately after World War II. There he was active in campus journalism and worked with local newspapers. Returning to Ceylon in 1951, circumstances forced Muthiah to rethink a career in the foreign service and he joined The Times of Ceylon and became wedded to journalism and writing ever since. He was foreign news editor, features editor and in charge of the Sunday Times and The Times of Ceylon Annual, a most sought-after publication. He also wrote about sport in the Island; his By the Corner Flag he campaigned for taking cricket to rural areas and getting the police and services interested in rugby.

1968 was a turning point – he arrived in India after a citizenship hiccup. In Madras, he founded TT Maps & Atlases for the TTK Group, and pioneered the publication of maps, atlases and tourist guidebooks. For years after retirement in the early 1990s, he continued as president emeritus of the company.

The range of his activities is amazing – he has taught journalism and print production at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan from 1972 till well into the mid-1990s, and at Anna Univeristy and the University of Madras. Many senior journalists in Chennai today were taught by him at some time or the other (Shreekumar Varma whispered to me last week at the book launch that he was a student).

Muthiah helped found India’s first degree course in printing technology at Anna University in 1980. He has been an office bearer of the Madras Printers’ and Lithographers’ Association, the All Indian Federation of Master Printers, the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India, the Indian National Cartographic Association, and the Public Relations Society of India, Tamil Nadu Chapter. The PRSI, whose journal I edit, has enormous respect for him even today. He was a co-convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, TN Chapter. In March 2002, Muthiah was awarded the MBE by the Queen of England for his work on heritage and environment conservation in Chennai.

A lot of what I’ve said in the last paragraph might be for the records, but undoubtedly S. Muthiah stands out as a colossus, not in one, but in several fields. In some ways he is like R.K. Lakshman’s common man, looking at the world pass by and overhearing everything that’s being said, and in many ways he’s the person people look up to and stand up when he enters a room or approaches. He doesn’t wear a suit (except when he’s abroad at a formal function, like at an Anglo-Indians do recently in Australia) or a tie or a belt, or even shoes (except when there’s a formal function or when the rules of a club make him do so), but he earns respect wherever he goes. He never ever tom-toms, and that is the hallmark of a great person.

I’m so glad I bumped into him quite unwittingly as a journalism student, and then went on to keep an association alive and running for two decades. Indeed, it’s been a matter of pride and privilege.

Monday, May 02, 2011

S. Muthiah: Hard taskmaster and mentor

So, why is S. Muthiah so highly regarded? At the formal release on Saturday of A Madras Miscellany: A Decade of People, Places & Potpourri, Mukund Padmanabhan, senior associate editor, The Hindu, spoke about Muthiah’s distrust of the computer and his love affair with the Olivetti typewriter, his commitment to submitting copy before the deadline every week, his scribbles on hard copy that sub-editors at the desk had to contend with, the progress from typewritten copy to floppy discs that wouldn’t open, and now on to emails. I hope the message was not lost on the crowd that must have included a sizeable number of young journalists.

The first thing that strikes anybody when meeting Muthiah is his simplicity. He, of course, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but he respects people and their time. Now effectively retired and working from home, he usually meets visitors only by appointment. And if you are late beyond his grace period, be ready to be welcomed with some sort of sarcasm.

For all that, Muthiah values the contributions of people, no matter who it is. Even if it is a peon or clerk, he refers to their names, remembers their contribution, much like he remembered the contribution a certain Theerthappan made to his columns. Theerthappan used to be a frequent visitor to my house and many a time after listening to his non-stop banter I would find some excuse to get away. One day, I gave him Muthiah’s phone number and he was mighty thrilled. It was only much later when I noticed Theerthappan’s name cropping up in the Madras Miscellany column that I knew his worth. Muthiah, despite all the work he was buried in, had found time for the wiry old man from Valsarawakkam, who turned out to be a rich source of information. Theerthappan was apparently present at the Saturday programme, but by when Muthiah called out his name he had disappeared. I felt a trifle sad for Theerthappan; it would have been so nice if he had been present to hear his name being singled out.

I’ve had the privilege of working closely with Muthiah for twenty years. As director-communications and president emeritus, TT Maps & Atlases, he was my boss at the TTK Group. Together, we brought out the in-house magazine, the award-winning TTK Spectrum. I might have been a gold medalist in journalism, a topper in school and college, and fairly confident of my English language skills, but Muthiah quickly brought me down to terra firma. I still remember the day I received from his driver the first lot of copies I had written, duly edited by him, his favourite Wality fountain pen ink scribbles forming patterns between paragraphs, dotting margins and creating a mosaic at the bottom of almost every page. On one page, there was a splash of ink and two words at the top that said, WHAT NONSENSE!

I was petrified, despite having by then gained some experience as a direct recruit officer in the insurance industry and having dealt with all kinds of people, from pesky customers, to errant staff to union leaders and sickening bosses. For a long while I sat back, wondering what to do. Had I made a mistake quitting the insurance industry? When Saturday arrived, the day he usually walked into my room at the TTK head office on Cathedral Road, he ordered his favourite cup of coffee and took three hours to explain to me where I had gone wrong. No adjectives for people, he said; for products, yes. Nobody needs to be told how generous or handsome Mr Raghunathan is, he added. Do not use unnecessary words, the lead in a news story should say something new and you should make it interesting; do not use label headlines… he went on and on… Despite attending all his journalism classes on reporting, here I was gaining firsthand experience on-the-job. And those weekly meetings went on for a decade until I quit TTK’s.

I must have made some improvement because during 2002-03, whenever he travelled abroad or had a heart bypass operation, he would rely on me to put together the issues of Madras Musings. I was a regular writer for the fortnightly then. It was yet another valuable experience, deciding the stories to be published, substituting for him in the Man from Madras Musings column, no mean job, and, most importantly, to ensure there were no major errors.

I have continued my association with him, and continued to learn, especially while working on the corporate biography of L&T-ECC, on the biographies of MCtM Chidambaram Chettiar and Alagappa Chettiar, and on a segment of the Madras Gazetteer.

Never during all these years did I ever see him try to boss around or lose his cool; he would be sarcastic or at times even make you feel small, but he never let anything sour a relationship. More than anything, he was happy to teach you, to let you learn. Indeed, he encouraged it and if you were willing to work hard, ferret out information, check for facts and learn from mistakes, he respected you. And he was one who showed by example. If he could send his Metro Plus column ahead of the deadline unfailingly every week for a decade and more, it tells you a lot about the person he is.

To be continued...

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The incredible Mr S. Muthiah: Journalist-writer-historian-storyteller who never ceases to amaze

It’s often said that South India doesn’t really count (except during election time, of course) when India’s national picture is painted, no matter whether it is politics, business, sport, cinema or even fashion and lifestyle. For example, if you were to look at business, the Murugappa Group would perhaps get only a fraction of column centimetre space in The Times of India, Mumbai, as against the Tatas, the Birlas and the Singhanias.

K Balachander is now a Dada Saheb Phalke awardee but top newspapers and television channels would still like to go after a Subhas Ghai or a Yash Chopra. For all that, Sivaji Ganesan received national stature rather late; Uttam Kumar in Bengali cinema fared much better. But squared off against a Dilip Kumar or a Raj Kapoor, both Sivaji and Uttam, brilliant actors both, would fade in national newspaper columns and television.

In the field of journalism, he is one of the granddads and would easily rank among some of the country’s top writers, editors and authors. Sadly, S. Muthiah’s name is not known much beyond Chennai. A journalist for 60 years, a columnist for 50 years and still going strong, he is as top-draw as anybody in the field can get. But if you were to ask someone in Delhi (why Delhi, even in Bangalore or Hyderabad) whether he had heard of Muthiah, chances are he would say no.

Muthiah is not a Khushwant Singh, a Shobaa De, a Jug Suraiya or a Bachi Karkaria, all of whose names ring a certain resonance in most parts of India. Why is that so? Is it because most of his books have been about Madras that is Chennai, about the city’s heritage, about organisations and institutions in the south? Why is that Ramachandra Guha, for instance, is a national figure when Muthiah is not? I have no answer and I’d love to hear from Muthiah himself about what he thinks about this lack of national recognition as it were.

For the man is worth much more than his weight in gold. The frequency with which he is able to produce books, each one thoroughly researched and edited, is something that will never cease to amaze those who read his columns and writings and even those who know him closely. At the release last night of his 1210-page compendium, A Madras Miscellany: A Decade of People, Places & Potpourri, a collection really of the best of his columns that have appeared in The Hindu Metro Plus the past decade since the supplement was launched in end-1999, N. Ram, editor-in-chief, The Hindu, referred to Muthiah as an unconventional, one-of-a-kind historian… who has brought to his subject (Chennai) a gifted journalist’s curiosity, humour, liveliness, eye for small things and accessibility. Ram referred to legendary columnists Walter Lippmann and Frank Moraes and went on to add that if other newspapers had a Khushwant Singh or a Jug Suraiya, The Hindu had S. Muthiah. That statement brought a round of applause, but frankly, Muthah’s name, for all its worth, does not come in the same breath as do the names of some of the others. Which is as sad as it is a mystery, much like the Murugappa Group example.

There were a few speeches, of course, before the cocktails that is. An outstanding one by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former West Bengal Governor, reading mostly from a prepared text, which flowed almost like poetry. But knowing his calibre and the quality he brings to research, it was not surprising. Do we really deserve a Muthiah, he asked the audience, indirectly referring to the lack of any other person of such stature in the city who has as much a passion for the city’s heritage and who has fought as many a battle (losing in most cases) for heritage conservation. That question summed up everything really.

It is indeed a matter of worry that after Muthiah (he is 81 and one hopes he lives as long as his father did) there might not be anybody of his stature the city can look up to, to take up cudgels on behalf of heritage. It’s a frightening prospect. It’ll also be a extremely saddening prospect for all those he had taught – journalism, printing, PR and advertising students… More of it in my next blog.

Pictures here were taken at the launch at the Connemara Hotel and are courtesy The Hindu...