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...

1 comment:

padmum said...

Sashi--well said.

To me he has been a benevolent mentor. I find resonance with his hate for adjectives...but when you are writing about somebody, how can you present the bare bones.

Age notwithstanding he sees an article oppo everywhere and he puts his confidence on you and---you jolly well deliver.


I hope he is not going to be editring this stuff. I am also sure that you have taken on many of his qualities. You give a job to someone and then don't look over their shoulder--personal experience.

He would shrink but he is for me the ultimate Guru!!