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In praise of a friend

Writer, printer and chronicler of our times, S.Muthiah was presented with the `Honorary Member of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire' award recently. TIMERI N. MURARI draws a personal sketch of the man with varied achievements.


An award well-deserved... British Deputy High Commissioner in South India Michael Herridge presenting the award to S. Muthiah.

IT'S TIME to salute success and write about it. Like most of our achievements, recognition first comes from those outside India. My friend S. Muthiah has been honoured with the MBE by HM Queen Elizabeth II. Let me get the wording right as I know Muthu cares deeply about accuracy.

He's been awarded the `Honorary Member of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire'. Now that is something to cheer about.

In far away England, our ex-imperial masters have recognised Muthu's talents. I had hoped the British Empire would have coughed up an airfare for him to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. I would've loved to see him in a top hat and a morning suit with cut away tails, sipping tea with HM on those regal lawns. But they're broke as we are and the Investiture Ceremony takes place in Chennai.

On second thoughts, it is appropriate, as he is the major historian of the city.

I have known Muthu now for many years and been enriched by his friendship. We have a couple of coincidences in common. Both of us began our careers as engineers, shunted into that profession by our respective fathers. We're of the same profession, journalists, and we worked for British newspapers. While he was The Observer's correspondent in Sri Lanka, I was working for The Guardian around the same time. The Guardian now owns The Observer.

In the manner of old friendships, I cannot quite remember how we met now. I believe it was through his niece, who told me I had to meet her Uncle Muthu, the writer. The meeting didn't happen immediately.

We probably met at a function or a dinner party and fell into conversation. He is difficult to pick out of a crowd, as he's a soft-spoken unassuming man, who walks, or marches I think, with very straight shoulders, looking straight ahead.

He also possesses the simplest of wardrobes, a plain white bush shirt and slacks. His shirt was once a topic of conversation.

He was amused I'd paid a few hundred rupees for a shirt, while he couldn't be bothered with such sartorial splendour and still had a local tailor stitch his shirts for a tenth of the amount.

He exudes an aura of calm, which always surprises me, as I know his mind is spinning faster than a particle accelerator. I can't even catalogue his tremendous output of fine work, while I plod along with the odd-column, a novel and a film script or two. He still works on an old manual typewriter, typing with two fingers and out of those fingers have flowed weekly columns, Madras Musings and numerous books. When I say I am enriched by his friendship, I should also state his books have informed, enlightened and enriched me.

I have learnt more about my city through his "Madras Rediscovered'', "Madras, The Gracious City'' (he must regret this subtitle today), "At Home in Madras'', and "Madras, Its Past and Present''. They're my Bibles should any visitor question me on anything, from Fort St George to St Thomas' Mount to Georgetown.

If Muthu hasn't written about something, a quick call and I have the information. He's taught me the history of cricket in Madras through his book on the Madras Cricket Club and I should learn about the history of Sri Lankan cricket soon.

I've learnt about plantation life and the rich and colourful heritage of the Chettiars. He's even chronicled "The Splendour of South India'', for those of us who don't explore our States.

The sheer depth of his knowledge has him now on the lecture circuit for American tourists. He's just returned from a week of floating around Kerala with a bunch of octogenarians. Of course, a week away from his old typewriter put him way back in his work, he complained.

He still lectures on journalism and on his other profession as a printer. He is the front man for the Madras Book Club's monthly meetings. I'm constantly surprised by his prodigious energy.

He pops up all over the place in his columns. One moment meeting a team of environmentalists, the next at a conference of our babus.

He is in the front line to preserve our cultural heritage against our Government.

He chronicled the victory of the IG of Police office on the Marina but he's also written about the destruction and loss that occurs around us daily.

When I write that he has enriched me, I guess that's being selfish. Muthu has enriched everyone he's met, and especially this city now called Chennai.

If the British Empire recognises his work, I don't see why the Indian government doesn't try to top that with one of its highest awards.

And I bet, he'd receive it in his bush shirt and slacks.

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