My grandfather made all three of us granddaughters read 'The Hindu' newspaper from top to bottom. We may not have followed his advice entirely, but we did end up finding interest in specific columns and sections of the newspaper. In a way, everything I read and write today could be traced back to my newspaper habit.
One of the columns that made me begging for more was the 'Comment' section in the Sports Edition. The man who authored it was Nirmal Shekar - a writer beyond compare whose stronghold on the English language left me speechless. The truth was, I only watched cricket and had a working knowledge of tennis, and yet found myself always drawn to his column in The Hindu's sports section. He would bring in a poetry into his prose and make sports feel like a visceral, enchanting, memorable dance. He elevated every game and player he wrote about into conduits that tapped on some universal energy and made magic unfold in front of us. And he, performed that very magic through his words and we were left entranced.
I corresponded with a few journalists I admired, thanks to the kindness they showed to the giddy teenager I was. I had been reading him for a few years when, in this very blog, I had gushed about his writing amongst many others in The Hindu. He had encountered that post, browsed through some more of my writing and left this comment on my blog.
Thrilled to bits (as I often used to get back in the day) I wrote back to him. He replied, patiently, to each and every question that I asked him. I had written, "I find it philosophically, intellectually and spiritually satisfying to read your writing." and he responded "My passion has always been to scratch the surface, dig deep and see sport (and people who play sport) for what it is. Sometimes I myself find my relentless pursuit of truth in all areas scary. It is better to keep dreaming like Sandhya!" "There is enough on the net though in my name to last several life times" he said, when I had asked him if he had a blog where I could read more of his words.
Moving to another city for my post graduation, I had somehow lost touch with him. My reading habit took a back seat, with films - watching, reading, making or writing about them - occupying the majority of my time. But once in a while, I'd google and catch up with his words, more often than not revisiting the ones I had cherished and cut out for safekeeping. They are still there in a bag at home - a precious memory of days I regaled his writing and of the first steps I took in building my love for words.
On 29th Jan 2017, as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal matched wits on the court and my sports crazy husband was sitting at the edge of his seat, rooting for Federer, we spoke about Nirmal Shekar. I asked if I had made him read that piece of writing on Sampras that I keep going back to and he answered in the affirmative; I had read it out to him sometime during our initial days of courting. This is an excerpt:
Pete Sampras ascends the Everest of tennis By Nirmal Shekar LONDON, JULY 10. At three minutes to nine on Sunday evening, as night was licking its lips in anticipation before eating up what was left of the day for a sumptuous supper, in silver-grey rather than golden twilight, one of the truly extraordinary sportsmen of this or any era raised his arms skyward in a familiar gesture on the centre court at Wimbledon. Mark that moment - 8.57 p.m. to be exact, three minutes before 1.30 a.m. on Monday morning in India - for you'd find few like it in the entire history of organised sport. And, those of us privileged enough to have been a part of it on tennis' greatest stage, will perhaps find nothing to match it in the rest of our lives. It was a historic moment when all arguments ceased, a moment that answered one big question and many small questions, a moment that put an end to all comparisons. Step forward Mr. Pete Sampras, wet eyes notwithstanding...the greatest of 'em all! Argue if it pleases you, but the moment Pat Rafter failed to direct a Sampras serve back into the court in the men's singles final of the millennium championship in gathering gloom, arguments and comparisons became meaningless.
I then made a mental check to google what he had written about the Australian Open. Unfortunately, that article never came by. Four days later, my friend messages me saying Nirmal Shekar is no more.
Nirmal Shekar should have written a book, I thought with a pang after frantically googling to see if this horrible news was true. I was angry that he had died, that he had never written a book and that he had remained the undisputed king of sports writing to me.
When Muhammad Ali passed away, Nirmal Shekar had written,
"With all the revolutionary advances in medicine, they tell us that death may become optional in a few decades.
But that belief seems like a desperate attempt to turn daydreaming (to stop thinking about the terrifying certainty of eternal demise) into a form of science — gerontology.
But a few lesser mortals like some of us — who harbour no illusions and know that death is the end of everything for the individual — who have no access to multi-million dollar laboratories, and even less access to the latest findings that are being tested out do believe that we are all in queue, that one day we might have to vacate the tiny space that we occupy in a planet that the late, debonair scientist Carl Sagan called “The Pale Blue Dot.”
Then again, life would be much less invigorating, much less interesting, much less worth living if we were to rid ourselves of the notion that there are a few exceptions to the rule."
And just like Ali would always be immortal, your words will live on Nirmal, for you were the exception to the rule yourself, making us look at sports writing like no one else could. Wherever you are, we know you must be digging deeper to uncover the truth. I just wish, that somehow we could still continue to read about all the things you find in those realms. To think there will no more be your 'Comment' on things is deflating.
I hope somebody compiles and publishes his writing so that generations in the future will understand what made us all open the newspaper last page first.
Thank you, Nirmal, for your restless pursuit and inspiration! You will be missed.
(The title is a copy of his ode to Muhammad Ali. To me, Nirmal Shekar was the greatest in his field, and this little imitation is my way of paying my respects to the man and his irreplaceable incomparable writing)