The Nirmal Shekar I knew was a rebel. Once, over whiskies at The Madras Cricket Club (a very proud member he was), he told me a story from his early twenties of the time he'd attended an interview — it was for the Indian Administrative Service, I think — flaunting a ponytail. The image is arresting, but it isn't the ponytail that defines him. Rather, it's the thought that he'd sauntered into the room, defying the panel to accept him for who he was.
His swift rise in sports journalism civilized him, his overseas assignments made him cosmopolitan. The later years mellowed him, but he never lost the inclination to explore and question prevalent trends. He would have been thrilled when Roger Federer won his 18th major in Melbourne earlier this week. Nirmal wrote in The Hindu last year of his belief that the Swiss tennis player still had something left in the tank. A newsman thus vindicated sounds like a prophet.
Nirmal used to say journalism was something he stumbled into, that it was an accident. The bureaucracy's loss at any rate was the media's gain. India in the 1980s was starting to modernize: local culture was having to negotiate the currents of global capitalism. Nirmal, through his irrepressible coverage of international sports extravaganzas, was at the forefront of demonstrating how self-expression could help us find our place in the world.
The first time I read him, I was eleven. I can vividly recall standing one evening by the dim yellow light of a roadside book stall, flicking through pages in The Sportstar, paralyzed, in thrall, unwilling to trudge home, because Nirmal's description of a Wimbledon final was that engrossing. I remember looking at the byline, envying this writer who had blended a sport summary with observations on music and art — all leavened by a philosophical wit. Granted I was not even a teenager, but I'd never previously known an Indian sports writer to exert such freedom. Other readers will attest to that truth. That was the thing about Nirmal: he helped you imagine possibilities.
He always looked to the future. As a relatively young editor in his forties, Nirmal had a progressive streak, but his was a relaxed hand at the wheel. He always retained a bit of the iconoclast in him; he didn't think age and seniority alone merited respect. The highest compliment he could pay you was calling you "a thorough professional." It's a quality he tried to instill in fledgling sports writers.
As a mentor, he was unsurpassed. Two of this generation's finest cricket writers, The Hindu's S. Ram Mahesh and ESPNcricinfo's Sidharth Monga, trained under Nirmal at the Asian College of Journalism where he taught the sports elective. Other prodigious talents like the writer Aman Sethi passed through his classroom. I was the first ACJ student Nirmal hired after he became sports editor at The Hindu. I wasn't exactly a walking encyclopedia on sport, but Nirmal seemed to enjoy my exuberant prose style — which makes sense, because it echoed his own.
If he believed in you, he protected you and backed you to the hilt. In my mid-twenties, I started to shed some of the flair in search of a deeper voice; for a period, my writing got flat. But Nirmal let me take my time, and compared my slump to a batsman struggling to rediscover form. The criticism he offered was always practical. "This construction, 'One hears of stories...' sounds old-fashioned — use 'you' instead of 'one,'" he suggested. It did mildly irritate him that I took so long to turn in pieces for the daily. He'd frequently mention his ability to put down eight hundred words in fifteen minutes. "If you're writing from England, say, you have to race to meet the deadline because of the time difference," he told me.
He wasn't exaggerating about how quickly he could file stories. I had the chance to cover Wimbledon alongside Nirmal the year Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi. The man would sometimes finish his pieces by the time I was laboring over my third paragraph.
That fortnight produced other anecdotes, none more hilarious than the time Nirmal directed me to attend a Roger Federer press conference. He monitored the thing on a television set in the media room while keeping one eye on the next match and typing his report. It may not have been his wisest move. At the presser, needing to feel like I belonged there, I raised my hand and asked arguably the greatest tennis player of all time a smart-alecky question that still makes me cringe: "So do you think Nadal puts up a tougher fight against you at Wimbledon than you do against him at The French Open?" Nirmal was laughing when I returned to my desk. He was able to look past my insolence and insecurity, and acknowledge the out-of-control ambition of a young journalist.
He remained as gracious a few years later when I shared my decision to switch fields, move countries. A classy man indeed, who knew how to let a kid he'd shaped pursue other dreams.
Nirmal was both a rebel and an extraordinarily generous man who taught me that those two traits were not incompatible qualities. Some bosses give off an old-school vibe, impose a top-down structure. Nirmal, dynamic to a fault, made no such fuss. He was sixty-years-old when he passed on, slowing down in retirement but still in his prime, one of the most open-minded men I've had the privilege of knowing, and certainly one of the more farsighted. He will be missed.
Vijay Parthasarathy is a PhD student in Media Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. He worked at The Hindu for several years.