Nirmal Shekar died relatively young – sixty years isn’t really a full life by today’s standards of longevity. Partab Ramchand had met Shekar over dinner 48 hours before the news broke out. They were friends for 36 years and, here, Ramchand rolls the tape back to the first time they met
There is this first meeting with Nirmal Shekar of which I still have vivid recollections. And then there is this last meeting with him which will also live in memory for long. We first met at the old indoor stadium near the Nehru Stadium in 1980 shortly after he had joined The Hindu as a sports reporter. I was with the Indian Express and it was a local table-tennis tournament. One of the players R. Ramachandran came up to me and asked, “Have you seen the new reporter from The Hindu?” I said I hadn’t. Ramachandran excitedly said, “He is very tall and has a lot of hair on his head and so he stands out in a crowd.” Minutes later, I was introduced to the reporter and thus started a friendship that was to last 36 years.
By the mid 1980s, Nirmal had succeeded T. Govindarajan, popu-larly known as TG, as football and tennis writer for The Hindu. This was no easy task, for TG was one of the finest sportswriters of his time. A guru to many youngsters, including this writer, TG, on the verge of retirement, was at first unsure whether the “young upstart” was up to the task, a view shared by many in the profession. But Nirmal worked his way up through the age old qualities of hard work, natural talent and being a voracious reader.
By the time TG retired in the late 1980s, Nirmal had firmly established himself as one of the leading young sportswriters with his aptitude to write fluently and with an easy prose on almost every sport, though tennis was always his first love. Recognising his talent and ability, even a conservative newspaper like The Hindu gave him the big breaks early and in 1986 Nirmal covered his first Wimbledon – a trip to the Mecca of Tennis that he was to make more than 25 years in a row.
In 2003, Nirmal became the sports editor of The Hindu and questions were raised as to his ability to be in charge of a high-profile department, fulfil his manifold administrative duties and still churn out readable copy. He did manage the dual role but at heart he was first and foremost a writer. His new duties meant that that his columns became fewer though readers still looked forward to his reports from Wimbledon.
Of course, he regularly covered the Davis Cup matches and could give full rein to his colourful and knowledgeable writing. India was then in the prestigious World Group and Nirmal described in glowing terms the performances of Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan and Leander Paes, notably the 1987 semi-final against Australia from Sydney; the final the same year against Sweden, from Goteborg; and the sensational upset registered by India against France, from Frejus, in 1993.
Nirmal had his detractors who described his language as “too flowery” and “playing with words”. There were also times when he seemed to have hit a plateau and some of his phrases were repetitive. But there is no denying the fact that he touched a chord with his readers, particularly the young, and was one of the most widely followed sportswriters in the country. This was also because Nirmal was well read. Quite often, he would be seen seriously reading material about philosophy, literature or economics. Now and then, he would quote from these books to drive home a sporting point when it came to writing about the greatness of Ali and Pele, Federer and Bradman. His approach to writing was spelt out in an interview some years ago when he said, “I don’t restrict myself to sports but try and bring in a life’s perspective, try understanding the psychology of sports and fit sports into the wider context rather than stick to the backhands and the cover drives alone.”
Nirmal retired from The Hindu in September 2015 but retained his ties with the newspaper as a columnist besides being part of the visiting faculty at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. I had in the meanwhile retired from the profession but we remained in touch through phone and the occasional get together at the Madras Cricket Club. The conversations were not always about sport since Nirmal was knowledgeable enough to discuss various subjects.
And yes, now to the last meeting though at the time how could I know that it would be the last? It was at the KS Narayanan Oration event at the Taj Coromandel on January 30 and we were meeting after a long time. Naturally, the talk was mostly about the Federer-Nadal duel at the Australian Open the previous day. At 60, he had lost none of his enthusiasm for the sport which was his favourite. Forty-eight hours later Nirmal was no more and that is the main reason why that last meeting will live in memory for as long as I live.
(Courtesy: Madras Musings.)