Change of Address notification :-)

Dear all:

I should have done this before, with due consideration for all of you who kept visiting even during this period of prolonged hibernation. My apologies.

That said: I resumed blogging a while back. Sporadically — but that is going to change too, and it’s going to get a lot more frequent.

It’s all here — on Tumblr.

See you there.

 

Gary Smith Redux

His narrative voice was an empathic, whispering lyricism, and he wrote with a dazzling omniscience that in his finest work was earned through many, many months of intensive reporting. It was impossible to imitate him. And it was impossible not to try.

It’s almost like a wake, the reaction to Gary Smith’s retirement. Alan Siegel joins the chorus of quality writers weighing in on the impossible standards the premium sportswriter of our times set.

But the trick of Smith’s technique was that he made it seem possible for relatively inexperienced writers who’d yet to have a Gary Smith moment. His work seemed less like an exercise in high-velocity writing than it did a feat of sustained attention—to his sources, to their anecdotes, to the minute but revealing details that accumulate throughout a life. It was of course much more than that, but when you’re 21 and the extra-inning, lightning-delayed American Legion baseball game you’re covering has you questioning your career choices, it’s nice knowing there are more ambitious and yet still doable varieties of sportswriting out there. Maybe with the right subject, you start to think …

“The imitation of Gary Smith has been the cause of reams and reams of very bad writing,” Lake said. “That is not his fault. People want to be like him. I say that as someone who’s done it himself.

“You’re playing with fire when you try to do what Gary does.”

And if hadn’t caught it already, here, a comprehensive round-up of Smith’s work, and lots of links: In the Furnace of the Sporting Psyche.

 

And then there were none…

Recipe for Mango Pulisherry:

Peel two ripe mangoes (pick the really sweet varieties for best results). Chop them into chunks one inch or bigger. Place the chunks in a saucepan. Add two teaspoons chilli powder (more, if you really like the heat to pop); two teaspoons of salt, and half a teaspoon of turmeric powder. Pour enough water to cover the pieces and bring to a boil (Did I mention turn on the gas?). Simmer till most of the water has evaporated.

Grind half of a big-sized coconut and two teaspoons of cumin seeds into a smooth paste. Add to the cooked mangoes, stir; add a quarter cup of thick curd (Did I mention, stir again, folding inwards till everything is nicely mixed?). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and stir occasionally, (carefully, you don’t want to break up the mango pieces into unrecognizable pulp) till the sauce thickens.

Heat two spoons of coconut oil, toss in a spoonful of mustard and when it pops, add half a teaspoon of fenugreek, three/four dried red chillies and 8-10 curry leaves. Pour the tadka over the mangoes, stir, serve hot with either rice or chappatis/porottas. Enjoy the whole sweet-sour-hot thing the dish has going on.

I made this dish for myself this weekend.

It tasted weird, somehow. An odd taste I couldn’t quite identify.

Meledath House

I ENTERED this home — Meledath House, it is called — as a newborn. This is where I grew up under the aegis of my grandparents; this is where I learnt to walk and to talk and to play; where I first heard stories from the epics and the puranas.

This is where I learnt to tell my own stories. This is where I learnt to dream.

I wrote a bit, once, about the only real “home” I have ever known. A shell, I called it then.

Looks are deceptive; the home that means the world to me is a ruin waiting to happen, its foundations eaten away by familial squabbling and consequent neglect.

That was five years ago. The sight of this “ruin waiting to happen” had saddened me then. In course of a week-long trip, I spent hours sitting on the porch of that home, remembering.

Back when I was a boy, there was just this house set in the middle of a vast tract of land. There was a mango tree — one of a couple of dozen in the compound — at almost exactly where I was standing when I took this picture. (An uncle has built his home there now; it is where I stay when I visit Calicut.)

Summers were ripe with mangoes (and jackfruit, and cashew, and prickly pineapple shrubs bristling along the hedges. And if you haven’t toasted cashew and jackfruit seeds over a coal fire and eaten them hot enough to burn your tongue, you haven’t lived).

We ate the mangoes raw, spiced with chilli powder and salt. We ate them ripe — some, the firm-fleshed varieties, cut into cubes and piled high on plates; others eaten as is, teeth sinking into the rich sweet flesh, the juice dribbling down your fingers and along your arm. We piled them into huge urulis and boiled them down to their essence over wood fires, then stored them in big bharanis for the off seasonWe used them in fish curry; we made pulisherry

And that is why it tasted weird, last weekend, when I made mango pulisherry after a long while. What I tasted was nostalgia – a bittersweet flavor seasoned with memories of, and yearning for, a lost childhood and a vanished way of life.

Meledath Family

IT WAS a big home, always filled with people. This photograph was taken when my father’s youngest brother got married (back then, the camera was a cumbersome thing with a bellows-like front; the photographer slipped under a sheet of black cloth and from in there, told us kids to keep our eyes fixed on the narrow opening because “you will see a parrot there”). It only shows one branch of the family that used to live there then. There are five adults, and three children, missing from this picture — eight people who lived with us under that roof, one big, chaotic, mostly happy family.

Each one of the adults in this photograph (and those absent) contributed to my growth in one way or other — some told me stories; others bought me books and encouraged me to read and to dream; still others shielded me from the consequences of my serial mischiefs…

Each of them is a part of me and, in a very visceral way, what I am is an amalgam of these people — their ideals, their values, their sensibilities, their collective wisdom.

Six of the twelve adults in this picture are now no more. Two of those not in the picture are also gone.

Meledath now

 

LAST week, I went down to Calicut for the rites and observances connected to the first anniversary of my mom’s passing.

And I stood in the exact same spot as before and took this picture — of the gaping void that once was my home.

Back when I was a boy it was a home, magnificent in its isolation, nestled in its green, verdant space. Back then, I’d clamber up into the branches of the mango tree that stood here, in this same spot, and read through the day.

Today, there are 11 homes where those trees once stood. Homes of uncles and aunts and cousins; even the homes of a couple of strangers who bought some of our land and built there.

And today, there is a hurt-shaped void where my home once stood. An emptiness. An ache that defies description.

Its massive doors are likely in an antique shop someplace, as are whatever else the contractor could salvage of the thick teak beams, the ornately carved windows, the furniture that survived the ravages of time, the giant urulis and bharanis and such.

The big, porous stones that formed its walls have been crushed to powder, and carted away to some landfill someplace. Each of those stones had stories to tell. It is all dust now.

When taking this picture, last week, I couldn’t focus properly for tears. Some of that dust must have gotten into my eyes.

They all go away — people, places, everything. An uncle once removed passed on three weeks ago — among many other things, I remember him for keeping my stock of PG Wodehouse novels constantly replenished.

Memories remain — remembered joys; hurts that refuse to heal. When I can, I write them down, for with each passing day I fear the time will come when those memories will vanish, too, and my mind will blank out.

Just like what happened with mom.

PS: By some quirk, the WordPress editors stumbled on my post from last year on my mom’s passing — and decided to showcase it on Freshly Pressed.

The following days — while I was in Calicut for the first anniversary — so many of you filled the comments section with your wishes, your own stories and experiences, with the occasional tear shed for a lady you never knew, for a pain I hope you never know.

Thank you. All of you. Very much.

The man-made “natural disaster”

It's all about money, honey

 

Remember this image, which spoke a thousand eloquent words about the June 2013 floods in Uttarakhand?

A Supreme Court-mandated committee finds that the unchecked building of hydro-power plants was the trigger behind the devastation. Read, an excellent report by Nidhi Jamwal.

Anbulla Rajnikanth…

 

 

 

For a brief while there, I actually had more followers than Rajnikanth. Now I can die happy.

Speaking of followers, you know all those social media gurus who teach you how to post relevant stuff, to not spam, to not over-post, to never repeat yourself… all those “tips and tricks”?

And then the superstar does this — and his follow count mounts at the rate of 60 or so every minute. What do you know?

Anbulla Rajinikanth

 

 

In the furnace of the sporting psyche

Last week, while I was away marking the first anniversary of my mom’s passing, Gary Smith retired from active feature-writing for/with Sports Illustrated.

Journalists (who wish they could write like Gary while knowing they never can) and readers (who wish we could look forward to a life-long supply of sportswriting with the Gary seal of quality) mourned the news.

Why is the retirement of a sportswriter that big a deal? Here is an earliest post (November 9, 2009) that attempts to capture some small part of the man’s magic:

Sport comes to us in boxes – the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to bust out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game – before it, after it, above it or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche. Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down to those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes as well.

That clip is from one of my favorite sports writers of all time; specifically, it is taken from the preface to Gary Smith’s Beyond the Game.

Beyond the game

Sports journalism, done right

For a flavor of how Smith writes, try these stories: The Chosen One, a December 1996 profile of Tiger Woods; Damned Yankee, the story of the man who was widely regarded as the heir to the Yogi Berra mantle until a photographer clicked a picture that changed his life forever;  Coming Into Focus, his 2006 profile of Andre Agassi;  Moment of Truth, a story written around a camera verite moment in a locker room; Blindsided by History, the tragic tale of unintended consequences arising out of segregationists’ attempts to keep black students out of an Arkansas school; and Remember his Name, the story of Pat Tillman, who turned his back on a multi-million NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals and, in the aftermath of 9/11, enlisted in the United States army in 2002 and died in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. [One of my personal favorites, though it appears to be unavailable online, is Rapture in the Deep — the story of competitive free-diving ace Pipin Ferreras and of Audrey Mestre, the woman who fell in love with him, bought into his passion for the incredibly dangerous sport, and died in 2002 while attempting to break a world record.]

The prompt for this post comes from a Joel Achenbach article I just read in the Washington Post where, against the backdrop of the internet, blogs and social media, he celebrates the craft of the extended narrative in general, and Smith’s work with Sports Illustrated in particular. From his article:

There’s endless talk in the news media about the next killer app. Maybe Twitter really will change the world. Maybe the next big thing will be just an algorithm, like Google’s citation-ranking equation. But Smith is betting that there will still be a market, somehow, for what he does. Narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this.

They know that the story is the original killer app.

When Smith won his third National Magazine Award, Slate celebrated with an article on the man and his craft. An extended clip:

As for complexity: It is always easier, and generally more profitable, to sketch the world in blacks and whites rather than grays. As much as this calculus reigns on newspapers’ Op-Ed pages and in thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews, it is an iron law in sports sections. From reading them, you’d think that every athlete, coach, or executive is either a saint or a blackguard.

That’s not Smith’s way. The only profile of him I have been able to locate appeared in a

Gary Smith

Gary Smith, courtesy ‘Talk on Tap’

magazine called PhillySport in 1989. (Smith made his name as a young sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News.) In it he explained his approach to the writer, Bruce E. Beans: “I’m looking at it not so much as ‘this is good, this is bad,’ as much as ‘this is just life’ and trying to understand it.”

That’s of a piece with the totally self-effacing way Smith writes. Today, most journalism that anybody pays attention to gives pride of place to the writer: his or her attitude, opinions, and/or experiences. Smith, by contrast, subjugates himself to his subjects, winning their trust and spending hour after hour with them, until he has the understanding and facts needed to write long, richly psychological pieces in which the word “I” never appears.

The O’Leary article, “Lying in Wait,” is a typical production. (Along with most of Smith’s work, it can be read as part of a seven-day free trial at elibrary.com.) First of all, it’s more than 8,600 words long, a positively anachronistic bulk in today’s streamlined, dumbed-down magazine cosmos. (Smith is now an anomaly even at SI, a magazine with a noble lineage of long-form journalism. Flip the page after reading one of his engrossing sagas—it’s like you’ve wandered into People.) But room to ruminate is necessary, assuming you’re trying to do justice to the tragic story of a human being’s fall from grace. Second, the article starts from an assumption of moral ambiguity. It’s a given that O’Leary did something very wrong, but for Smith, exploring the roots of that action is much more interesting than condemning it or excusing it.

Finally, it reads like a rich short story: not a minimalist piece a là Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, but a pull-out-all-the stops production, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez. (In the light of recent scandals, it seems important to say that Smith has never been accused of fabrication or other journalistic sins.)

Journalism that goes inside people’s heads is a tricky proposition. In the heyday of the New Journalism, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote wrote from the points of view of Joe DiMaggio, stock car driver Junior Johnson, and murderer Perry Smith, respectively, with the assurance of Virginia Woolf describing London streets through the eyes of Clarissa Dalloway. But pulling that off requires prodigious reportorial stamina, capacious insight, and darned good literary chops. It’s much easier to take your subject’s description of what he or she was thinking and just drop it in the piece, surrounded by quotation marks. In a Smith piece, you rarely see a quote until the backstretch, when he’s got his narrative hooks into you and can afford to plunk in some background info via direct testimony.

It’s a great act, if you can pull it off — but can you? Smith spends the best part of three months working on a single story — a luxury that is increasingly rare in today’s world, where journalists are lucky if they get three hours. In his piece, Achenbach underlines the conundrum:

The sages say that we’ve reached a situation where “content creation” no longer pays. Only “aggregation” is profitable. It’s a freak variant of Darwinism — the survival of the parasitic. But obviously there will be little of value to aggregate if only rich people and dilettantes can afford to type up their thoughts.

Even the TV industry faces a serious story deficit. Those prime-time police and hospital dramas cost a lot of money to make. Not so expensive, however, is Jay Leno walking out and doing a monologue. That’s one reason he’s moved to 10 p.m., five nights a week. (The most compelling stories on TV are now those crafted by reality-show producers who stitch together a narrative of who’s backstabbing whom in pursuit of a prize. It’s all in the editing.)

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

Very expensive — but someone needs to have the vision to foot this bill, if narrative journalism of the highest class is not to die out altogether. Somewhere in the rush of ‘deadlines’ and ‘instant news’, we seem to have forgotten the journalist’s real job description — the best definition of which I once found in the preface to the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics [at a Poynter seminar on journalism in 2003, Pulitzer winner Tom French recommended this to me as one of the best how-to books on journalism I’d ever find — and it turned out he was right]:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

Update (May 6, 2014):

This is how SL Price, no slouch in the sportswriting business, greeted the news of Smith’s retirement:

It’s no exaggeration to say that every sportswriter of a certain ambition and age — let’s say from 20 to 70 — has had a Gary Smith moment. This is not fun. What starts as excitement soon becomes a swirl of puzzlement, awe and surprise; the frantic fluttering of pages forward and back; the parsing of sentences like so much Kremlinalia; some involuntary, half-baked blurts like, “How did he…?” and “Why did no one else…?” — and all of it leads back to you, you sorry bastard, and how you’re never, ever going to write a story like that, so what were you thinking getting into this business in the first place?

Yeah, exactly. Journalists — including but not confined to those who scribble on sport — go through that cycle, that starts with wanting to be Gary Smith, to knowing you can inhabit the same planet as him and, from that point of self-awareness, contenting ourselves with reading each successive story of his with slack-jawed admiration.

Price, in his post quoted from above, links to many of Price’s greatest hits; the one you find referenced most often is Lying In Wait, Smith’s 2002 profile of American football coach George O’Leary.

Why is this piece so good? James Ross Gardner, whose byline has starred in Esquire and GQ among others, and who works for the Seattle Met magazine, attempted to answer this question on behalf of Neiman Storyboard — and inter alia, points at the secret sauce that makes Smith primus inter pares among non-fiction writers:

We may as well begin the way Gary Smith begins – with a question, and near the end. Why is it that when you finish reading “Lying in Wait,” Smith’s 2002 profile of coach George O’Leary, you feel the impact so strongly? And by feel I mean physically feel. It will be different for everyone, but it hits me somewhere in the throat.

I do know that sensation is why, when asked about my favorite nonfiction writers, I rarely mention Gary Smith. I suspect I’m not alone. Listing Gary Smith comes with the obligation of explaining why Gary Smith. And anyone who’s been affected by his stories in Sports Illustrated – about coaches flattened by cancer, say, or an integrated high school team during segregation – knows that the pieces are hard to describe, that by the time you reach the end you’re emotionally drained but unable to articulate why. So I’ll talk about Tom Wolfe’s explosive sentences or David Grann’s knack for plot twists or John Hersey’s masterful pacing. But I’ll hardly ever refer to the guy at the top of my list, and that, I suppose, is a lie of omission.

Yeah. We often omit Smith’s name when listing our favorite writers, because it is beyond our ability to articulate just what it is about his writing that is par excellence. So we are content to toss in a few links to a subjective selection of his best work, season those links with a few superlatives, and leave it at that. This is what Ben Yagoda did in 2003, when Smith won the National Magazine Award for non-fiction. (Correction: …when Smith won one of his many NMA awards, I should have said: He has won it four times, which is a record; he was finalist a further 10 times, which is another record.) Here is Yagoda (Emphasis mine):

Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he’s the best magazine writer in America. The only injustice is that, outside the small world of editors who vote for the National Magazine Awards and the even smaller subset ofSports Illustrated readers who pay attention to bylines, he is a nobody.

Part of Smith’s obscurity is explained by his subject matter, which some view as having negligible importance. Yet such sports scribes as John Feinstein and Smith’s SIcolleagues Frank Deford and Rick Reilly have spectacularly higher profiles. (Reilly’s new monograph Who’s Your Caddy? was No. 3 last week on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; Smith’s only book, a collection of articles called Beyond the Game, ranks 280,343 on Amazon’s list.) No, the real reason lies in his attributes as a writer, all of which go counter to powerful prevailing trends in journalistic writing: He favors obscurity over fame, complexity over simplicity, and humility over literary showmanship.

The New York Times headlined a 2008 piece on him The Sports Whisperer; Jon Friedman called him, simply, America’s Best Magazine Writer (and that is fair enough — after all, that simple declarative headline says all that needs saying).

Here is Gary Smith himself, on empathy and getting inside the skin of his subjects — and this should be mandatory reading for every person aspiring to be a journalist:

To become a longform writer and to kind of immerse yourself in different worlds, it’s almost like a double-railed track. Not only do you grow as a writer, but that other rail of the track is huge. Part of it is something you’re developing – some sense of self, getting a little more at ease in your own flesh and bones. So much of what happens in the interactions between you as the writer and the subject hinges on their trust in you, their confidence in you. And so much of that hinges on how comfortable you are. Any uneasiness you bring is going to cost you dearly.

….

As you’re walking as an outsider into these worlds all the time, how comfortable are you in doing that? If they feel your uneasiness, how easy are they going to feel about handing you their most intimate stuff to write about?

There’s almost an equivalence to that interaction, so the more they sense that you’re really there just to understand rather than judge is huge in how much they’re going to start giving … When you’re more relaxed, you listen, and you’re ready to flow with what’s being said and to hear something that’s sparking off three or four other questions in your mind. It’s because your mind is more relaxed; it’s not tense and tight and worried about getting that next question on your checklist.

Smith was once asked what he wanted his stories to do. This is what he said:

To make readers think about life and about themselves and why human beings do what they do.

PS: All these laudatory pieces I linked to above? Their real worth is in the embedded links to some of Gary Smith’s greatest work — discover, and enjoy. And while on that, editors and writers pick their favorites from the Smith oeuvre — and the result is writing gold.