Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The pianist

The pianist, a quiet man from Washington, contemplated what he would do after he gave up what he was born to do. Greying, slowing, he no longer relegated tasks to the future, when he would be greyer, slower. He was born to old parents who gave him the opportunity to be still and read, and through these books he learned that men a thousand years ago were no different from those today. In time, after he was alone a long while, and after his professional ambitions began to fade, he saw the dreams his passions had obscured. The pianist took to travel, looking for answers to questions that were never clear. He traversed the quietest parts of this country, moving between places where people found enlightenment, hoping to be inspired. There had been no inspiration so far, only a faint realization that his life was enviable, even as it came to a close. Men who helped him get around told him so, and he began to see the walls that separated these men from the lives they could lead. The force of this desire made him reconsider what he was doing, and how he was doing it.

But there's still the future to think of, he said, lighting up a cigarette on a musty morning in Goa. There are things he wants to do, but these are tempered by things he has to do. Right now, he has to play the piano.

Then he shrugged, and smiled, and did what men a thousand years ago did: he filed the dilemma for later.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why they left

Last Sunday, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, Samanth Subramanian, and I caught up.

As an aside, one of the things I'm irrationally proud of - don't ask why - is that Samanth edited the first article of my professional writing life. He had been at Cricinfo a while, and I was three days old there. He went through it at the speed the web demands, adding a word here, removing one there, rejigging a couple of paragraphs, before reaching the last line. Here he paused, reading it again and again, before writing this over it in one thirty-second burst:

Farhat's dismissal brought Inzamam-ul-Haq to the crease, and he scored a quickfire 25 in his 300th one-day international to set the tone for the late-innings savagery. Youhana's 53-ball 64 and Razzaq's 34 off just 16 balls merely drove the nails more thunderously into the coffin of this depleted New Zealand outfit.

I don't remember what I had written, but the way he wrote these lines did. After he was done, he felt compelled to say something about good beginnings and satisfying endings. This was my first taste of the uncluttered thinking that added to Cricinfo's aura. In time I'd come to learn of Tim de Lisle's legendary stylebook - 'colour is good', I think he wrote - why adjectives were discouraged, and other things I can't remember, but which live on in the writing style of nearly everyone who moved on from Cricinfo (except for Rahul Bhattacharya, who came and went with his own style).

But ten days after I joined, Samanth left and, by dint of being present, I became a full employee. I was thankful for the job, but didn't really bother finding out why he left. In the years since then, while I worked there, I knew that Chandrahas left to explore a wider world, while Amit wanted to focus on blogging. It's difficult to explain how seismic this was. Sure, we talked about how there were more distractions for Indians today, and yes, a casual survey did tell us that football was more popular in city schools than cricket, and that is why people were stepping away from the game. These reasons explained dwindling audiences, they explained falling ratings. But now, when I think about it, these were probably things we felt by ourselves. That the more frequent games became, the lesser was the anticipation. The more they marketed each game, the less we listened to the personal rhythms that connect sport lovers spread over continents. Cricket thrived, and still does, but I'd argue that it is no longer the medium for its writers' passions that it once was. Siddhartha Vidyanathan continues to write about the sport beautifully, but he does this outside the fold. No Zimbabwe versus Bangladesh matches for him. Rahul has turned to exploring quieter worlds. Amit, who brings scary intensity to everything he does, now challenges himself in other ways.

All this is connected to Sunday. When the discussion veered to cricket writing, Samanth said he left because - and I'm phrasing this very loosely - he didn't want to hate the game. Now, writing this, I realize he felt it change before most of us did. Like the writers who came after him, he left it because he loved the idea of it too much. It would be funny if it wasn't true.

Why this post, why now? I guess I'm grappling with something new - the idea that writing seriously in India requires sacrifice and a degree of risk-taking. Looking at Cricinfo and its writers helps. They put themselves in a new place because they couldn't completely believe in the old one. I can't think of a better reason to leap.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The phantom leap

Eight days short of six years ago, when there was time for internal dialogue, I wrote this. Many things have changed since, but the conflicts present in the last paragraph have remained. There have been growing responsibilities, and a greater awareness of the consequences of each choice. And yet the conflicts don't go away. Even after six years of learning, of working toward something, of hopefully becoming a slightly better writer. That phantom leap still lingers, waiting for me to decide. Each choice is brave and yet cowardly; the secure path leads to a warm life, and the one I haven't taken could be miserable.

But I live and breathe my stories in a way I can't explain. Not to you, or my bosses, or my family, or even myself. The last story I explored and wrote with passion - even if it doesn't come across - was the longest I had ever written and, I asked myself after a month: "Still not one comment?" The story took three weeks to research, and a week to write. Then came another story, about the Oscar Library, which I wrote because I had to fill a weekly deadline. I wrote it in an hour. I spent the next two days in a terrible funk, because it was terrible. And I'm still surprised how many people liked it.

So at what point does one take that leap? I'm still grappling with it. When I wrote 25, 35, 45, I genuinely didn't know how life would turn out. At 31, the answer is no clearer, but the choices, and their consequences, certainly are.

I guess knowing how you're going to be screwed is a kind of progress.