Rest In Press (R.I.P.)

An exercise in contemporary history, obituary writing in India is yet to earn its spurs in the media space.

The quick succession in which a number of known names have passed away also means a spate of obituaries in the print and online space. Within a short span of a month, obituaries are pouring forth with high frequency as wrestler-turned-actor Dara Singh joins noted bureaucrat Abid Hussain and ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan for an unknown destination (or no destination at all). And that too when the Indian media cares least about carrying obituaries of personalities beyond national boundaries, except occasional favours shown to deaths of global notables. If the dead had an India chapter in their lives, the Indian media gets more generous with space or air-time marked for their obituaries.

To state the obvious, media doesn’t owe the aam aadmi like us any right to an obituary. That doesn’t stop us from imagining what a few people, who are known to us, will say about us when we are no more. This thought also crosses the minds of “obituary worthies”. You can bet on formidable candour from the grand old man of letters, Khushwant Singh, to tell you that he is actually curious to find out how flattering or uncharitable his obituary would be.

Interestingly, he finds an obituary to be as effective a posthumous ego-booster as his book launches in the twilight of his life. The man has come out with a new book, and you might remember what he said when Oxford University Press published the 2004 edition of his 1963 classic, A History of the Sikhs, and even wrote about it four years later in 2008: “‘Being published by the Oxford University Press is like being married to a duchess; the honour is somewhat greater than the pleasure’, said a writer who had made the grade. I am pleased with myself because it has provided me with a harem of three duchesses.”

But the man’s morbid fascination with obituaries continues, as does his obsession with death.

Moving beyond the “malice towards one and all” man, obituaries are an interesting part of the media narrative on those personalities who leave a mark on our times. In the process, some obituaries leave a mark themselves and become a part of history. So did Pandit Nehru’s “The light has gone out” address to the nation on All India Radio after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on 30 January, 1948. Though not an obituary in the proper sense of the term (more of a public eulogy), Nehru’s address was a cathartic as well as introspective expression of the mood of the nation in those sombre moments. Listen to the first few lines of Nehru’s emotion choked, yet statesman like reflection, that too extempore.

As a genre, obituaries are still to come of age in the pages of Indian newspapers and news magazines. There are flashes of good obituary writing in print now and then. But there are two clear signs of roadblocks in its evolution.

One, the editorial decisions on whose deaths to reflect upon (and whom to leave to rest in peace) and the consistency in carrying obituaries have been quite arbitrary. So you may find some deaths oversized in their presence with a host of writers as well as edits commenting on the end of a remarkable life, while others are quite conspicuous in their absence from the reams. The defining lines of the regional-national press and English-language press divide also seem sometimes blurred and sometimes not-so-blurred in context of whose obituaries to expect where.

For instance, almost all English newspapers had a number of pieces on Abid Hussain when the eminent bureaucrat passed away recently (on June 21, 2012), while the national Hindi space didn’t consider it beyond a news item. There was a veritable absence of his life and death in the pages of the Hindi press. Juxtapose this with the number of obituaries which were published in the national English press when an an internationally known Hindi novelist and satirist, Shrilal Shulka passed away (on October 28, 2011). In sharp contrast to a few short obituaries of the writer in English press, the Hindi print space reflected at greater length on the life and times of the legendary writer.

So, beyond a few iconic commons of popular culture and national politics, do English and Hindi press have different set of deaths to deal with?

There is another aspect which can’t get unnoticed in this regard. Newsmagazines in India don’t have a regular obituary column for each week/ fortnight/ month. Having that could give them greater space for consistently chronicling the life and times of distinguished people who passed away in the corresponding period. It is significant to note that the regular obituary column in The Economist is the one which many of its readers look forward to reading each week. That’s quite cruel an expectation to have, but the newsmagazine as well as its readers have made allowance for the certainities of nature and time in no uncertain terms.

Also, media houses have still not seen the emergence of quality in-house obituary writers. Sometimes for reasons of expertise and personal bonds and sometimes by default, obituaries are mostly outsourced. Obituary writing is still waiting to earn its spurs in media space. Obituaries get etched in your memory for a variety of reasons – the perspectives which they bring to the life, times and work of the person, personal narratives bordering on engaging biographical account and fair assessment, acecdotes that define some traits of the person, and the list can go on. But historiographical value is something that an obituary should be aware of, and that’s the point that Peter Utley was making when he said: “An obituary should be an exercise in contemporary history, not a funeral oration”.

Judging by those yardsticks, one name that you can associate with prolific as well as qualitative writing of obituaries in mainstream press is that of former diplomat and former Union External Affairs Minister, K Natwar Singh. Having the vantage point of being a witness to post-independence political history and gifted with erudition, perspectives and a way with the words, he has written a lot of authoritative obituaries of eminent national figures. Of late, public intellectual and leading columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta can be credited with writing one of the most insightful obituaries which has appeared in English Press. Sample the obituary he wrote in The Indian Express two days after the death of Abid Hussain.

In the Hindi media space, Jansatta’s executive editor Om Thanvi wrote an obituary of Mehdi Hassan that would stay with you, and you may also recall it whenever you listen to Mehdi Hassan again.

Pardon me a philosophical flourish, but can’t resist saying that death is the clearest expression of the absurdity of life. For some lives lived in the public sphere, obituaries are exercises in making sense of those lives and times in which they lived. Good obituaries elevate the banal incidence of death to humanise the journalistic narrative of the times. Your papers and magazines are doing that, few and far between. More lives need to revisited. More stories told. Some sense to be made.

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