Monday, March 11, 2013

Feeling alive with obituaries

A month ago I was browsing through a roadside book shop in South Bombay and found a coverless book, among the pirated versions of diabetes-inducing young adult novels, titled The Economist Book of Obituaries. When told I bought it a well-meaning friend asked why I would be interested in reading 400 pages about various dead people. This blog is my answer to this friend. We all know what a dazzling fount of information the Economist newspaper (they call themselves that) is but my favourite part is the last page that is dedicated to an obituary.

Now these obituaries are so compassionate and level-headed that they just bring back the person, maudlin word alert, alive. Even if there’s a major death that happened in the same week, Economist has this knack of picking up the lesser known dead person. Obituaries Editor Ann Wroe writes in the preface that her predecessor Keith Colquhoun had a ‘soft spot’ for minor players. After all, she writes, “It is an unwritten law that the people in the morgue will never die. They achieve a kind of eternal life, getting wirier and stronger by the day… there is a story worth hearing in almost every life.”

Economist obituary is still in its teens as compared to the titans of Daily Telegraph, NYT and FT. In their heyday, pre-recession times, Western newspapers used to have an obituary desk where they would keep writing obituaries of living people and update it when they die. Some newspapers apparently have hundreds of obituaries ready. In journalistic parlance it’s called ‘pipeline’. It might sound morbid but it’s very serious journalism too. Imagine reading tomes and skewering the nooks and crannies of Internet to come up with those perfect one-thousand words that would encapsulate a person’s life, warts and all. It’s as much journalism as reporting from the trenches or the nation’s Parliament. Thus, it’s dismaying to see axe falling on the obituary desks across the world.

What really sets Economist’s obituaries gloriously apart are its fly-on-the-wall write-ups that are rarely hagiographic or demeaning and written in cracking language. In comparison, the other newspapers follow a sort of template, which works but sometimes a day’s deadline can be limiting (I use up my 20-articles-per-month limit in Daily Telegraph to read the obituaries).

Wroe writes about her process: “Obituaries Editor usually has no more than two days to research and write the piece. Speed reading becomes essential and the London library, conveniently around the corner, a godsend. Google, of course, helps too; but there is no substitute, I still find, for books. They allow the total immersion in a character that is necessary.” This is why reading about a dead person in Wikipedia bores me out of my skull. The personal touch is missing in this online Encyclopedia. Every day I‘m reading two obituaries from the fat book and savouring the language and empathy that Wroe and Colquhoun have infused their subjects with.

I’ve been told in India only the Hindu newspaper has a semblance of an obituary desk. If we are to give the dead their rightful due, the Indian newspapers too should start giving this form of journalism a shot in its arm, instead of letting the dead person’s confidante write a teeth-clenchingly sweet eulogy.

This looks like best time to plug my favourite novel on this topic: Pereira Declares. Written by the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi and set in Salazar-era Lisbon, the book’s about the eponymous character, who is an obituary writer and his assistant and how they subvert the dictatorship with his leftist ruminations on dead writers. If this doesn’t tickle any fancy within you to read well-rounded well-written obituaries, I’ll eat my trousers.