The death of the Obituary 

The death of the Obituary 

Marc Antony’s speech “Friends, Romans, countrymen, I come to bury Caesar not to praise him” in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a good reminder of the purpose of the obituary writer: to elicit all the shades of the character of the deceased, and that even an emperor like Caesar is human and flawed. Avoid the encomium, Antony seems to say, and allow for nuance. The point needs to be amplified in India.

Over the last months, a number of Indian and non-Indian public figures have passed away. M Karunanidhi, VS Naipaul, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Kofi Annan were among the notables. They got wide play in the international and national media. But their post-death appraisals demonstrated a difference in approach for the Indians vis-à-vis the non-Indians. 

Karunanidhi and Vajpayee got many hagiographies. Naipaul and Annan were not spared in the Indian and international press and social media. The late Khushwant Singh once said that the death of a person, let alone a public figure, did not put them above reproach.

The motto applied to him, too. During his life and after, he was pilloried for defending the Emergency, his proximity to the Congress party, his upholding the ban on Satanic Verses despite claiming to champion freedom of expression.

The same man poked fun at his community and others. He talked and wrote about sex and pornography in public. He criticised the Khalistan movement and justified Operation Bluestar. He got death threats for it. He was proud of his religious and national identity though he satirised them. Many Khushwant Singh obituaries, in India and abroad, captured the complexity of the man.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was subjected to withering criticism for his inactions prior to the Rwanda genocide of 1994. American journalist Philip Gourevitch and others reported on Annan and Rwanda in detail in the US press. After his death, Gourevitch brought up those points again in his piece in The New Yorker. Annan denied allegations of poor leadership till his last days. No appraisal of Annan can miss mentioning his relationship with Rwanda. Thus, nuance is at the heart of the obit. An obit means little without relevant but inconvenient facts. 

In death as in life, Naipaul got attacked the most. To many, his non-fiction was condescending towards the Third World; his fiction attacked the post-colonial countries as ‘half-made’ and its people as ‘mimics’ of the West. But Naipaul’s work and personality were an invitation to a confrontation. He wrote from the position of being a legatee of colonial damage.

Published in 2008, Patrick French’s authorised biography on Naipaul read like an obituary. Naipaul revealed the seamy sides of his personality: his inter-personal cruelties, his selfishness and his ability to “take it on the chin” and give it in kind. It’s not surprising he was so critical towards others when he was so unto himself. 

Is this fair?

Thus, what are we to make of the obits on Karunanidhi and Vajpayee or Jayalalithaa last year? Have they been treated with kid gloves? Does death condone the actions and writings of public figures? Should one be nice because they cease to exist and frankness may cause hurt to those close to them? Why does a Naipaul or Annan invite wrath while others get perorations?

The obits on Karunanidhi called him one of Tamil’s great scholars, a doyen of Dravidian politics. Fair enough. But through his political life, though he critiqued the first family of Congress, he mimicked those tendencies in his party. Nepotism and corruption charges stuck to him as much as his rivals.

For an anti-casteist leader, he had no problem joining the BJP-led NDA in 1999. How does this square with Karunanidhi’s apparent greatness? What about his populism? Many Karunanidhi obituaries buried these facts.

It got worse with Vajpayee. An academic in Bihar was beaten up for criticising him. Some pieces remembered Vajpayee himself being scathing about the reputations of living, dying, and dead public figures. Shouldn’t that courtesy have been extended to him, too?

Recall his position and speeches before the Ayodhya demolition in 1992 or the build-up to the press conference defending Narendra Modi in April 2002 in Goa? These facts are as significant as the nice things said about him. 

Public figures, like all human beings, are rarely angels or saints. Gandhi in his autobiography admits to having been a selfish husband and insensitive father. The Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal has superstar status in Marathi letters and Dalit politics. But his wife has written a searing account of having lived with him — his alcoholism and infidelity.

It’s well known that Tamil poet Subramanya Bharati gave a torrid time to his wife. Those accounts are as important as the encomia that float in public discourse. Death cannot be an excuse to stop critique. It should be the beginning.

(The writer is Assistant Professor at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University)

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