obituary (oʊbɪtʃuəri, US-ʃueri): Someone’s obituary is an account of their life and character which is printed in a newspaper or broadcast soon after they die.
No, this piece isn’t only about obituaries. However, an obituary is a good place to begin talking about the end, especially those of public luminaries. They must, however, involve or make way for some critical evaluation of the deceased.
Such evaluation will obviously lead to varying conclusions for different people. After all, a Nelson Mandela’s balance sheet at the moment of his ultimate objective truth would obviously differ from a P Shanmugham’s, who died the same year. (Googling Shanmugham right now won’t change things.)
Yet, evaluate we must. However, in India, even rivals and critics of the deceased—even those with deep domain knowledge and inside information—rarely make such an effort. The lesser said about “seasoned” journalists, opinion makers, and friends (often journalists themselves), the better.
All that we seem to be stuffed with via the country’s traditional and new-age media are encomiums, nostalgia, and a whole lot of nauseating self promotion. The higher the late individual’s position in circles of power, the more cringe-worthy the tributes.
This may be fine when you are fan-boying/girling over a movie star. (Disclosure: I’ve indulged, too). Being starry-eyed about politicians and statesmen, though, takes a special kind of sanskar (culture). Taking a hard-nosed view of someone’s decades-long public life is somehow indecent, according to this norm. The implication being that a critical evaluation has to be inevitably nasty.
In India, this “culture” or “decency” is quickly rendered indistinguishable from cheesy attempts at appropriating the deceased as a close associate or even friend.
Many such egregious instances were on display over the past weekend following the passing of former Indian finance minister Arun Jaitley on Aug. 24.
News consumers have been treated to flowery eulogies, including a few exceptionally jarring ones, by former colleagues, political opponents, editors, technocrats. This is a spread that rivals Jaitley’s now well-known gastronomic indulgences that most of these writers claim to have partaken of. At least one of the immediate reactions on social media was a virtual admissions of playing pet poodle, but then, that’s another story altogether.
It is a measure of Jaitley’s networking success that hardly anyone mentioned the state he had left the Indian economy in. The exceptions only proved the rule and still couldn’t bring themselves to mention the term “crisis.” Even the prime minister’s former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian could muster only a vague passing reference to it—and that, too, at the very end of his piece:
But we also mourn for ourselves, conscious that his sharp mind, sober head, and restraining hand will forever be unavailable as India navigates its uncertain economic and political future.
Another recent example is that of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the late chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. A tidal wave of panegyrics followed her passing in December 2016, many referring to her as “Iron Lady” or even “Iron Butterfly,” probably for her dictatorial streak and political tenacity. Suddenly, hardly anyone was talking about the millions of rupees she and her accomplices were accused of embezzling. Today, nobody wants to remember that only a few weeks after her death, the supreme court of India found her closest aides guilty in a disproportionate assets case. Jayalalithaa escaped being incarcerated only because she was dead.
There could be scores of other examples, beginning right from the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, to its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to more recent examples like former foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Most writers of such articles usually take anticipatory bail by calling their write-ups “personal tributes” or couching them in apolitical terms. Only because nobody wants to refer to the substantial issues that the dead person left behind. Doing that, after all, would stoke the embers—inefficiency, duplicity, bullheadedness, corruption.
These, after all, are expected to be overshadowed by a carefully cultivated public persona, conveniently and relentlessly invoked after death.
Obituaries in India: Attended durbar, joined morning walks, ate golgappas.
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