Monday, April 12, 2010

This bit on the obit

The eulogies on the fallen “vat vriksha” of Nepali politics, Girija Prasad Koirala, unleashed torrents of emotions over the past few weeks. For media gatekeepers, Koirala’s death proved beyond measure. Some in the newsrooms were left with only a reference to the past: Did he get as much, if not more coverage compared to Ganesh Man Singh, Madan Bhandari, and King Birendra?

Now the waves of emotions have subsided, I can safely return to GPK’s obituary, one true measure of journalistic sensibility displayed in mediating the big story.

Remarkably, perhaps because we do not in essence identify with the Western tradition of obituaries, and actually we also do not have a proper Nepali term for obituary, GPK’s death yielded only a few obits formally designated as such. Those were appraisal obits, or in other words, essays that explored his impact and legacy.

Appearing under prominent bylines, the essays added perspective, insight and knowledge on GPK’s public career. For example, surveying the highs and the lows of the veteran leader, Kanak Mani Dixit unsheathed his characteristic “to-be-sure” approach in his piece, laid within the South Asian plot (Republica, March 22). Others were more particular about the local machinations of the ever-protruding leader. Most evenhanded accounts saw in his death a withering of the middle ground on the slippery slope of Nepali politics and power.

Yet, the individual obits left much to be desired: Most seemed too focused on his political career and infused little personal details, including his social and family life. In one instance, even the cause of his death, beside the age factor was omitted (the why, a vital question in journalism).

Unless journalists give cues, identify the story type, and amplify its importance, readers and viewers will have little incentive to notice, process or retain a story for what it is.

An obit has a special place in journalism. It offers the promise that you only have to read one complete, authentic story to break through the seemingly unending echo-chamber of eulogistic, euphemious news and commentary on the deceased, famous or ordinary, exalted or lowly. It is the kernel of the entire journalistic outpouring. It saves your time. It saves your mind.

In GPK’s case, journalistic resources, often rolled out in parallel by competing media houses, were spent on transmitting more of the same, especially on broadcast outlets.

The Indian media too, was spreading the word. Although newspapers eschewed euphemisms, pegging the story to Koirala’s India ties and “what next” at their backyard, they, too carried only a few stories designated as obits. These included wires such as the PTI, IANS, and some regional newspapers. The Hindu ran a reprint of the Republica obit by Dixit as opinion/news analysis. I was hoping to read one in the Times of India, which does occasionally publish obits, but it is yet to do it. I have only come across bits and pieces of breaking news accounts.

In contrast, leading publications from England and America, including The Guardian, The Times (London), The Economist, Time, The New York Times, did clearly label the story as “obituary”, whether written in the form of news accounts, features or impressionistic pieces. The much-awaited one, which was reportedly assigned some years back, appeared in The Guardian. Written by John Whelpton, it’s a biography in a capsule with factual details around pivotal experiences and impact, just as an obit in the West is supposed to be.

However, without justice to the principles of the construct, emphasizing accuracy, perspective and sensitivity, an obit as a news slot alone does not offer much substance. And for the Western media, they must also have been culturally handicapped in writing about GPK. Frames for the obits were often drawn from the Indian parlance and pronouncements. Worse, inaccuracies, the most embarrassing errors of journalism, cropped up now and then. The Economist’s flagship weekly obit column (March 27) is a case in point (“four terms” as prime minister after 1990, none of his premiership lasted “much more than a year”). Otherwise a candid piece focusing mostly on his faults, it failed to acknowledge some of his outstanding contributions to democratic reforms.

The Times (“Baran Yadav”, “R P Koirala”) described GPK as born in Bihar, to a Nepali father, leaving the readers to wonder if his mother was Indian. The New York Times too could not escape the “where” trap; it ran a correction: Mr. Koirala was born in “Bihar, not Biratnagar.” So much so that even Whelpton, apparently a Nepal expert, left some scars in The Guardian piece (Koirala, “aged 85”, and “Pushpa Kumar Dahal”, twice, for example). Some others reported he was 86. Yet others reported he was 87.

Despite such lapses, the Western publications still offer us a stable choice of the obit genre. Since an obit as a special, integral story is rare in Nepal, we can’t meaningfully relate GPK’s obits with news coverage of other prominent deaths in the past. However, for any such reference, we may turn to other traditions. The New York Times, for instance, ran obits for Nepal’s national leaders, including Mahendra (Jan 31, 1972) and BP Koirala (July 22, 1982).

In the US, where commerce and culture reinforce the way of life, obits are a multi-million dollar business. Regional newspapers, often with a full time obit writer, publish annually over a thousand paid and regular obits on important or less-than-important people. An obit is often the first beat assigned to test a novice journalist. The initiation of J-school entrants also begins with obit writing. Because the dead subject cannot be reached for verification, students in this process try to grasp and internalize the seriousness and subtlety of the news business.

In Nepal, it is a given for reporters to begin their job by covering political speeches. They are thrust into the whirlpool even before they are offered the opportunity to contemplate the seriousness of (public) life. With the exception for the most powerful and famous, obits, or rather tributes and eulogies, are largely relegated to paid “sambedana” placements and their volume seems to be on the rise, largely because of the increased ad spending capacity of the bereaved middle-class.

Thus, our organizing principle for post-death media mourning seems to be less structured, and amorphous. Perhaps it reflects us as a society and culture in general; we don’t normally draft a will, or earn an epitaph; we leave our deeds behind, often unrecorded, and vanish into ashes. Things may change, though, as our media will learn to shine more spotlight on ordinary people, and celebrate the lives they lived, if not for culture, then for a niche market.

Published in Republica, April 11, 2010