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Monday, September 27, 2021

The devastation caused by Covid calls for a reinvention of the obituary

Amrita Dutta writes: As the pandemic continues, we must write the ‘little histories’, so that a ‘big history’ may also be written along the way

Written by Amrita Dutta |
Updated: July 28, 2021 7:51:05 am
At a crematorium in New Delhi (Express photo/Tashi Tobgyal)

Seven years before he died, I chanced upon folders of obituaries of five-time West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu in a boxy computer in the Calcutta newsroom I worked in. I don’t remember much, barring an anecdote about the unsmiling Marxist’s annoyance at a jackal that would not let him sleep at night. Death and deadline, then and now — the few certainties of this profession.

In the months since the pandemic began, my colleagues and I have written, commissioned and edited numerous obituaries. Those who went too soon, others who were not deceived by time. Not all of these deaths were due to Covid-19. But they have felt part of a greater, relentless toll.

Most journalists on an obit deadline dwell little on the fact of death. They are keener on the right anecdote, the elegant line. “I think of the obituary as a celebration of life,” said Ann Wroe, the obituaries editor for The Economist, known for immersive portraits of politicians, generals, singers, actors — and once England’s most famous fish.

In death’s departure, the defiance of the living is that we look back — by staging a life in 1,000 words, by re-telling the singular joys and quirks of a person’s life. An obit of Marcel Proust told us “that his apartment in Paris was lined throughout with cork in an ineffectual attempt to keep out the uproar of the noisiest city in the world.” Obituaries spiky with criticism — even malice — are important. They are antidotes to easy pieties, and return us to the messiness of life.

But journalistic detachment, or the pleasure of a good copy, is harder when you are as much a part of an unfolding tragedy as those you write on. When you have stayed up in dread at the sound of ambulance sirens, when you have lost friends and family, when the writing has been knocked out of you by fear. “What is this day!” one of us exclaimed recently, on a day bludgeoned by news of the deaths of Surekha Sikri, Gautam Benegal and Danish Siddiqui.

In the early months of the pandemic last year, the obituary had felt like an intimate, consoling genre. It made space for the sorrow that had become heavy and inarticulate with isolation. As eyes used to the glare of day learn to see the shades of twilight, it made us aware of a shared mortality, otherwise a blur in our frenzied everyday.

Last year, as the Covid toll mounted, newspapers in the West commissioned obits of “ordinary people”, and not just public figures, who died of Covid-19 — a way to comprehend the scale of an exponential tragedy. The New York Times series “Those we have lost” ran till June this year, profiling 500 Covid-19 victims. “They stood in for the staggering number of victims whose lives we could not possibly recount,” said series editor Daniel Wakin.

Who have we in India lost? In Gujarat, pages and pages of paid death notices in local newspapers became a way for journalists to question the official death toll. The debate over undercounting Covid deaths is an ongoing one — some estimates of excess deaths put India’s Covid-19 death toll near 4 million.

And yet, the dead — those we have lost —risk becoming a faceless plural, their humanity buried in statistics. The obituarist’s impulse — to remember and rescue a life from oblivion — is up against a brazen denial. The government’s reply in the Rajya Sabha that no states reported oxygen deaths anywhere in the country is just one example of how power is wielded against collective lived experience. There has been no acknowledgement — forget accountability — for the central and state governments’ brutal abandonment of citizens during the second wave. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has congratulated the chief minister of a state in which the Covid dead were flung into the Ganga or buried in the shallow sand on riverbanks for his “outstanding work” in dealing with the second wave.

Can the debate over excess mortality alone lead us to a reckoning, if we dare not speak of our excess grief? For, despite divisive politics and the fractures of caste and religion, this is the common ground we stand on — too many of us have died. Their obituaries unwritten. RJD MP Manoj Jha’s moving speech in the Rajya Sabha was a rare acknowledgement of this collective loss. The monsoon session, he reminded fellow parliamentarians, had opened with a listing of an unprecedented 56 obituaries. “Look for the figures in your own pain and loss,” he told the House.

It might be naïve to expect other politicians to follow Jha, to open up Parliament to a collective testimony of loss. Ordinary lives, we know, are worth little in this country. We have struggled to come to terms with memories of collective trauma such as the Partition, though we wield it easily as a weapon. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic led to 20 million deaths in the subcontinent and is scarcely remembered.

But language is a repository of collective life — and it finds a way to remember. In an essay last month in Anandabazar Patrika, Prajit Behari Mukhopadhyay recounted how the life of a popular Bengali ghost story was altered, every few decades, by the epidemics of cholera and the flu and the 1971 Bangladesh war. None of the iterations, however, dwells on sorrow or loss — it reveals the resilience of the collective.

Between devastation and resilience, though, lies the work of the memorialist. Perhaps, an artist such as Svetlana Alexeivich, who has forged literature out of collective memories, retrieved the “splintered truth” about war and trauma through countless interviews with “little people”, can show us the way. “In my books, these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it,” she said in her Nobel lecture. Will the obituarist listen?

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 28, 2021 under the title ‘Those we have lost’. amrita.dutta@expressindia.com

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