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Obituaries of haste

Heath Streak was a fine Zimbabwean cricketer who died young recently after completing 50 years in this transitory world. In a macabre reflection of where the media’s anticipatory tendencies have taken us, he was pronounced dead by a host of messengers weeks before the all-rounder actually breathed his last, his wife ultimately providing confirmation that the fighter of many a battle had succumbed to colon cancer.

The circumstances that led to a premature pronouncement of a final departure from the scene by a prominent individual in this case may be open to honest introspection. The truth however is that the keenness has been there since humans discovered the urge to be ‘the first’ amongst curious equals to discover and proclaim a piece of truth and then promptly spread it. Obituaries have often been described as being among the vital material that provide a newspaper its soul.

Before Heath Streak, there was this great actor in our neighbourhood who repeatedly fell to speculators in a hurry to confirm that he was, after all, mortal. And there may be so many other instances that will promptly come to your mind unveiling this most bizarre aspect of our every-day dealing with other human beings.

The death of a well-known figure bowing out from the worldly stage has to be reported in a manner that brings out the departing personality to the fore, in all its glory. Furthermore, if the formula of balance that is followed on other pages has to be applied here, the modern trend is to at least hint at the low points or controversies along the way.

There has long been a debate in English-language Pakistani newspapers about the terminology used in news stories about the death of well-known figures, the consensus about ordinary people being that they have to be killed to qualify for a newspaper mention. There is a strong desire among the knowledgeable and the more learned to follow the big publications in the past. Therefore, a truly progressive and rightly inspired editor would encourage the use of the simple and authoritative ‘someone is dead’ over the more local versions that try to pander to the cheap and linguistically backward phrases such as has passed away’ or ‘has breathed his last’

It is also normal for newspapers in Pakistan to follow the British model of preparing an obituary in anticipation of a death ‘feared imminently’. Some editors are more eager than others to keep their supply of obituaries current and running, but since even the most commanding of them cannot tell the future, their plans may often lead to strange situations.

Imagine the consternation and pain someone condemned to live perpetually in the grey zone must have had to endure when asked to write with finality about two stalwarts who, the grapevine and scientific scenarios suggested, were ‘on their way out’. Not only did both the subjects of ‘homage’ in this instance manage to stretch it out for a considerable period of time beyond the obituary-writer’s imagination, they outlasted the poor obituary author’s own term with the editor and his newspaper. The two write-ups never went to the press, since it has presumably been decided that as ‘personal’ pieces obituaries must carry the bylines of their creators.

Perhaps more accurately, the two obituaries were not up to the mark to begin (or end) with. In contrast, just imagine the frustration of a newsroom which had managed to secure a beautiful obituary about a living giant only to have the writer himself take an unscheduled and sudden exit from the proceedings. Indeed this was one moment which demanded the suspension of convention in favour of a befitting tribute to two brilliant personalities who were, sadly, not with us now.

There are people who would insist that one had to literally die to get the imagination of some writers running to a point where they could recreate a life. It was said about a most famous and very loveable journalist and Urdu writer that he needed (the sight of) blood to come up with his most moving pieces. Others, it can be argued, are good at building that emotional level inside, most notably by tactics such as flooding their narration with heavy adjectives to sustain gloomiest doomsday scenarios.

The habit is most visible in the way we analysts must paint our politicians one after another as having run the course of their (political) life. It is not just sufficient for us to observe that a Benazir, a Nawaz or a Khan may be passing through a tricky, tough, difficult phase in their politics. We must come up with the hurried epitaph of their politics. This is not where we end. In the true fashion of advance obituaries, we must next conclude the lethal dangers existing beyond their politics right down to their person.

Asha’ar Rehman, "Obituaries of haste," The News. 2023-09-09.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political rights , Politicians , Benazir , Zimbabwe , Pakistan