The art of writing an obituary

By Suresh Pattali

The first obituary I wrote was in 1977. It was a one-liner. “I lost my best friend; dad died last week.” The succinct expression of loss — in squiggly Malayalam letters scribbled in black — floated in a sea of agony on the air mail envelope addressed to my uncle at his Colombo address.

Much later, a job on the newsdesk opened a floodgate of obits as and when celebrities hung up their boots on life. Some tugged at my heartstrings. Some were comedic, putting fun in funeral. Some made me sit up and brood over the frailties of life. Some kept me in awe, forcing a rethink on life as a whole. Some rare ones opened my eyes to how one life could touch millions of others in the world. Death made me believe, over and again, life is so beautiful!

There have always been debates in a newsroom on how to write an obit. There are no rules of thumb or primers in this case. Obits flow from the heart. If I were to exit today, this is probably how Clarence, Rajeev Nair or Yazad would have made an attempt at writing my obit. Rather, I would have wished them to:

Peekay, as he was known among the Bombay breed of oldie journos, died in the newsroom. That’s no news per se. But at the “AM” meeting next day, an editorial post-mortem report said he was news-phyxiated by a late-night copy punctuated with a slew of oxymorons.

Seven days short of 35 years in various newsrooms around the world should have been soul-filling enough, yet Peekay died a sad fella. Death in the newsroom is what everyone who knew him would have prayed for the good old pal. A few of the last friends standing claimed Peekay was deprived of his final wish, which was to call it quits while he could still mouth the British spelling of ‘manoeuvre’ in one breath, and launch a water hole headlined Front Page, where the waiters would be designated subs and the chefs, reporters. Peekay would have placed himself behind the cashpoint, where he would run a BPO office dealing in headlines for local newspapers. He nursed the dream of making a killing from the “happy headline hours” dedicated to desperate subs, with an offer of “buy two and get one on the house”.

There were also these in the meanwhile friends who claimed Peekay died a hilarious death. For the newsroom was where he seemed to be at peace with himself and at his witty best. He loved breaking news, racy headlines, a desk full of brassy girls, and a basket full of thick-cut skin-on fried potato wedges served with a bubbly drink in a seaside pub. Not necessarily in that order. Having headlined Weinstein several times, Peekay had anyway forfeited his right to be coquettish.

In an age of journalistic self-deception, Peekay would be remembered for philosophising the newsroom. After putting the edition to bed, he embraced the tranquil moments left behind by the scribes in a hurry. “An empty newsroom is like a deserted beach past midnight,” Peekay once said. Protagonists of the day’s news breaks sat around him on the beach. Kim Jong-un farted; Trump fumed; Tharoor chilled. Mrs Gandhi and Olof Palme cried on his shoulder. He felt the pain of the 33 Chileans trapped in the San Jose gold mine. Still every night, Peekay waited for another gold mine to collapse; for another bomb to explode; for another Palme to die. Yesterday, it was his turn. Fair game!

Peekay belonged to the gaggle of journos who came of age in the 1980s when the Indian media was dominated by Tamils, Malayalis, Goans or Bengalis. They weren’t Xavierites or King Georgeans. Still, in the hot seat were some Iyer, Menon, Crasto, or Gupta. Treading on tradition, the Tagore Memorial School, a Malayalam medium institution operating out of a thatched shed, launched Peekay into the orbit of eclectic talents in Bombay. Rest is the same old story of passion, perseverance, hard work and unleaded sincerity.

In the Bombay newsroom, the upcountry boon rubbed shoulders with the Malabar Hill crowd and had had his first crack at speaking English. While the elite colleagues dined at the Tulsiani Chambers on a daily basis, Peekay and Ramesh Iyengar sat by the roadside shrubbery and shared the chapathi the fellow intern’s sister-in-law packed with considerable amount of love. From the monthly pay of 600 rupees, they kept half and sent the rest to their mums.

Peekay was one of those ‘resident journos’ who slept on the newsdesk, paper sheets stapled together keeping him warm as the sea breeze slammed into the Nariman Point reclamation. The clattering sound of teleprinters resonating in the quiet of the night offered a lilting lullaby, different “instruments” playing different notes. Flashes of news were signalled by 12 bells on AP machines and 10 bells on UPI’s. In the mornings, miles of scrolling papers churned out by the bulky boxes slithered around the floor. And one of those mornings, when Mrs Gandhi was felled by a volley of bullets, they cloned the alert umpteen times:

Our prime minister is no more, it is feared.

Our prime minister is no more, it is feared.

Our prime minister is no more, it is feared.

Those were the days when Linotype machines powered newspapers around the world. For Peekay, it was love at first sight with the machine that Thomas Edison called the Eighth Wonder of the World. The jungle of tall Linotypes, with clings of metal rising over the news tickers, marooned Peekay in the world of Print for the rest of his life. Every night he emerged from the typesetting room like a zombie staggering out of a coal mine, his skin and clothes soiled in black ink. Those were the days when a sub-editor was a second class citizen in the pre-press, where foreman Satymurthi shouted, “You go, we’ll do the cutting and putting.” In the pre-press, commas went under the knife to become full stops. 

Those were the days when journalism was synonymous with fun and pun. “Iron hand on hoarders” was printed as “Iran hand on hoarders”. The feathers flew the whole day, yet Goenka pardoned chief-sub Ranga. A benign typo transformed “public” into malignant anatomic jargon, yet Bennet, Coleman decided to keep the sub. For bloomers were part of the game. Every time AC Menon shouted, “Go sell peanuts,” it only fattened their faith in themselves. Every time Virendra Kapoor threw a Wren and Martin, and every time Nihal Singh shouted to stop the “Babu English,” it only deepened their love for the language. They butchered, rewrote and re-pitched every story, till they shone like a gem. Even Khushwant Singh wasn’t spared. With the passing of Peekay, the sun has set on that golden era of the Print.

Peekay read The Old Man and the Sea at bedtime. It was his bible. Rest of his life, he was a battle-hardened fighter like Hemingway’s fisherman. When the tides of technology wiped out age-old habits and methods in the profession, Peekay and Co swam with the stream. They had learned from the Bolsheviks that to resist was not the way forward. No blood was spilled. They became willing partners in the making of history. They unlearned the old to relearn the new. They embraced the revolution that swept through the industry, progressing from Lino to computers; galley proofs to bromides; teletypes to online feeds; print to television; web to social media; and finally from news to fake news. Today we are mourning the passing of the fisherman of journalism.

Even as he flirted with the Web, the Print stayed at his heart. It was a lifelong affair. He was a foot soldier of the Print who vehemently fought to safeguard the queen of the media. Peekay would have preferred a shower of ticker tapes on his last journey to the cemetery of Lino and Print veterans. He would have preferred one of his students to read the psalms of articles and prepositions from Wren and Martin as his mortal remains were spooled for the last edition. He still wouldn’t have forgiven those who believed English is a smorgasbord of words arranged on a platter with a smattering of articles sprinkled randomly.

Peekay, Godspeed for any plans to bring out The Heavenly Times from the county of the blessed. We are looking forward to your LinkedIn ad — in the meanwhile. Oops!

NB: Peekay is survived by this obituary and a WhatsApp full of Front Page PDFs.

Suresh is Senior Editor. His philosophy
is heavily influenced by Ulysses

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