Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Three Page Obituary

Around this time of the year, every year, I get to catch up on postponed reading.

Things get quite busy at work by the time December is half gone. And then, like many others out there, Dhanno ki Amma and I, go off on our annual break. Then, there are things to catch up on, when the new year begins. Suddenly, around this time of the month, you feel that the year is not new any more -- when someone you forgot, wishes you a happy new year. And that ,somehow, rings a strange bell.

Someone I know, wished me a happy new year today.

And that, reminded me to pick up an old issue of The Economist from December -- to catch up on postponed reading. On the cover, is Mr. Narendra Modi, India's pretentious pretender to the peacock throne, which he will probably bring back, someday. A few months ago, I would have been excited to see him on the cover of my favorite magazine. But now that he is everywhere, all the time -- somewhat like Saddam Hussein in his heyday, or God almighty on a typical day, I was not so excited.

Over years of reading, one develops certain habits. When I was a child, and when my turn to read the newspaper came, I would invariably turn to the sports page first. It was only after I was reassured that my favorite sportsmen were hale and hearty, that I would turn to the front page. Many years later, when I took an interest in politics, the sequence was somehow reversed.

Nowadays, when I open an issue of The Economist, I always turn to the last page, which carries the obituary of a famous person who has recently passed on. I have no idea where I picked up this rather morbid fascination for obituaries -- perhaps, over the years, as one becomes more acutely aware of one's own destiny, one takes an interest in what people are remembered by.

In my opinion, The Economist employs the finest writers in the world, and they really are in their Sunday best, when they write the obituaries. If you don't believe me, you should perhaps read two of my favorites -- those of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution and our very own Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. In spite of the fact that these obituaries are top notch, what makes them stand out is that I have never seen them exceed the "standard" page length of one. Perhaps, I have missed an issue or two, when this rule was violated, but then, I tend to remember exceptions quite well.

Imagine my surprise then, when I saw that there was no obituary on the last page of the issue I was reading. And then, when I flipped a page back, I found that the Economist had published a three page obituary. Apparently, one makes an exception, when the departing soul belongs to Nelson Mandela.

Dhanno ki Amma and I still disagree on why Mr. Mandela was given this rare honor. She believes that if anyone deserved a three page obituary, it was him. I still think that what you can say in three pages -- is always said better,  in a single page. However, we both agree, that these obituaries belong right up there, with the Nobel prize, the Oscar -- and the Olympic gold medal.

What makes the economist obituaries more special, is that you never really know, if you will ever know, that you made it to the hallowed last page. Just being exceptional is not going to get you there, you have to be interesting. Now that word itself, deserves closer examination, when the readership consists mostly of economists, who are not famous for being interesting.

If you are an India, trying hard to be on that last page, you have to be someone like Sailen Manna, the famous footballer, or Captain Lakshmi Sehgal of the Indian National Army. Both obituaries, made me tear up the first time I read them. Deep down, in all of us, lies a man or a woman, who would like to be remembered -- not for the wealth or the fame that we earned, but for the things that we stood for, in the life that we lived. When I read these two obituaries for the first time, they made me wonder if the life I was living, was really the life that I would have liked people to remember me by.

Since making it to the last page of the economist is an "award", you have probably guessed by now that I am eventually going to write about which Indian, in my opinion, should get it. And why not, since we are already on that path?!

And this is where I bring in the "two and a half" sardars. God forbid that anything happens to my favorite two-and-a-half, but then, eventually, we all have to go, don't we? So, what's wrong with assessing the "suitability" of my favorite candidates for the hallowed "economist" page?!

I will start with the half sardar -- the angry young man of Indian cinema, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan.  I still remember the first movie that I ever saw with Dhanno. She was three months old then, and my wife was having a well deserved nap after handing her over to me. With her on my lap, I turned on the television, and found that the famous dacoit movie, Sholay, was on. I tried explaining to my three month old, why Amitabh Bachchan was the greatest star in Bollywood, and what a great legacy he would leave behind. I remember Dhanno looking at me with her big eyes, and giving me a momentary smile -- many have told me since then, that it was probably gas. And that, brings me to the legacy of Mr. Bachchan. Till recently, he had it going pretty strong, and he would have probably found his way to the last page, but then, I saw an ad on television in which the "angry young man" of Indian cinema was trying to explain what "making charges" are, when you get bangles made for your wife. Now that, Mr. Bachchan, will get you big money, from wealthy jewelry shops. But legacy? ... that is an entirely different ballgame.

The "two-and-a-half" sardars: as Desi Babu would like to remember them.

So, that, leaves me with the two whole sardars -- Milkha Singh and Khushwant Singh. I think both have a real good chance of making it to the hallowed page. I recently saw a very well made movie on the life of the "flying sikh". If nothing else will get Mr. Milkha Singh to the hallowed last page, I am sure that his sobriquet will. And as far as the most malicious sardar in the world goes, I am convinced that Mr. Khushwanth Singh has no equal -- there never was. And if no one lobbies to the Economist editors for a last page tribute to him, I am sure that the beverage industry in Scotland will. 

And then, there is the million dollar question. Will anyone else in this century get the three page obituary, like Nelson Mandela did? Who knows! Look around you, you might just find someone.


  1. why u call amitabh bachan half sardar?

  2. eventually, we all have to go, but I shudder at the thought of KS going :(

  3. Eerie coincidence? In less than two months of your writing this, K.S. passes away. Your post is the first thing that came to my mind, when I heard of his death.