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Men of history, obituaries, and paeans

  • Published at 12:03 am November 14th, 2019
No one is perfect, even in death. BIGSTOCK

Sometimes, we need to speak ill of the dead

Mao Zedong is a giant in history. Yet the grave blunders he made through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are integral components of Chinese history.

Joseph Stalin presided over the death of hundreds during the purges of the 1930s. And yet, his contributions to the growth of the Soviet Union as a superpower cannot be glossed over.

Obituaries are almost always instructive affairs. They are in essence a most illuminating form of literature. An obituary is more than a simple recapitulation of the career of a deceased individual. A pretty disquieting fact about obituaries in Bangladesh is that they are either never written or if they are, they do not look or read like obituaries. 

In the latter instance, what you have is a simple, often tedious presentation of a chronology relating to the career of the individual who has passed on. Again, what is passed off as an obituary is actually a paean to the one who has proceeded to the other world.

And it is not merely obituaries which run into such impediments in our circumstances. There are all the anniversaries of the deaths of significant historical personalities which are observed, and rightly too, annually in our clime. But what goes missing there, especially when writers or columnists take it upon themselves to reminisce on the careers of the people in question, is a full and objective view of the individuals being written about. 

That, you might say and with quite a bit of justification, is not only unfortunate but also unethical in a larger sense, for it deprives readers of a comprehensive view of the man or woman you are writing about.

In the end, it is, yes, a paean which is dished out as obituary or remembrance. When a columnist chooses to remember Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy on his birth or death anniversary, in this country, it is a given that his focus will be on the degree of praise he can shower on the man. Suhrawardy, whose life and career were an interesting mix of black and white, is in such an ambiance glorified as one of the most remarkable political personalities of the 20th century. Indeed, the term “statesman” comes to be appended to him. 

He is properly considered a voice of democracy in Pakistan in the early years of the Ayub Khan dictatorship. But what goes missing in all this shower of adulation is the other side of the picture -- Suhrawardy’s role in the communal riots of August 1946, his not so positive influence on the making of a constitution for Pakistan in the 1950s, his view that the constitution had ensured 98% of autonomy for East Pakistan. Writers in Bangladesh have shied away from focusing on these aspects of his career, a sign that they are unable to be dispassionate in their assessments of political figures.

A rather disturbing point about such essays is that the editors of the newspapers that publish them do not seem inclined to ask the writers to focus on all aspects of the subject before them.

The more appropriate point here is that these editors are in a good number of instances not ready, psychologically or professionally, to “speak evil” of dead men -- which is why reflections on Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq and Moulana Bhashani end up being eulogies you would rather not spend time reading. Hardly anything of the substantive is there. 

An overzealous endeavour to present the individual being focused on in absolutely positive light mars the entire exercise. If you carefully, indeed deliberately stay away from making note of Sher-e-Bangla’s flip flops or the contradictions in the Bhashani personality, you are not being honest with yourself or with your readers.

When an editor suppresses an obituary of a newly dead, controversial politician, because he is uncomfortable with any and of course justified criticism of the man, it is his journalistic integrity which comes under a cloud.

Writing on men and women who have been in the public eye or whose places in their professions have been a matter of record ought not to be a story of mere extremes. You cannot fully praise or fully excoriate a public personality, for the simple reason that no individual is perfect. 

Obituaries or reminiscences must look like, in fact be, literature in order to qualify for acceptance in the reader’s imagination. They should be instructive and should present the historical background of the times of the individuals being talked about. 

Praise Caesar, but do not shut your eyes to the darker sides of his nature. Let your tribute go out to Jawaharlal Nehru, but do not fail to inform the reader of the blunder he committed by his statement on the Cabinet Mission Plan in July 1946. 

In this country, media reports of the passing of individuals in such professions as teaching, journalism, and the arts have generally stayed away from informing readers of the darker aspects of the public life lived by these individuals. 

Commemorative volumes on individuals who once occupied significant perches in socio-cultural-political life adopt a studied, careful silence on the more controversial aspects of the lives of the individuals.

That is unfair to readers. Worse, it is a sign that the contributors to the volumes, despite their knowledge of the lives and careers of the dead men, are intent on lionizing them. This attitude raises a hard question: Why are these contributors to the commemorative volumes being unfair to themselves by glossing over the truth?

An obituary of Richard Nixon should note his accomplishments in foreign policy and his vast experience in politics and yet must point out the damage he caused the American presidency through Watergate. Reflections on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose will note his grand contributions to politics in a British-ruled India, but cannot turn away from mention of his questionable links with the Nazis and Japanese imperialists in his quest for a free India. 

Reminiscences on the scholar Buddhadeva Bose will certainly focus on his intellectual contributions to Bengali life, but that should be no reason to forget that he had nothing to say about the genocide Bangladesh’s people were being subjected to in 1971.

In our assessments of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, it is but natural that we will focus on the authoritarian nature of the hold they had on Iraq and Libya. But that ought not to obscure the other side of the truth -- that these men made the lives of their people better through their social programs and through their adherence to secular politics. 

That Robert Mugabe should have walked away into the sunset long before he actually did is undeniable, but condemnation of him should not mar the fact that his was once a powerful voice for freedom and that he was a scholar in the proper sense of the meaning.

Dead men do not speak. That is hardly any reason, though, for the living not to speak of the interplay of light and shadow, of good and bad, these dead men symbolized when they walked the earth. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.