Being an old-fashioned kind of guy, brought up in an old-fashioned sort of home, I came to believe that the duties of a newspaper were to inform, educate, and entertain. It was about a decade ago that I first learnt that, for large sections of the English-language media, these three duties had been superseded by or subordinated to a fourth the duty to titillate.
It happened this way. A man I knew slightly but admired a great deal had died. His name was Krishnaswami Swaminathan, and he had three careers. The first was as an inspirational teacher of English literature at Presidency College, Madras. The second was as the editor of the Sunday Standard, as the highly regarded weekend edition of The Indian Express was then known. The third was as the chief editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, based in New Delhi. It was in 1958 that Swaminathan assumed this post, after the first editor had died and the second decided to take up a governorship instead.
When he began the job, a mere two volumes had appeared; when he left, thirty years later, a further 98 had been published. His accomplishment was both mammoth as well as meticulous; for thousands of letters had to be deciphered, and hundreds of speeches dated and validated. References and cross-references had to be provided, and indexes prepared for individual volumes as well as for the series as a whole. Luckily, Swaminathan had a dedicated team working with him; still, the main job was his, and he executed it superbly.
When Swaminathan died, in 1994, I was living in New Delhi. I knew that his career as a teacher and journalist would not command much attention in that city, but I had hoped that his work on Gandhis Collected Works would. I was mistaken. No Delhi daily would carry on obituary of him, despite my entreaties and those of the distinguished scholar, Rajmohan Gandhi. This silence regarding Swaminathan was all the more galling because these same papers had just carried multiple obituaries of a fashion designer whose contributions to India were a fraction of the teacher-editors. However, the fashion designer was young, he was glamorous, and he had died an unnatural death, of AIDS reasons enough for the Delhi newspapers to devote dozens of column inches to him while failing to note the death of a far greater Indian.
By the standards of Indian politics, Mahajan was young he had achieved high office when he was still short of fifty. He was, if not exactly glamorous himself, on first-name terms with major film-stars and corporate titans. And he died a bloody death at the hands of his own brother. These factors go some way in explaining the hours spent on him on television and the pages on him in print.
When writing or speaking of the lately deceased, one can follow one of two models. The first is contained in the old Latin saying, De mortuis nil nisi bonum - Speak only good of the dead. The second is Voltaires injunction that while we may flatter the living, the dead deserve nothing but the truth. While Indians in general tend to follow the former, one would expect (or at least hope) that professional journalists would take heed of the latter. Certainly, the decorum imposed by death precludes a brutal frankness. One did not expect the journalists covering Mahajans passing to describe him as, shall we say, a fixer. Still, it was striking that, first, the praise was so effusive, and second, that it was generalized rather than specific. What modern policies did this politician have to offer the Indian public? Or was being a habitué of five-star hotels enough to qualify as being modern? One knew of Mahajans abilities as a networker and fund-raiser, but in which concrete ways had his kinetic energy helped the people of India? Instead of substantive answers to these questions, all one got by way of specifics was, once again, anecdotes of this or that journalists intimacy with the departed politician.
Being on old-fashioned kind of guy, I could not but compare the medias treatment of Pramod Mahajans demise with the reaction to the death some years ago of another senior Indian politician, C. Subramaniam. Now, CS was a leader of whom it could truly be said that he had a modern mind. And his achievements were real. It was he who reformed the system of agricultural science, to make it an effective handmaiden in the Green Revolution that, in turn, made India self-sufficient in food and thus also independent of Western pressure and influence. After he retired from public life, CS worked tirelessly (if in the end, unsuccessfully) to reform the electoral system, hoping to free it of money power and muscle power.
C. Subramaniam died a natural death, of old age. That said, the neglect of his life and work by the press was shameful in the extreme. The only decent obituary appeared, ironically, in the London Economist, which saw, more clearly than our own newspapers, what this Indian had done for his country. A foreign paper understood that CS was a man of real distinction and achievement. Our papers knew only that at the moment when Subramaniam died, he was not a man of wealth, power, or celebrity.
The only decent obituary of C Subramaniam appeared, in the London Economist, which saw, more clearly than our own newspapers what this Indian had done for his country.