When a famous person passes away, one imagines the flurried activity of editors and journalists working overtime to report the death in detail and cull their contacts to seek tributes to the deceased, to be penned and printed with the utmost haste.
The iron must be struck while it’s hot – a life speedily celebrated while it is still relevant in people’s minds. Meanwhile, the closest to the deceased at this point, those having the most intimate knowledge of their views and character, may often be too busy and too devastated by the freshness of their loss to put their thoughts down within a predetermined word limit.
Nevertheless, tributes still mushroom with an automaton-like efficiency, mere hours after their subject’s death; and they are often hollow and unsatisfactory. While this might be overlooked, all too often they are not in very good taste. Seeing as so many of these glibly-worded, hastily published pieces start circulating the web in the wake of the loss of an acclaimed person, a common thread starts to emerge, in which we can see the rise of a veritable genre: the tribute almost seems to be more about the writer than their subject. The emphasis is on how the deceased was the writer’s friend or relation, on how they had the excellent good taste to perceive the writer’s talents and remark on them with approbation or merely on the much more basic fact of how the writer and the subject frequented the same social circles.
The pronoun ‘I’ abounds, taking away the focus from the ‘he’ or ‘she’ being talked about. The necessary self-abnegation that should be inherent in a sincerely effective paean is largely absent. The piece can thus come off sounding rather self-congratulatory, even to the extent of seeming opportunistic – the main message being: ‘Look, I knew this person; they approved of me, and they were important; therefore, I am important.’ When the writer so patently fails to distinguish the appropriate distance and proportion that must be maintained between the personal and the political, the reader can be left wondering whether it would have been a better idea to restrict the sharing of such a tribute to the circle of family and friends, rather than foist it in print on the public at large.
Another unfortunate feature of such essays is their predilection for the use of journalese to attract readership. Rather than attempting to convey the more specific aspects of the nature and personality of the person being mourned to those who may never have known them, the writer resorts to a barrage of hyperbolic statements: ‘His was a life of infinite possibility cruelly snuffed out.’ Such metaphors are patronising and lazy, betraying more of a desire to get retweets and likes than anything else. The genuine mourner can certainly pay sincere homage in a style characterised by simplicity, knowing that the achievements of the departed can speak for themselves.
Not all have been mourned so badly, however. When the news of Intizar Hussain’s death circulated around the globe, we saw much nonsense being written, hastily and parasitically, at his expense. After a few weeks, however, an essay by the critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi appeared in print. Reading like a cool breeze after all the hot air clogging up literary festivals and newspapers, it praised Intizar Sahib’s prose, but also took to task the simplistic assessments of his work that were being bandied about. The personal friendship between the writers (both well-acclaimed) seemed secondary to the qualities of the man that inspired the tribute. In the same breath, Husain’s prose, the politics of his writing and his empathies were discussed. Mention was also made of the reedy voice that did not inspire instant awe.
It was a tribute that was a pleasure to read because it brought to life Intizar Husain, the man and the writer, and resisted the urge to canonise by depicting a realistic picture of the great writer. And this was done in a style that revealed the sadness of a friend mourning the loss of a great voice in literature first, and a close acquaintance second. Personal anecdotes were included but justified, and quotations were printed to let Intizar Husain’s words reveal their own “limpidity and humaneness”.
This tribute to a great name in literature by another great name in literature is an example of what can be achieved when a writer does not try to churn out, at the most self-aware of levels, a ‘great’ and eye-catching tribute, striving to use highfalutin words which do more to obscure than highlight the real worth of their subject.
These past couple of years have been ones of great loss. Brave women have been gunned down for promoting justice, iconic writers have left us with a creative vacuum and veteran statesmen of conscience and erudition have quietly slipped away. Our misfortune, though, is not just that they are no longer among us, but also in the way that they have often been mourned in public.
It is not for the reader to judge a writer’s intentions behind penning a tribute – but it is difficult not to feel how some of their words, written on demand and within a deadline, sound empty. In a time of word pollution – when it sometimes feels as if being the first to say something in print matters more than what has actually been said – it is important that our writers, rather than focusing on the angle of readability alone, take pause and strive to maintain a sense of proportion before penning their thoughts, if only to give those who have gone a more meaningful remembrance. It is no less than what they deserve.
The writer is a London-based freelance contributor.