Life of an obituary editor

A chat with The Economist’s obituaries editor Ann Wroe who brings to life, overnight, people she can never meet

Reshma Patil

In Mumbai in November 2012, they were mourning the death of Balasaheb Thackeray. In London, a soft-spoken writer and biographer in her sixties, piece of dark chocolate on her desk, had a day and night to imagine the Shiv Sena supremo in 1,000 words. There was just this one thing. Ann Wroe had never heard of the legendary strongman before.

Wroe, writer of over 600 obituaries at The Economist, (about 47 a year since 2003) has worked in the paper since the days when editors smoked pipes.

“His blood boiled inside him…,’’ she went on to write. “Sometimes his tongue would lash the crowd itself.’’

I met Wroe last year during a brief stint as a Chevening fellow at The Economist at its former address on St James’ Street. My window opened to a postcard view from London Eye to the Shard. And my desk on the 13th floor was strategically located by a cupboard overflowing with stationery and sweet and salty snacks from Sainsbury’s, which naturally gave me a chance to interact with nearly everyone on the floor. When they discussed India, they would usually argue about Narendra Modi, nationalism and economic reforms. As Wroe passed by, black velvet waistcoat buttoned up and vintage brooch on beret, I overheard her mention someone unusual. It was a bookseller from Khan Market, Delhi.

For almost three weeks last March, Wroe gathered research material on Balraj Bahri Malhotra, founder of the landmark Bahrisons bookshop in Khan Market, who had recently passed away. Bahri was ‘just the sort of candidate she liked’. We got talking, moving our discussion to the black couches in the lobby. She was planning to pack her research material on Bahri to browse on holiday in Spain. At airports, she usually reads the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. Bahri didn’t get on the page. There were ‘simply too many famous people dying of late,’ like former First Lady Nancy Reagan and she felt ‘a slight obligation not to ignore them’.

Who reads obituaries? In India, the lost art is occasionally restored mainly for politicians and celebrities; hurriedly penned by other politicians, celebrities and celebrity editors. In the UK, lengthy obituaries survive in sections of the print media though death is considered so commercially taboo that advertisers recoil from selling products next to obituaries. The Times and Daily Telegraph are known to stockpile hundreds of obituaries of living world leaders, celebrities and people we don’t know but might like to read about. I heard that certain readers are addicted to The Economist’s last page and read the anonymously penned obituary first.

Wroe’s stockpile is selective. She has a secret bank of 15 obituaries (including former US presidents and a dictator). Every week, she searches for interesting life stories of two-three candidates until she ‘hears a bell in her head’.

“I’m very keen to find excuses to cover candidates from India … they are indeed rare at the moment, perhaps one in six months,’’ she told me that rainy afternoon. Her Asian profiles tend to veer towards a collection of India exotica for British readers but she insists that candidates need not be exotic. She has profiled actor Shammi Kapoor who ‘seethed with Westernised sex appeal,’ Brajraj Mahapatra, the last prince of the British Raj turned pauper who ‘also killed one elephant’ and Sashimani Devi, the last human consort of god Jagannath in Puri. “As husbands went,” Wroe wrote, “he was not demanding”.

The obituary page of the weekly print edition is planned on Monday and due by 3 pm, Tuesday. Wroe ‘runs off’ to the London Library every Monday to ‘try to get inside the person’s head’ through reams of old interviews and autobiographies.

“You can’t go through the whole life,’’ she says on her craft. “Instead you have to take a snapshot and the essence of somebody’’.

She outlines what she considers the crucial part of the piece, the beginning and the end, on the way home on Bus No 24. The next day, a glass of water and a cup of strong coffee on her desk, she says she tries to write in the tone of her departed subject. It’s a ‘slight challenge’ for certain subjects. Like Osama bin Laden.


Author: reshmapatil11

Reshma Patil enjoys connecting the dots between local and global news, and India and China, after over a decade in journalism. Her years in Beijing as the first China correspondent of a leading Indian newspaper inspired her non-fiction book Strangers across the Border: Indian Encounters in Boomtown China, (HarperCollins, 2014). Narrated from Beijing to small towns, from the Myanmar border to the South China Sea coast, it was short-listed for the first book (non-fiction) prize at the 2014 Tata Literary Festival in Mumbai. She’s a fellow of the Chevening South Asia Journalism Programme (2016) and she'll spend a semester this year in Oxford on a fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.