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.


Reporting from China on India was a different game not long ago

Reshma Patil

Chinese flip-flops from co-operation to confrontation sound familiar in every territorial stand-off in Asia’s most complicated relationship. But Beijing’s media management of Sino-Indian relations changed this year, crossing editorial boundaries it set in the last decade.

Chinese warnings about teaching India a ‘lesson’ loomed from June to August after Indian soldiers thwarted Chinese road construction that sought to change the status quo in Doklam, a plateau on the disputed Sino-Bhutan border near Sikkim. Until days before it hosted a BRICS summit, China rejected a mutual troop withdrawal of troops and retaliated with a propaganda campaign of anti-India military threats, misinformation and mockery.

One Party, One Script

“India is groundless, unreasonable and helpless,’’ wrote a People’s Daily commentator in the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the past decade, Chinese diplomats and official strategists diplomatically distanced themselves from extreme rhetoric in the Chinese press. Some of them urged me to just ignore Global Times, a nationalist tabloid known for its extreme editorials on territorial and maritime disputes. This time, the Global Times was almost redundant as it was the foreign ministry which suggested that China could unleash ‘chaos’ anywhere on the world’s longest disputed border. Even after the deadlock ended, foreign minister Wang Yi hoped India would ‘learn a lesson’. The minister spoke like Global Times which recently ran an editorial to teach India a ‘bitter lesson’.

The foreign ministry and Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party’s news agency, also appeared to share a script, both referring to the disputed border with Bhutan as Chinese territory or a ‘house’. “Get out of my house,’’ said the anchor in a Xinhua video against India’s ‘sins,’ that aimed to impress Chinese micro-bloggers to support the Party’s muscular policies.

I lived in Beijing when the English-language version of Global Times was launched with ultra-nationalist editorials as its main attraction. Even eight years ago, soon after its launch, Global Times had warned India of ‘dangerous consequences’ for opposing China on the northeast border. During its first two years, two articles warning India topped its popular online articles.

The Party line has not meandered. But compared to my years in China, there’s no alternative opinion in the Chinese media anymore. Global Times is affiliated to the Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, which made news in India a few years ago for publishing an online article about ‘narrow-minded’ and ‘hegemonic’ Indians. The recent Global Times’ editorials and commentaries were replete with references to ‘narrow-minded’ India’s ‘regional hegemonism’ and so on. They blamed the PLA’s mood swing on the ‘reckless’ policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who not long ago objected to Chinese ‘expansionism’.

“If a war spreads the PLA is perfectly capable of annihilating all Indian troops in the border region,” its editorial said recently.

Border censors

In recent years, Beijing made no attempt to prevent increasing Chinese military incursions and tension on the Sino-Indian border. Instead, the foreign ministry attempted to remotely control border news reports and frequently complained to New Delhi to ‘control’ Indian coverage of China.

This year, the foreign ministry’s messages to India borrowed the combative rhetoric of the PLA. Not long ago, when I worked in Beijing, its own senior officials urged the Indian media to report ‘positive news’. A reporter from Global Times once rang me up to reprimand: “we don’t think your article’s positive.’’ The confused guidelines never made any difference. But for a while Beijing believed that subduing the media might dampen Indian opposition to China’s assertive policies.

This time, Beijing’s intention in shifting gears from moderate to extreme rhetoric may have been to intimidate New Delhi to back off from its increasingly bold stance against Chinese land and sea grabs and counter its closeness to ally Bhutan. Beijing dusted off propaganda used since the cultural revolution in the age of Mao Zedong against India, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union to complain that the other side picked a fight. “India’s recklessness has shocked the Chinese,’’ said Global Times. “… If the Modi government refuses to stop, it will push its country into a war India has no power to control’’.

China’s media campaign on the Sino-Indian border began to intensify as early as 2006 when it revived claims on Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet. In Xi Jinping’s reign, the PLA’s provocations are more ambitious on land and sea. China’s pro-Pakistan policy expanded multi-fold from Hu Jintao to Xi, from the United Nations to a strategic corridor under construction to link landlocked Xinjiang to Gwadar.

Missing Moderates

The moderates among Chinese officials and analysts are no longer as prominent in the official media since Xi shifted Chinese policy on India from assertive to aggressive, from cooperation and competition to potential confrontation. In Hu’s time, I met several government advisers in foreign ministry think-tanks who believed in ‘shelving’ the border dispute to focus on improving bilateral economic and cultural relations.

A section of Chinese strategists argued since the economic downturn of 2008-09 that it is in China’s self-interest to improve overall Sino-Indian relations without compromising on the 3,488-km border dispute. In Hu’s last years in power, his foreign ministry would signal a desire for stable relations with India even as it hardened its pro-Pakistan policy from the border to the United Nations Security Council or Nuclear Suppliers Group. Since the Doklam crisis unfolded, moderate views are missing in the foreign ministry-organised interactions of Chinese experts with the Indian media.

The Dragon’s Image

The world’s second-largest economy used to crave favourable media coverage in India, where Chinese companies were nervous late-comers in the last decade. India became legendary in China during the downturn for its fast-growing economy and software techies. Far-flung provincial Chinese governments were desperate to befriend Indian companies for the first time as Chinese export factories collapsed.

Beijing seems increasingly indifferent to Indian public opinion as the eastern trade wind prevailed against negative public perceptions. China dominates the Indian market, from smartphones to power generators. India’s bilateral trade deficit is around $50-billion. Chinese foreign direct investment in India rose to 17th largest in India last year, up from 28 in 2014 and 35 in 2011.

India’s rejection of Xi’s One Belt One Road initiative to connect China with the world may make the economy less interesting for Chinese state-owned enterprises as they shift their excess construction capacity to Pakistan and over 60 nations. The Doklam episode is likely to worsen the business climate for Indian and Chinese companies to work across the border.

Soft Powerless

Former Premier Wen Jiabao, the good cop in the Hu-Wen rule, attempted to build people-to-people relations and reinforce mutual trust. Xi’s government in contrast issued two travel advisories during the nearly three-month dispute to keep Chinese tourists away. The Chinese media, as expected, projected the mutual disengagement of troops from Doklam as Beijing’s victory against India’s ‘illegal trespass’ in ‘China’s territory’ and made no promise to halt road building on the disputed border. “India removes troops from China’s territory in Doklam,’’ said Global Times. Xi’s media and military policies may help consolidate his leadership at the upcoming five-yearly Party Congress while fast-depleting China’s limited reserve of soft power in India.

Public perceptions in the two neighbours underscore the potential to resolve the border dispute. But as Xi became heir apparent, loyalists in China had happily predicted a resurgence of Chinese maritime and territorial assertiveness in the next ten years and dreamt of a ‘golden age’ in Asia for a super-powerful dragon. The state’s spin doctors said the same thing. A recent Global Times editorial forecast: ‘the Doklam standoff is just the start’.