Derek A. Brown, Journalist, Born May 7, 1947 in Bearsden, Glasgow, Scotland; married Eileen J. Brailsford, 1972; died February 23, 2011 in Herefordshire, England
The correspondent who countered brutality with humour and wordplay
Hogamany was celebrated in style at Nizamuddin East in the early 1990s thanks to the British foreign correspondent, Derek Brown. You couldn’t predict which tall, dark man would cross his threshold first on any given Scottish New Year, but a burra peg of whisky and a sumptuous spread of food would be waiting. Laughter would always punctuate Brown’s parties.
Derek Brown, who died last week in England at age 63, had worked as a journalist for four decades with the same newspaper, The Guardian. He was based in Delhi from 1987 through 1993 as their South Asia Bureau Chief, where he worked together with the reporter Ajoy Bose. Brown and his wife, Eileen, regarded India as their favorite posting during the 13 years spent “in foreign parts”, which included assignments in Brussels and Jerusalem. From Delhi, the couple took many road trips in their cherished white Ambassador before shipping out, in Derek’s jocular phrase, “from Bombay back to Blighty”. Brown’s final newspaper column appeared in The Guardian Weekly the day before he died. He is survived by his wife Eileen, his sister Sylvia and brother David, and his mother, Renee, who is 94.
While Brown clearly relished storytelling, he was a stickler for accuracy. His reporting frequently covered conflict, whether in Belfast, West Bengal or the West Bank, and perhaps it was to counteract the brutality Brown witnessed that he had fine-tuned his sense of humour and wordplay. The reporter of Falstaffian proportions took delight in the unexpected, and he was a close observer. On holiday, he might make do with “mutual incomprehension, moderated by much giggling and goodwill”, but he analyzed unfolding events with care and pulled no punches. He did not hesitate to “put the ugh in ugly” and to disclose the reality of that polite euphemism, communal strife. He covered Ayodhya, Kabul, Kashmir, caste wars and the long war in Sri Lanka.
Brown observed: “The civil war in Sri Lanka was unavoidable, and is unwinnable. It is the ghastly outcome of a sequence of events compounded of bigotry, obstinacy, and muddled thinking on both sides of the narrow straits separating the poor, bloodied little island from its gigantic neighbour, India.”
Much to his annoyance, Brown was briefly banned from Sri Lanka because of a headline that accompanied his extensive profile of its leader, Ranasinghe Premadasa. Presidential staff perceived an insult and withheld visas after reading the following title:
“Dhobi wallah to president: The rise to prominence and power of Sri Lanka’s new leader, Ranasinghe Premadasa, whose roots lie far from the country’s traditional ruling caste”.
The author Simon Winchester, a lifelong friend, recalled how, in addition to his collection of adventure tales and Penguin first editions, “Derek kept a hoard of newspaper headlines from his time in India in a tin box in the living room, many of them so funny one would weep.” That unfortunate one from Brown’s own news desk probably did not make it into this Pandora’s box of clippings.
In 1997, Derek Brown returned from the Middle East to London to help launch the online edition of The Guardian, and he stayed on staff until 2002, after which he contributed columns for the weekly print edition from his home office in Herefordshire county.
In order to mourn him in cyberspace, friends and colleagues must first tick a box on a Facebook page that says “I like Derek Brown, Rest In Peace.” Surely he’d chortle about that, as well as the fact that this obituary was outsourced to America, near Silicon Valley.
(The author is a journalist who has worked with The Independent and The Lancet. She reported from South Asia, West Asia and Southeast Asia for over a decade)
Obituary in the Indian Express
Photo of Derek Brown in New Delhi c 1991 is courtesy of Roger Hutchings