Over the weekend, I strapped on a pair of red stilettos for a poetry reading organised by the feminist think-tank Prajnya. The theme of the event was “Zero Apologies”, and the poets shared writing in Tamil and English about being forthright, without fear. For me, I find that the first line of apology begins at appearance. I enjoy clothing, ornamentation and maquillage – but my enjoyment of the same is where external judgement of me also begins. It’s a topic I explore at greater length in an essay in a new book called Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, but for now, suffice to say: I wasn’t sorry at all for the thigh-high slit in the skirt I wore that evening, and I laughed off the fact that my gorgeous shoes were falling apart even as I stood in them.
What an empowering thing it is to stop apologising for being ourselves.
But even as I said yes to “Zero Apologies”, and was delighted to express none whatsoever, something lingered in my mind and it wasn’t just good manners. While preparing for the poetry recital and finding poems that suited the subject, I found myself thinking not only about when we should never apologise, but also about when we really should.
‘Sorry’ is a beautiful word. We say it both as a habit and as a force of conditioning that makes us downplay ourselves, but swallow it at the moments it is made for. We apologise, unnecessarily, for our necklines, our ambitions, our tears, our uncertainties, our emotions. We say the word for all the wrong things, but we’re miserly with it when we’re actually wrong.
I thought back to a few recent instances when I have said it and meant it, a strong word used to keep small lapses small. Once, when I didn’t make it to a dear one’s special occasion; once, when I apologised on behalf of someone I felt responsible for; more than once, when busyness or hunger made me snappy. And I thought further back into the past, to times when my apologies were insufficient. Because sometimes ‘sorry’ is just a placeholder, a way to salve things so they can be worked on slowly. When you have caused damage to another, you cannot justify having done so. You can only say, unequivocally, that you will try better. And then do.
Only in its most routine or manipulative deliveries is ‘sorry’ anything other than a starting point. Because, by itself, it’s never enough. It’s only the key to rebuilding, not an end to itself – and this is where we falter. We misunderstand both apology and forgiveness, centring them on incidents and not on understanding.
I will never apologise for being strong, dedicated, principled or flamboyant. But I will apologise for my blind spots, misreadings, temper and wickedness, should I have the clarity to see them, even if only much later.
And call me old-fashioned, but the one thing that I most believe no one should ever apologise for having or expecting? Good manners!
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.