“It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us and I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.” In November 2013, Tarun Tejpal – the accused in a rape case against a younger, subordinate colleague – not only sent this email to the survivor, but even had it published. This confession did not suffice; over seven years later, a “fast-track” court has just acquitted him.

In Eve Ensler’s book The Apology, she channels/imagines her late father, who had sexually abused her, and gives herself the apology she longs for. In Michaela Cole’s TV series I May Destroy You, which fictionalises a crime she experienced, she creates her closure as well, through a series of fantasised potential outcomes to confronting her trauma, including apology. Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection Whereas is a response to the duplicitous language and covert non-delivery of the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, a U.S. government decree that was quietly signed in 2009 – so quietly that many indigenous people, including the poet at first, did not hear about it. Sometimes an apology means nothing – it cannot hold water in court, cannot repair what was done, cannot give back what was lost. Or it is tendered in a crafty way, to further exploit, to attract sympathy, to offer ruses and excuses.

When I was contacted casually by someone who had hurt me in an incident that I later understood as having been sexual assault, I felt a mixture of dread and curiosity. My therapist said, as I processed my feelings: “You need justice.” I think I smirked, recalling everything I knew about how abusers of all stripes get away with wrongdoings of all degrees of severity, as I replied, “What is justice?” It was a question I had to answer for myself. After weeks of anxiety attacks, I sent him a long email. I wrote unequivocally about the impact of his actions and begged him not to reply if he could not do so gracefully. He didn’t; a relief. It was never his apology I needed.

But in the aftermath of Tejpal’s acquittal, I experience again the fear of being manipulated through words, the fear that the recipient of my email has just been biding his time and now has permission to be vicious, dishonest or glib. A bit of that old shadow creeps across my heart: here, on the public stage of the world, under the aegis of the law, is proof that an offender can make a confession and still be absolved. What if this sets a behavioural precedent, and not only bolsters a legal one? What do words mean then? What do apologies?

Long Soldier writes: “Yet the root of reparation is repair.” Healing is more beautiful than justice. Perhaps they are sometimes synonyms. We cannot always have it. When we can try, we must – giving to ourselves, guiding our own ways into restoration.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 27th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.