Tag Archives: ethics

The Venus Flytrap: Mea Culpa

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I recently sent a long overdue apology, for the one friendship of mine that had ended in a way in which I could have behaved differently. Maybe there were others, but this was the only one I’d clocked as having been at least partly my fault. It had bothered me for years. But a combination of two traits – personally disliking being contacted when it’s clear a journey together has ended, and the relative equanimity with which I accept that people have walked from me – had kept me from writing that apology. When I finally did, it was not to receive the other person’s forgiveness, but only to acknowledge my mistake. Nothing precipitated it, and no result was intended.

How we say we are sorry is quite separate from feeling remorse. Why we say “I’m sorry” can also be quite separate from remorse, as the late lawyer Deborah Levi’s theory on the uses of apologies in mediation indicated. She wrote that there are three kinds of false apologies: tactical (a strategic move), explanation (which can be defensive), and formalistic (after being admonished). There is a fourth, sincere category: the happy ending apology.

I have to admit I have a semantic quibble with the last category. Extending apologies, even heartfelt ones, don’t necessarily facilitate “happy endings”, nor should they be expected to. An apology cannot be about the outcome. Neither is it the end of the damage that was caused. In many cases, it requires a change in behaviour – saying it alone does not make it true, but proving it might. It’s not enough to teach a child to say sorry after they pinch another, without teaching that child to also never pinch again. Those who aren’t raised to know the difference become the kind of adults who say “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry if”, as though the response and not the act that elicited it is the issue at hand.

Apologies also have a statute of limitations. In the first year or two after a messy breakup, an apology may be the cure to finding emotional closure. More water under the bridge and it can lose its point. It can become selfish, an act of requiring validation out of the emotional labour of the other party, without having offered one’s own emotional labour earlier while it still mattered to their healing. No apology that is about the sender and their needs alone is a true apology.

There are also certain things for which no apology can suffice. Should it be attempted at all? That depends entirely on the recipient and how they are likely to react, not the sender. We saw several public mea culpas in recent months, relating to the momentum of #MeToo. I wondered if there were private ones. Wouldn’t some of them be triggering to victims?

The friend whom I apologised to replied, generously, and we will try to reconnect. I hadn’t expected this at all, for I’d only wanted to register that I knew I had been mistaken. Maybe Deborah Levi’s last category wasn’t a misnomer after all. We’ll have to wait, and work at it, to see…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 22nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Cassandra In The Kingdom Of Closed Eyes

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A boy is knifed in a train and bleeds to death on his brother’s lap on a station platform and no one sees. A young woman is stabbed and bleeds to death on another station platform and no one sees, but someone covers her with a shawl so that her womanly shape isn’t visible, for that is all they can see of her. Something cold sits on my heart, listening to them; how do they do it, looking me straight in the eyes and blithely revealing that they are among the unseeing?

They don’t register the headlines, the statistics, the faces, the stories. They demand proof even as it plays out before them. They claim blips and skewings, and when faced with facts, claim conspiracy. Last weekend I saw someone carrying a poster with a version of Bob Dylan’s words: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Some – no, many – deaths don’t count because some (many) lives matter less than others. There’s a quota that can never be filled enough for them to say “Enough”. That’s not a riot, they say. And a riot’s not a holocaust. And at least a holocaust is not… well, no one will be left to finish that sentence.

And someone will ask me (I know the script) – how can you connect them, the boy with the skull cap and the girl with the stalker – and like a fabulist I will have to try to prove a theory of invisibility. About how there are reasons why some people can only see some things and not others. And I will play right into their hands when I tell them: when a girl was raped on a bus five years ago, you lit candles and raged, when the same thing happened to another girl in Salem a month ago, you scrolled past her, just like you did the one whose body was towed in a garbage truck, the pregnant one found brutalised at the bottom of a well, the one who was never written about at all but whom you would have ignored anyway.

Then they’ll say: where were you when the earth first wept (not yet born), or when that other silence stuck like tar (raising my voice, then as now, but it didn’t carry in the wind) or when those other dead were named (I hadn’t known then – but you had). As though their wilful, obstinate unseeingness is vindicated because of my not being omniscient. And they never turn the same question on themselves: where are you now, as this unfolds, and why do you justify it? And if you ask, they say flatly, “But there is nothing happening.”

They cannot see the forest burning for all the ashes in the trees. Cannot see structure, system, sense. Cannot see anything beyond their own noses, even as they fill with noxious smoke.

Here’s what I see then, if you can tolerate a Cassandra in the kingdom of closed eyes: nothing we have not already seen. Nothing humanity does not already know. Nothing humanity can forget – unless humanity has forgotten the meaning of itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: We Have All Written/Said Problematic Things

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When we consider a poem like “The White Man’s Burden”, all the enchantment of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” fades away. When we realise that Enid Blyton’s books were full of racism and sexism, and that we were happily oblivious to these prejudices as we read them, we cringe. More egregiously still, when we think retroactively of the “groupie” culture of 70’s music, we balk at all the statutory rape that took place.

Especially if you write, perform, work in policymaking, or teach, such examples are worth reflecting on. From actions to accidental slippages, they tarnish entire bodies of work. Whether or not one is in the public eye is irrelevant. Accountability shouldn’t be motivated by criticism, but by one’s own conscience. What would you do differently, looking back at your own work?

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a poem that I wrote when I was 17 on Facebook. I commented with a disclaimer, which she was sweet enough to insist was unnecessary. But to me, it was. You see, the poem contained the word “androgynous” as a reference to Plato’s androgyne, the being made of two halves so as to be a perfect whole, who need not seek love beyond the self. But if I were to write a similar poem now, half a lifetime later, it would not even occur to me to use a word that belongs as a queer identifier, because my own understanding of the word has changed.

Similarly, when I was doing the final proofs for my new book, The High Priestess Never Marries, I removed a playful reference to the Mahabharata’s Dronacharya, who demanded that the tribal archer Eklavya sever his thumb, from a story. When I had written the story five years ago, my understanding of caste was less evolved than it is now. To put it simply: I wouldn’t make that joke now because I would no longer think it was funny. I had been wrong, whether I knew it or not. How many times had I read a book and thought of how much better it would have been if it weren’t for that completely unnecessary drop of indigo in the milk: “fat” or “dark” being used interchangeably with “unattractive”, period pieces which used racial pejoratives like “savages” outside of dialogue, elitist self-identifications like “TamBrahm”, and so on? How can I leave that bad taste in someone else’s mouth, when I know better now?

Norms and languages evolve. So do we. And we must remember: while we owe it to our own personal growth and to the audiences that we hope to reach (whether that’s in a book, in a personal conversation, or on Twitter), we are all works in progress. We’re all continuously changing, and if we’re open to it, we’re continuously learning. I wonder what I’ll think of my recent writing in 15 years. I wonder what I will find problematic then. My point is to say that it’s okay. We grow most when we have the humility to know that we don’t know everything. The best disclaimer, and the best apology, is to delve deeper and do better.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 13th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.