Unless you have been on a social media fast and have also angrily exited all WhatsApp groups last year, surely you have heard by now about Shankar Mishra, a man accused of getting up from his seat in a New York-New Delhi flight and going over and peeing on a fellow passenger and complete stranger. Mishra went on the run under international spotlight and was then caught. That was in the last week of November 2022. Have you since heard about what his lawyer claimed on his behalf in a magisterial court? If you have already, you may skip the paragraph below to avoid unnecessary elevation of your blood pressure. If you haven’t, apologies. And we need to talk about apologies.
The lawyer argued that it wasn’t Mishra who urinated, as he had admitted soon after the incident, but the complainant, the 70-year-old woman passenger. Senior advocate Ramesh Gupta told the judge. “I (Mishra) am not the accused. There must be someone else. It seems she herself urinated. She was suffering from some disease related to prostate. It was not him. The seating system was such that no one could go to her seat. Her seat could only be approached from behind, and in any case the urine could not reach to the seat’s front area. Also, the passenger sitting behind the complainant did not make any such complaint.”
Look at this thali meal of excuses. I didn’t do it, she did—the classic excuse of the person who farted and was smelt out. Next, she has a disease that only I, Shankar Mishra, know about. She, the complainant, was able to somehow defy gravity and biology and urinate upwards in a way that soaked all her clothes and her bag. Next, she did not pay extra during web check for her seat choice to ensure that she could avail of my special in-flight golden shower facilities. (On the side, I just want to say that no defence lawyer should use the phrase “could only be approached from behind” without intending to sound even more like a gigantic creep. Just my vishesh tippani.)
This set was followed by one of my all-time favourites in the excuses buffet. That the passenger sitting behind the complainant did not make any such complaint! In a flash, I was back in a bus from Bengaluru to Pune. When I realised that the strange sensation on my leg was not my roommate’s leg but the weirdly twisted creepy arm of the weirdly twisted creepy passenger in front of me, I switched on the light above. Then I hit him. Several times. While the man in the seat next to him looked on with horror and other men in other rows gleamed with pleasure at this entertainment, I held on to his backward twisted arm and hit him on the head. What did he do? He kept his eyes closed and pretended to sleep. A couple of hours later, the sun had risen and I managed to get the driver and conductor in on the scene.
Twisty denied everything and said, “Oh if I had done anything, why didn’t she say anything?” Ah yes, violence on the top of your head is not communication. Why didn’t she say anything? Why didn’t anyone else say anything? The timing of the complaint, the shock of the witnesses on one side of this moral thulabharam (weighing scale). And you, twisty/urinator on the other side.
But wait, senior advocate Gupta wasn’t done. He still had the fabulous, fabricated statistics move. “The woman has a problem of incontinence. She urinated on herself. She is a Kathak dancer. 80% of Kathak dancers have this issue.” Eighty per cent. It is a little-known fact that when Kathak dancers whirl so much, they are thinking, “I should have gone, I should have gone, I should have gone before getting on stage.”
As a reporter, I have had to ask some intrusive questions. But I don’t know what to feel about the reporters who have been tasked in the last week with going to various formidable exponents of classical arts and asking them about Kathak dancers’ incontinence. There should be hazard pay for being at the receiving end of the pure contempt that ought to be Gupta and Mishra’s quota.
Notice what is missing from the buffet though? An apology. An apology is an endangered species, wholly different from the common creature that is the excuse. Why can’t people say sorry? a friend asked thoughtfully on WhatsApp after this piece of cupidity and stupidity was reported. I, who was blissfully fantasising about a rally of Kathak dancers raining terror with their wayward prostates at Mishra’s house, was stopped short. Yes, what about the apology?
Nobody apologises any more. Instead, we get the excuse buffet. Or “it was a joke”—one of the all-time great male excuses. Stand-up comedian Manjeet Sarkar once pointed out that upper-caste comedians’ bits are too often composed of unfunny nostalgia for bad behaviour—always beginning with the line “hum itne vele the (we were so jobless)”. Apart from all this, there is also, in circulation, the nihilism move aka “what does it matter?” Everybody lies, everybody cheats, everybody pees on strangers in flights. How does it matter?
In fact, the apology crops up in our lives these days only in two forms. When someone with less power is being made to apologise to someone for infringing on their celestial entitlements.
And the other, when someone who is in power does an elaborate dance of a threatened apology. If I am wrong, I will shave my head, I will kill myself, I will lick your shoes. Ask anyone who has escaped an abusive marriage and they will tell you that the dance drama of the abuser’s faux apology and pretend penitence is one of the more frightening weapons in their arsenal. Because you know the abuser will do no lowering of himself that doesn’t end with you on the floor.
A friend and I were recently discussing Disgrace, the J.M. Coetzee novel, and how closely it resembles the baroque pretence at self-abasement from someone who really doesn’t want to admit what he feels about the marginal shift of race privilege.
Or maybe I am feeling like this because I have been compulsively reading other great literature—the long tracts online by men all over the world defending Andrew Tate and other male supremacy maniacs (Tate, in case you were lucky enough to miss it, is a former British kickboxer and a man who had made a revenue model out of misogyny until he was recently arrested on charges of human trafficking). Two things they have in common with Mishra and Gupta? Verbose excuses and a distinct lack of knowledge of human anatomy. Sometimes it’s not just desi vice-presidents on flights. Sometimes, all of “civilisation” can seem like a male excuse. Sorry.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.