Nonpologies and ifpoligies: From Naseeruddin Shah to Barack Obama, learn different ways of saying sorry

How do you say sorry? Let me count the ways.

You could, if you like, apologise for sins committed over a hundred years ago, as did Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently for the Komagata Maru incident. In mid-May 1914, the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru, carrying 376 mostly Sikh passengers, reached Vancouver port, only to be refused permission to dock. A two-month standoff later the ship returned to Kolkata, then Calcutta, where British forces jumped on them for being “Sikh radicals” or Ghaddar party activists. Many passengers were shot, far more wounded and/or arrested.

Mid-May 2016 saw the Canadian Prime Minister stand up in his House of Commons and say:

"Today – while knowing that no words can fully erase the pain and suffering experienced by the passengers – I offer a sincere apology on behalf of the government for the laws in force at the time that allowed Canada to be indifferent to the plight of the passengers of the Komagata Maru."

Heartfelt no doubt, useful too, in keeping Canada’s sizeable Sikh population happy.

Or you could go even further back in history, a la The Vatican which took 359 years to express its mea culpa in the Galileo case. Not that anything changed even when it did, in 1992, neither the position of the Sun or the Earth, not even the textbooks in Catholic schools which had long ago converted to teaching the “heresy” Galileo was persecuted for: that the Earth revolved around the Sun.

US President Barack Obama. Reuters

US President Barack Obama. Reuters

Or you could take a leaf out of Salman Rushdie who stated, faced with death threats and angry recriminations from co-religionists across the world, that, “As author of The Satanic Verses, I recognise that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam.” The fire was not doused, Rushdie remained in hiding for many more years.

Though his lapse is nowhere near as great nor as historical, a social solecism at most, thinking man’s actor Naseeruddin Shah seems to be following in Rushdie’s footsteps in the wake of his brush with free speech. First Shah told an interviewer, bravely and incisively, that, “It was the 1970s when mediocrity came in Hindi films. That’s when the actor called Rajesh Khanna joined the industry. For all his success, I think Mr. Khanna was a very limited actor. In fact, he was a poor actor. Intellectually, he wasn’t the most alert person I have ever met. His taste ruled the industry.” Agree or disagree as you wish.

Rajesh Khanna’s humour-columnist daughter Twinkle Khanna disagreed. In fact, she would have been found wanting in her filial duties if she hadn’t shot off an irate tweet: “Sir if u can't respect the living, respect the dead - mediocrity is attacking a man who can't respond.” As if only the living can be assessed, the dead banished to nowhereland.

Naturally Naseeruddin Shah’s response was sought and pat came a “non-apology apology” or “nonpology” as they are called. “I’d apologise to those who took personal offence but I wasn’t talking of a particular person. I was talking about a phenomenon,” Shah is reported to have said.

He is quibbling of course. It was Rajesh Khanna he was talking about and painting him in very poor colour too. And why shouldn’t he, since that’s what he believes? Bollywood could only benefit from taking a hard look at itself but Shah has to live and work in that la la land where back scratching is the norm, you promote me I promote you the philosophy.

Karan Johar’s tweet says it all: “I agree with you @mrsfunnybones...due respect to seniority but this was in exceptionally bad taste and not becoming of a fraternity member.” Taking on the fraternity singlehanded for a “mediocre” actor was a humongous task. An apology from Shah, even if an apology of an apology, had to follow sooner than later.

Even if he had offered the apology “to those who took personal offence” one can bet it would be the standard issue “I apologize if I offended anyone. That was not my intention.” Shorthand for saying, “I’m sorry you are so thin-skinned.”

What a great device this ‘ifpology’ is. You say sorry but not really express any contrition. It gets the aggrieved person off your back, stops him/her from wreaking further vengeance, while you can honestly feel you remained true to your principles and did not surrender abjectly.

Sort of like Barack Obama going to Hiroshima this May, the first sitting US President to visit the site of the world’s first nuclear attack, and affirming America’s “moral responsibility” for the devastation there but stopping short of a full-throated apology. When it was all over, you were still left wondering does he think there’s something about the atomic bombings to be sorry for?

At least he was not dishonest. Insincere apologies, or nonpologies or ifpologies or whatever you call them, serve some social purpose, as do white lies, like telling a sixty-year-old beauty queen she could still pass for a thirty-something, but that’s about all.

Naseeruddin Shah really shouldn’t apologise, not properly I mean, unless he has actually changed his opinion about Rajesh Khanna’s histrionic powers.

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Updated Date: Jul 26, 2016 18:03:40 IST

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