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The grammar of non-apology and the penance of Tarun Tejpal


Aravinda Pillalamarri examines Tarun Tejpal’s letter to Shoma Chaudhury to reveal how much accountability he has taken for his actions.

A few years ago, in a communications class at an engineering college, I instructed students to use the active voice. I told them that active voice made writing clear, and it was also honorable and accountable. The passive voice concealed responsibility, as in the famous statement of Ronald Reagan concerning the arms-for-hostages scandal, “Mistakes were made.”  He is not the only president, American or otherwise, to have used this “passive-exonerative” phrase.

Tarun Tejpal’s best selling debut novel. Pic: Gael / Flickr CC

As a newsletter editor for an NGO, I would always ask writers to avoid passive voice and also to use verbs as verbs and not in noun form as is so common in academic and bureaucratic writing. This, again, serves to subdue the action and often conceal the actor. When writing project descriptions, describing projects, I would remind writers to state who was doing the work and not merely that work was done.

Another editorial exercise is a verb-check.  Reread your work and look for the verbs. Who gets the strong, vivid, and active verbs? Whose actions feature prominently and whose work disappears in nominalizations and passive constructions? Such exercises can reveal unexamined power dynamics in how we represent development in writing.

Now let us turn to the work of another editor.

The opening paragraph of Tarun Tejpal’s letter to Shoma Chaudary said:

The last few days have been most testing, and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for.

In the first sentence, it looks like he is apologizing. But for what?

Let us underline the verbs:

The last few days have been most testing, and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for.

To find out what it is that he is taking the blame for, we would have to look not at the verbs, but at the nouns:

The last few days have been most testing, and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for.

The closest we come to a verb is “misreading” but that of course is not even a verb but a gerund – a noun, which, along with the other noun denoting his wrongful act, namely, “lapse” have somehow “led” him to be part of the “incident.” For it seems, it is not what he DID but what somehow happened, that has caused the problem for which he is taking the blame. Indeed the first verb to pick up the action is “rail” as in “rail against” and its subject is not the author but “the incident.”

The really bold verbs, “believe” and “fight” come at the end … and they belong to the author of the letter. For he is a believer and a fighter. Not a molester and harasser. No, these words never appear at all in noun or verb form.

Again towards the end, he refers to his “lapse of judgement,” and to the legacy and high principles that he believes in and fights for, and throws in one final, incisive verb to seal the deal of his apology.

It is tragic, therefore, that in a lapse of judgment I have hurt our own high principles. Because it involves Tehelka, and a sterling shared legacy, I feel atonement cannot be just words. I must do the penance that lacerates me.

Ah, the most unkindest cut of all. Lacerate! The only verbs that indicate pain and injury, “hurt” and “lacerate” refer not to the concerned journalist but to himself and his “high principles.”

With apologies like this, who needs self-aggrandizing statements?

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