I deserved approbation for many things back then. I deserved censure for my sense of entitlement. I could be berated for believing that to be treated with respect was my divine right. I was rightfully admonished for glancing all around me, my gaze unrestrained.
My ignorance of the cultures of others and established boundaries therein may justly have been denounced. For responding to the calls of my heart — despite all contrary evidence proving that I was seriously mistaken — it was right that I be rebuked.
For all of that, I had a duty to apologise. To two of them, I have apologised directly. A third, I hope will have learnt of my regret from the first. One of them I spoke to in person by telephone. With the other, we exchanged a single message on Facebook. The rest, I can only invoke in my prayers. I’m truly sorry for all I did which caused others to feel uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, at the time and for many years afterwards, I didn’t understand those events at all. I didn’t see them coming. They seemed to hit me out of nowhere, when I was least expecting it, as a result of which I felt myself victimised by everyone involved. It began with mockery, the first time our paths crossed at the beginning of our second year at college, when we all took the same AS-level Government and Politics course.
The mockery, I confess I deserved. My latest assailants just followed in a long line of others pouring scorn on my contemptible stupidity a year earlier. My extreme naivety and immaturity was justly rewarded with unrelenting humiliation. That was how I first became aware of those who would go on to be my fiercest critics. Ironically, had they chosen to ignore me, they would simply have merged into the background like everyone else.
Instead, those interactions stamped an imprint on my heart that never faded. Though I have forgotten the names of many whose paths crossed with mine through the years, I have always remembered these. That was because, for me, those fractious relationships developed into open conflict, evolving from low-level derision into unrelenting harassment.
To the best of my knowledge, the conflict began with the intervention of a friend. A good friend, I suppose, who thought he was acting with my best interests at heart, sticking up for a mate distressed by unforeseen disdain. Uninvited, he decided he would do something about the ridicule he saw besetting me, choosing to tackle it head on, as I suppose I should have done had I not been timid and shy.
Pleased with himself, my friend approached me one afternoon to announce that he had spoken to my detractors at length and had thus sorted everything out for me. From there on, my life would be filled with pure joy and peace, as I set about focussing on my studies alone, anonymous and ignored once more.
Only it didn’t exactly pan out that way. Whatever my friend said to my detractors simply made everything worse. I can only imagine that he didn’t just ask them to stop laughing at his mate; I can only assume that he embellished that request with extraneous information he believed would help my case.
Then again, my friend wasn’t the only person there offering unsolicited opinions on my behalf. In the background there were others, likewise representing and interpreting reality however they pleased. Unbeknownst to me, a narrative had taken hold which cast me in the worst possible light. Not as an enlightened chap with a diverse group of friends, but as an exploitative jerk with ulterior motives.
Thus I was held in gross contempt, censured all over, despised, the narrative constructed sounding utterly plausible to all who heard it. Perhaps that account seemed to fit my face, or a stereotype about people who looked like me. But in the end it was all assumption, for nobody knew anything about me. Not even my so-called best friend knew me, despite forever speaking on my behalf.
When I wrote my letters of apology, I spoke of conflict. It might not have been conflict to others, but it absolutely was for me, because I was on the receiving end of it. For me, those were horrible times, truly amongst the worst. I was harassed daily based on whatever was made up in somebody’s head that morning, my interactions with others continuously obsessed over and judged corrupt. Even the simplest act of kindness would be blown up out of all proportion, as yet more evidence that everything that was said about me was true.
In their defence, I refer back to the opening paragraphs of this post. I had little cultural awareness back then. I was not aware of the expectations which governed gender interactions. The only Asians I had encountered up until then were my uncle and his family, all of whom were Christians originating from Chennai in southern India. I was not familiar with Punjabi culture at all, let alone their concepts of honour.
In my defence, I had my own take on virtue and honour, which is precisely why I took that conflict so personally. My detractors held that every young woman had to be defended against me and my desires. That became the ironic slander which followed me around. Ironic, because I had the strictest parents of anyone there. Ironic, because I was from a religious home in which there was an expectation of chastity and abstinence from intimate relationships until marriage.
Understand that mine wasn’t just any Christian family. My mother was amongst the first ordained female priests in the Church of England. Previously she was a hospital chaplain. My father was both a respected solicitor and a lay preacher and canon. Two of our uncles were missionaries working in east Africa. Our entire social sphere was orientated around the church. There were no non-practising Christians in our family, except for me. I was an agnostic, but still attended church due to parental coercion.
I guess the reason the slanders hurt me so profoundly was because I was a quiet young man just trying to do what was right, despite inner turmoil. In fact, unbeknownst to them, I even defended my detractors against the derision of my friends, who likely believed their mockery would cheer me up. Yes, I was such a bad person, that despite being slandered daily, I still told my friends not to make fun of my worst critic. Of course, they would have said, “He has ulterior motives!”
But the truth? Everybody there — both friend and foe — was completely wrong about me. I wasn’t seeking any kind of brief liaison or one-night stand at all. To be charitable, I could say that I was both misjudged and misunderstood. Being less charitable, I would say that I was the victim of multiple slanders and lies. I suppose the difference is immaterial. In the end, there is just the truth about the relationships I have had in my life.
Those who imagined I was pursuing serial conquests will be surprised to learn that my twenty-one year long marriage to my beloved is my first and only romantic relationship. When I married her, aged twenty-four, she was my first love. Up until then, I was an exceedingly patient man, seeking but never finding. In truth, I saved myself for the woman I ultimately married, because that is exactly what I always wanted. I was always seeking a wholesome, loving marriage, founded on mutual-respect and care.
Whatever else was once claimed were complete fabrications, made real only in the minds of those that repeated them, friend or foe. To others, perhaps, it was just innocuous jest, but to me it came to define every passing moment for months on end. I remember some of those moments and interventions like they were yesterday.
I remember the mocking laughter at my expense, when my fiercest critic tried to get Kevin to sort me out on the first day back after New Year. Five minutes after that, a Pakistani student I had considered a close friend declared that he was never going to speak to me again. Impeccable timing. All of a sudden, an escalation of offensive hostilities, as my detractors sought to isolate me completely. And they succeeded.
Too many years have passed now to ever hope for an apology for the pervasive slanders which destroyed the last of my self-esteem back then. In truth, none I apologised to for my own part in that conflict remembered me at all. Indeed, they didn’t even know what I was talking about, for we have all lived whole lifetimes since then. All that remains is to forgive. Perhaps those slanders, and others like them since, will be some kind of purification for my soul.
For my part, for years now I have projected onto those folk every good opinion I can muster, giving them their seventy excuses. Indeed, I have invented a positive image of each of them in my head, nearly imagining them as old friends. Strange but true.
Actually, it’s stranger than that: throughout the entire month of Ramadan this year, I remembered each of them in my sunset supplications, just before breaking my fast each day. I don’t really know the state of their affairs today, so I just prayed for whatever sprang to mind.
For SK, the light of faith and ease in all of her affairs. For NG, to be honoured, valued and cherished by the man she loves, supported by her family and granted guidance from above. For TB, a righteous husband and good health. For NS and his family: that the One rectify all of their affairs and grant them guidance and goodness in their lives. For the others: just all the good things they desire.
Such is the heart of one long forgotten, appreciative of these old friends of mine, who themselves helped carry me towards the best of things. Why should I not then be grateful?