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Eunice de Souza’s life in poems

In the largely male literary universe in 1980's Mumbai, Eunice de Souza stood out as a powerful voice who wrote about what moved her, and on her own terms

A file photo of Eunice de Souza.  Courtesy: Madhu Kapparath
A file photo of Eunice de Souza. Courtesy: Madhu Kapparath

Eunice de Souza was not my professor, but I learnt a lot from her. I first met her in 1986. She was already an accomplished poet, known for her acerbic wit. But she also warmly encouraged students in whom she saw talent. I had returned from the US with a degree and had started work as assistant editor, looking after the editorial page and cultural coverage, at The Indian Post, a new daily that the Emergency-era hero S. Nihal Singh edited. Eunice edited the books section of our remarkable weekend magazine, which Ammu Joseph edited.

She saw some of my early poetry, and to my relief, suggested I continue—but I must discard sentimentality, she said, an affliction common among the young. She stressed leanness and clarity: Take out the unessential, think again what you have to say, shed the excess, and let the thought speak. She could be encouraging and warm if she thought you deserved to be read more widely, sharp and incisive if she thought you needed to work harder, and candid without being cruel if she thought you should do something else.

Her first collection was called Fix. Arun Kolatkar designed the cover, with a silver X marked on her forehead, like Shiva’s third eye, as she stares into your eyes in that black and white photograph, fixing you in her stare, refusing to stay fixed herself, her body and mind fluid, her eyes liquid, her poetry, flowing.

She applied that discipline to her own writing: how spare her poems were. Her tone could be light while presenting the darkest thoughts. Death was a frequent theme—death as in finality, as in permanent absence, as in conclusion, a full-stop. About her father’s death, she wrote:

That was a different kind of

Death. They didn’t know

I often asked

‘What have they done to my daddy?’

and that nobody could explain.

When you lose a loved one, you are often told that God will act like a father and look after you. De Souza didn’t like such false promises. I want a father, she wrote. “God won’t do. He’s too judgemental. And so I found you—like my father, absent."

She was aware of being a minority within a minority. My students, she said, thought it funny that “Daruwallas and de Souzas should write poetry", challenging their, and our, presumptions about who could write. She laid bare the utterly decontextualized syllabus students had been exposed to at school—daffodils and skylarks in tropical India, if you please. “Poetry is faery lands forlorn. Women writers Miss Austen." And the assumed submissiveness of the subaltern: “Only foreign men air their crotches."

She wrote about sadness, but her poetry was not bleak. De Souza would see hope in the last red leaf on an almond tree that refused to fall. To her, silences were not intimidating; the absence of words only meant that memories were garrulous. She wrote about faith and its assumed virtues, the absurd certainties it provides, and the self-righteousness it allows. The pious, she noted, would arrive an hour late to feed the poor, to see the “poor dears, like children waiting for a treat". There are petty cruelties in false piety, and she made them stark.

Martand Singh, the former secretary of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, had once said, “Ultimately, a god becomes an ashtray." It was a statement that the late Pupul Jayakar often cited while speaking of how objects of worship of one culture would turn into items of kitsch in another. Years earlier, de Souza wrote of an encounter that presaged that cultural insight:

My Portuguese-bred colleague

Picked up a clay shivalingam

One day and said:

Is this an ashtray?

No, said the salesman,

This is our God.

We lived in an innocent era then, when such a poem could be written with ease and appreciated for the irony, the poet’s tone not questioned; when words did not have to be measured for their impact and, sometimes, swallowed for fear of causing offence (hours after de Souza died on 29 July, I quoted one of her poems on social media, and predictably, someone who knew neither de Souza, nor poetry, took umbrage over a term the poem used).

In what has become of India, narrow nationalists would question her right to say anything about India, given the name she had and the faith she was born in. Anticipating that, she once wrote:

No matter that

My name is Greek

My surname Portuguese

My language alien.

There are ways of belonging.

I belong with the lame ducks.

The 1980s were a heady time for English poetry in India, in particular in Bombay, as it was known then. Dom Moraes had returned from his wanderings and was writing, Nissim Ezekiel was running PEN and organizing readings at Theosophy Hall, Arun Kolatkar could be found at the Wayside Inn at Kala Ghoda, Dilip Chitre was a regular feature on the cultural scene, Adil Jussawalla was at Debonair magazine and, with psychotherapist Udayan Patel, was publishing poetry under the imprint Praxis. Santan Rodrigues, Melanie Silgardo and Raul d’Gama Rose were publishing poems at Newground, Saleem Peeradina was teaching writing at the Sophia Open Classrooms (where I was a student, as was Arshia Sattar), Gieve Patel was writing poetry, plays, and found the time to run a medical practice, and Jeet Thayil, Ranjit Hoskote, Menka Shivdasani, Jerry Pinto and Arundhathi Subramanyam had begun writing their early verse.

And it was in that largely male universe that Eunice de Souza stood out as one who wrote about what moved her, and on her terms. She wrote about being a woman, the disappointment that may have wrought in her family.

I heard it said

My parents wanted a boy.

I’ve done my best to qualify.

I hid the bloodstains

On my clothes

And let my breasts sag.

Words the weapon

to crucify.

Her quiet anger seethed. In Marriages Are Made, she writes about her cousin Elena, who is to be married, and the kind of intrusive examination that follows—not only about the family’s finances, but her body, commented upon as though she were a commodity being traded. Or, in another poem, Sweet Sixteen, where religious orthodoxy suppresses all thoughts on sexuality and a nun screams at the teenager so that she must call brassieres “bracelets", and then the nun pins “paper sleeves onto our sleeveless dresses". And the naïve credulity about facts of life:

At sixteen, Phoebe asked me:

Can it happen when you’re in a dance hall

I mean, you know what,

Getting preggers and all that, when

You’re dancing?

I, sixteen, assured her

You could.

She wrote about the silence imposed on women—of her grandmother, who bore seven children but who often escaped to her mother, where “she and the servants spoke the same language of silence". Seeing silent women in Dutch paintings, she wrote of the afternoon sun on their faces, where the women were “calm, not stupid; pregnant, not bovine", and spoke of women like that whom she knew, one of whom had a voice that was “oatmeal and honey". Canvases don’t speak, so de Souza gave those silent women voice. She rejoiced in every assertion of individualism, as in

They said

now she wears lipstick

now she is a Bombay girl.

“The creative process being what it is, I don’t really know where the poems came from," she wrote in the introduction to her collection, A Necklace Of Skulls. “But I am endlessly grateful that they turned up." As are we.

With characteristic pithiness, she ended a poem:

It will be heaven to get out of here.

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