Eunice de Souza was a prolific poet in the English language and has contributed tremendously to the development of Indian English literature. She passed away on July 29 2017, and here is a tribute from a former educationist
“Tell me Mr Death Date, Time, Place…”
Ominous words from ‘Learn from the “Almond Leaf” (2016). An appointment made on July 29 2017 has left a void in the world of Indian Writing in English (IWE) with the demise of Eunice de Souza.
De Souza, an acclaimed poet, writer of novellas, children’s stories, columnist and much more, is no more. We will meet her now only in her literary works that constitutes her memory and the major mark she made in IWE.
My encounter with Eunice de Sousa was in 2001, when I was working on my MPhil degree. My chosen subject was the Indian Christian poets in IWE. But the actual motivation to meet her was some of the poems Eunice wrote for a BA class. As a former boarding school student I quite related to what she wrote about the nuns. As she was one of the poets I would be discussing in my papers, and that I didn’t have enough material on her, I dashed off to Mumbai to St Xavier’s but I couldn’t meet her there as it was the holidays. The authorities didn’t seem to think I could meet her, but I did. She even invited me home, such a gracious person she was! We spoke about where I came from, about teaching and she very kindly gave me a number of books written by her. Unfortunately I could never go back to meet her personally again.
Eunice de Souza wrote at a time when Indian writers in English were beginning to feel less self-conscious about writing in an alien language. Many among this group of poets of the post modern period used their poetry to express a communal identity; trying to find a place in the larger framework of national culture, no matter how odd this sounded to the others. Eunice de Souza knew that English language as a medium of expression almost alienated poets of IWE from the rest of India because English in India was ‘a nowhere language’. These writers were not of the mainstream Hindu society, they were marginalised by their language, community and urbanised outlook. “My students think it funny/that Daruwallas and de Souzas/should write poetry” she remarked in one of her poems. Nevertheless, Eunice expanded the canvas and added Goa and Goan Catholics to the literary map of IWE with specific locales and community specific viewpoints.
Eunice de Souza was a Goan Catholic, born and raised in Poona. She joined St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, in the Department of English and continued teaching there till her retirement. Her first volume of poetry was “Fix” which she wrote in 1975. Her last volume was “Learn from the ‘Almond Leaf’” (2016). Between the two periods she wrote and published other volumes of poetry, anthologies, novellas, folktales among other things.
Many, including her students, considered her a very formidable woman. Arvind Mehrotra once described her as a ‘volcano’. She definitely raised the hackles of many who looked in askance at her attitude. She knew what they thought: “My enemies say I’m a critic because/really I’m writhing with envy/and anyway need to get married…” When asked if she got joy out of her life she responded very gleefully: “As a matter of fact I do/This morning I terrorised/(successfully)/the bank manager”.
Her poetry is about women. “What I am as a poet is the result of what I am in all aspects of my life…only women can talk about their lives.” The battle is to validate the material to begin with – the staff of the women’s lives and women’s experience; not to ‘transcend’. Her sense of survival is strong and optimistic when she says: “One day I will find my axis/and revolve round the sun”. She was not going to accept things as they are because “there is little to be said/ For suffering”. Her advice to women: “Keep cats/if you want to learn to cope/those green eyes will teach you to die alone”.
Despite the tough exterior, her vulnerability seeps through the sarcasm and irony. “There are ways/of belonging/I belong with lame ducks”. She remarks “I am still learning /to cross the road”. Her life has been filled with flaws. She admits in her poems that she has muddled through affairs and learnt nothing from experience; she keeps doing it with monotonous regularity. Sometimes things seem hopeless. It reminds her of her needlework in school when she couldn’t sew the doll and sawdust kept popping out of the doll.
Eunice de Souza is feminist. Her candour and bold pronouncements on power and position reflect resistance literature to fight gender constraints. Her experiences as a woman, the failure, losses or unhappiness emerge without a note of diffidence.
De souza brings out the stranglehold of patriarchal culture which cuts through race, class and community which prefers boys to girls. She too, like many girls in India, had experienced the pain caused by her parent’s disappointment on her birth. She revolts against the expectations of society on conforming and playing roles allocated to women. She is accused of becoming a lipstick-wearing Bombay girl, neglecting her widowed mother. Eunice de Souza found the relationship with her mother stifling and destructive and openly states it. “It was kill or die/ and you got me any way… I was never young / now I am old, alone”. Words which would have shocked and horrified most people brought up to conform. On other occasions she sees in herself a personification of strength, like the goddess Kali. ‘I look striking in red and black/And a necklace of skulls’.
Language is a means of expression for women as well as tool of resistance and source to reclaim lost spaces. She is determined to fight against the idealised picture of women and admits to her faults and flaws. She is frank and open about it in most of her poems using irony and sarcasm as a means of a survival.
Patriarchal structures, whether secular or parochial, are satirised by de Souza. Her run in with the church was well known. She uses comic irony to expose the dominating structures of the Goan Christian community. Apart from the priest, nuns, churches which form the circumference of the regular Catholic world, she focuses on the repression, the hypocrisies and prudery. Dominated by the Catholic milieu she struggles to ‘breathe in an odour of sanctity’. Her poetry gives a very candid description of the laity and clergy in poems like “Feeding the Poor at Christmas”, “Varca, 1942” and “Catholic Mother” in her own acerbic manner. Eunice de Souza’s poetry reveals her focus on the Goan Christian community to which she belonged. The struggle to escape from gender expectations, secular and religious, is reflected in poetry in order to create a self definition for herself.
Eunice de Souza has mapped a large reality of a slice of India, which had never been explored albeit in a trenchant, ironical and even bitter manner. Her experiences have added to the richness of the Indian poetry in English.
Rest in peace, Eunice de Souza.
(The writer is a former principal of Don Bosco College in Panaji)