“Puddings,” she used to call us. “Puddings, the lot of you.” We, her students, would cower in our seats, struggling to say something to restore her state of equanimity. This wasn’t easy though, because being a student of Eunice de Souza’s was never meant to be. “Question everything,” she would insist. Who was saying it, why was it said, what ideology was it meant to represent? Coming, as most of us did, from educational institutions that had traditionally encouraged us to simply follow the book, it was a decree that changed our lives and continues, at least for me, to inform how I approach the world.
Eunice de Souza spent decades teaching English literature at St Xavier’s College in Bombay. When she wasn’t introducing students to new ways of thinking, she spent her time being curious about the world, caring for animals, and being unfailingly generous to a fault. The many roles she played — poet, writer, commentator, academic — didn’t come close to the one she essayed best in my life, as a mentor and friend.
When I went to pay my last respects on July 29 this year, three days before she was to turn 77, the narrow steps to her apartment were unchanged, much as they had been for the 25 years I had often trudged up them. Only, this time around, they were being used by men transferring her belongings, while her body, wrapped in one of her beloved saris, lay unsupervised and forlorn at the back of an undertaker’s van outside. There were just three other people in the home where she had lived for decades, while her quarrelsome neighbours went about their lives unconcerned. It was the kind of unassuming, unfussy end I think she would have appreciated, mourned in silence by the animals she fed regularly in her locality.
There were thousands of people who mourned too, of course, all of whom had been affected by this brilliant woman in all kinds of ways: Students lucky enough to be taught by her, readers who came across her work in anthologies, those who read her weekly newspaper column, academics inspired by her work on women writers, even children who must have been delighted by her versions of Indian folk tales.
In the days following her passing, I thought about how impossible it is to condense a lifetime’s work into a guide for a new reader. How would I introduce the work of Eunice de Souza to someone who had never read her? Eventually, I decided to approach the task chronologically, not simply because it reflected how her interests evolved, but because it showcased her ability to adapt as she went along.
I would start by recommending Fix, because that is how de Souza began her career in 1979. As a debut collection of poetry, there isn’t anything quite like it in the history of Indian writing in English. A black and white photograph of the poet stares defiantly from the cover designed by the late Arun Kolatkar, a smouldering image to complement the 24 powerful poems within. No one before de Souza had chosen to write about Bandra Christian parties or the clergy, nuns and lovers. In doing so, she planted herself squarely in a long line of confessional poets that stretched back to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. ‘It pays to be a poet,’ is how she opens Poem for a Poet. ‘You don’t have to pay prostitutes.’
Her second collection, Women in Dutch Painting, came 9 years later, with what may well be one of her most famous poems, Advice to Women: ‘Keep cats / if you want to learn to cope with / the otherness of lovers.’ Other anthologies were followed by a book called Talking Poems: Conversations with Indian Poets, which appeared in 2001, the same year as Dangerlok, her first work of fiction. The former is an insightful collection of interviews between de Souza and poets like Keki Daruwalla, Nissim Ezekiel and Melanie Silgardo. The latter — a novella about Rina Ferreira, single, middle-aged lecturer of English who has much to say about the decrepit corner of Bombay she lives in — comes closest to replicating just how amusing de Souza could be in real life, when she was in the mood to do so.
A less explored aspect of her work lay in research on everything from nineteenth and early twentieth century Indian writing in English to early poetry, forgotten writers and work published by women in purdah. What did get more attention was her weekly column in a Bombay-based tabloid, which she used to introduce an ever-widening circle of readers to writing from around the world. Over her last year alone, for instance, it examined the wit of Dorothy Parker, dwelt on the importance of poetry in Syria, questioned Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans and examined Charles Dickens’s fascination with crime.
The last thing published by de Souza was a collection of poems titled Learn from the Almond Leaf, in 2016. It was a delight to her, this late visitation from Muses she thought had abandoned her years ago. The poems — sparse, unflinching, economical — distil a life’s work into a minimalist approach at odds with the large themes tackled. In Compound, one of the stanzas reads: ‘Mrs V beats her husband. / The churchman says: Into every life / a little rain must fall.’
My last meeting with de Souza, three weeks before her passing, was spent doing what we always did. She complained about Bombay’s roads, spoke about new writers she had come across, then lit a cigarette and asked if I would like to listen to some poetry. Picking up The World’s Wife, a collection by feminist poet Carol Ann Duffy, she began reading. The poems gave hilarious, acerbic voices to women who had previously been ignored by men across fiction, myth and history.
As de Souza read, her eyes twinkled. ‘Wasn’t that lovely?’ she looked up, smiling. I nodded in agreement. It really was. And so was she.
— First published in GQ India, October 2016