Eunice de Souza (1940-2017): No Tears in the Eye of the Storm
To mourn the poet and teacher Eunice de Souza, who died on July 29, is also to mourn a period and a milieu in Bombay’s cultural life when the arts had not become narrowly professionalised and mutually separated
Eunice de Souza (1940-2017) never had the slightest patience with the claims of a normality imposed by consensus or authority. Not one to be trapped in a ghetto, whether ethnic, academic or political, she early embraced the rapture of all that was strange and liberating. In her poem ‘Return’, she revisits the moment when she first heard the French Jesuit and translator Guy Deleury, then resident at the Christa Prema Seva Ashram, read the Marathi saint-poet Tukaram’s abhangas:
Tuka, forgive my familiarity.
I have loved your pithy verses
ever since that French priest
everyone thought mad
recited them, and told us
of his journey with your people.
You made life hard for your wife
and I’m not sure I approve of that.
Nor did you heed her last request:
Come back soon.
Deleury, with his lifelong devotion to Tukaram and to India’s Bhakti literature of ecstasy and protest, was an emancipatory part of de Souza’s growing up in Poona, where she was born in 1940. Demonstrating her refusal to conform to what she experienced as the stifling pieties and norms of her Goan Catholic birth community, she sought out unusual, even eccentric figures like Deleury (who later renounced his priestly calling and entered secular life) and the Santiniketan-trained Goan émigré artist Angelo da Fonseca, whose radiant Indianisation of Christian iconography had prompted orthodox opinion to cast him into exterior darkness. Such presences, and the pathways they opened up, nourished de Souza’s imagination.
At the same time, as a young poet and academic, de Souza articulated the difficulties confronted by a woman making her way in the India of the 1960s and 1970s, a postcolonial society in which feudalism and patriarchy continued to dominate public life and the accepted perception of gender destiny. As a student in the Midwest at the beginning of the 1960s, de Souza would surely have caught the thrum of dissidence that would soon challenge the American ascendancy in the name of race, gender and sexual choice during the civil rights movements. Although she returned to India in 1963, these revolutions in thought and practice inspired her at a distance. While the label ‘confessional’ is a reductive and inadequate one, de Souza’s encounter with the work of such poets as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich offered her models of poetry that opened up forms of public expression for women, forms that allowed for the naming and saying of personal experiences that had no place in a patriarchal framework.
De Souza’s feminism was mapped along a spectrum from the sardonic to the ferocious. Some of her targets were more fortunate than others. Tukaram, loved for his startling and often irreverent poetry of mystical transport, is gently rebuked for his indifference to his wife’s struggles. But in the precisely titled ‘Autobiographical’, de Souza appears to pay the patriarchy back in its own coin before recording the insight that structural violence replicates itself in an internalised counter-violence of the individual that is every bit as corrosive and depleting:
I thought the whole world
was trying to rip me up
cut me down go through me
with a razor blade
then I discovered
a cliché: that’s what I wanted
to do to the world.
In the later ‘Songs of Survival’, she registers a move towards a more stoic, ironic stance, not resignation so much as wisdom:
Practice grave courtesy:
there are no tears in the
eye of the storm.
Survive to know you can.
There is little to be said
It has been tempting for many readers to interpret de Souza’s poetry as the unfolding chronicle of an embattled self constantly crafting idioms of belonging in a hostile world. While this account has its own relevance, a survey of her expanded practice reveals the opposite of self-absorption. Her approach to the world was versatile and founded on a restless curiosity. Throughout her career, de Souza was active as a literary critic, editor, researcher, and columnist. She wrote art criticism for some years, and retained a lively interest in the visual arts. She wrote books for children and compiled benchmark anthologies such as These My Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry, a collaboration with her lifelong friend and colleague Melanie Silgardo.
To mourn de Souza is also to mourn a period and a milieu in Bombay’s cultural life when the arts had not become narrowly professionalised and mutually separated, and when compelling intellectual and artistic synergies exploded across the scene. Writers and painters, architects and filmmakers, activists and advertising professionals met, formed friendships and collegialities, often collaborated, or inspired one another’s enterprises. Poets like Nissim Ezekiel transited between academia and the visual arts. Poets like Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre straddled the worlds of literature and advertising. Poets like Adil Jussawalla were active in academia, journalism and publishing. These cultural experimenters and their contemporaries were responsive to theatre and music, often working together with colleagues to develop work beyond the page. Many of them were engaged in translation, as a bridge between languages and language-universes separated by historical circumstances. They were committed to keeping the transmission lines of literature open, whether through little magazines or small presses, as the splendid recent research of scholars like Laetitia Zecchini and Anjali Nerlekar has shown.
Read more: Makeshift the ground on which we stand: Eunice de Souza (1940-2017)
While the Clearing House publishing collective has, correctly, received retrospective acclaim for its role in this history, the 1960s and 1970s were animated by numerous, often intersecting, mutually replenishing reading circles and publishing platforms of varying longevity. Among these were the circle around Nissim Ezekiel at the PEN, the salons that Kamala Das convened, imprints such as Pras Prakashan, and successors to Clearing House such as Newground and Praxis, which published de Souza’s early collections of poetry. The critical, vigorously recalcitrant, self-renewing energies of this background continued to pulse through Eunice de Souza’s work until the very end. Wintry as its wisdom sounds, her last book of poems, Learn from the Almond Leaf, published last year, offers us unquiet, incandescent meditations like ‘A Smattering of Rain’:
A smattering of rain,
Earth lets off steam.
A hawk falls.
A volcano upchucks.
Earth’s heart is still
Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator.