Makeshift the ground on which we stand: Eunice de Souza (1940-2017)
Vivek Menezes writes about dealing with poet Eunice de Souza, who died on 29 July, as a “privileged Goan Catholic male... the prime target of her most acid verse”books Updated: Jul 31, 2017 20:24 IST
Even before I met Eunice de Souza, she had me overawed, and more than slightly terrified of her. I later found out this was the natural state of being for generations of her students, who encountered the stylish, unconventional, constantly challenging professor of English in her classrooms throughout an influential 30-year career at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. But I studied abroad and was never her student. Instead, de Souza first confronted me in books, most memorably her debut volume of poetry, the mesmerizing ‘Fix’ (Newground, 1979).
That slender collection of just 24, mostly short, poems accosted my consciousness like an ear-splitting thunderclap. It was at once confounding and irresistible, utterly beguiling but also deeply unsettling. For starters, I couldn’t get over the Arun Kolatkar-designed cover, with its silver monochrome portrait of unblinking Eunice close up, with an X etched on her forehead, the instantly obvious reference being to Charles Manson, who had carved up his own face to “secede from the human race.” And then, as I turned the pages gasping at poem after razor-sharp poem, de Souza radically and permanently disturbed my sense of self, cutting mercilessly to the bone to upend any number of cosy certainties.
In just a couple days after her death, a host of moving tributes have illuminated what it was like to have Eunice as a colleague, as an inspirational (and irascible) teacher, as mentor and friend and ally. Almost every one of these testimonials has been written by a woman. But what was it like to have to deal with Eunice de Souza as an unconsciously (innocently?) privileged Goan Catholic male, thus the prime target of her most acid verse? Let me tell you, it never stops being highly uncomfortable. For me, reading Eunice de Souza has always felt uncannily like having my pants pulled off in public, and then receiving an unending succession of stinging kicks to the rear. At first you gasp and squirm, but then eventually become resigned to the inevitable. Finally, as I once confided to Eunice at the end of a long evening, I’ve come to expect and rather enjoy the unmanning and pasting. That quasi-masochistic confidence delighted her no end.
Forgive Me, Mother(Fix, 1979)
Forgive me, mother,
That I left you
a life-long widow
It was kill or die
and you got me anyway:
The blood congeals at lover’s touch
The guts dissolve in shit.
I was never young.
Now I’m old, alone
I hack you.
If there is a unifying theme to Eunice de Souza’s life and lengthy intellectual progression, it is liberation, rigorously essayed at almost any cost. Her emancipatory journey began immediately after school, when she decamped from Poona’s increasingly stifling Goan Catholic community to study at the University of Bombay (she earned a BA (Hons) in English Literature in 1960). Having lost her father at the age of three, the future poet hated growing up in a small-minded, gossipy and judgemental small town universe, where she stood out for being raised by a widowed, embittered mother under somewhat straitened circumstances. That alienating experience never left her, and underlies a considerable portion of her oeuvre.
Unerringly independent of mind, and already possessed of blood-curdling sardonicism, de Souza rapidly achieved notoriety amongst the parochial Aunties and Uncles of Goan Catholic Poona. My mother and uncles grew up with her, and can easily recall the stirs she generated by speaking out in school, and for cultivating adult relationships with proto-bohemians like the Shantiniketan-trained artist, Angelo da Fonseca. Not much later, she wrote a poem that stayed unpublished for decades, “I want a father/always have./God won’t do/He’s too judgemental./And so I found you/ Like my father, absent.”
This, in her own words, is another major theme of de Souza’s life. That is, her ambivalent passion for male company, complete with vulnerability to every kind of disappointment, and a correspondingly deadly eye for weakness, hypocrisy and cant. She truly loved men, that much is more than clear from her writings. But that sentiment was balanced with brutal honesty about their fumbling and foibles, as well as an incandescent ire about the injustice of the way the world works to undermine and sideline her own sex. In important early poems from ‘Fix’ like ‘Bandra Christian Party’, ‘Marriages are Made’ and, most vividly, ‘Catholic Wife’, one or another pompous Goan Catholic “pillar of the church” stands in for all patriarchal hypocrites, while “the pillar’s wife says nothing.”
In 2012, speaking to a rapt and adoring audience in Panjim, the pocket-sized Latinate capital of Goa, de Souza explained, “When I wrote a number of poems, critical in some ways of Goans, I had Poona Goans in mind because those were the ones I knew. Rather like Irish Catholic families, they encouraged parents to have large families, they were concerned with the colour of one’s skin, the wickedness of even knowing about sex. To know about sex was to be ‘sophisticated,’ and that was the most damning word one could apply to a girl. It was some time before I recognized that these were shortcomings we shared with every other community. Nevertheless, I was told by a student that a priest has denounced them from a pulpit at St Peter’s in Bandra. When I told the poet Adil Jussawalla this he said if I continued in the way I was going, I would soon be denounced from St Peter’s in Rome!”
By that point, the feared dragon lady of St Xavier’s was several years into retirement, and allegedly mellowed beyond the recognition of her former pupils. If that is indeed true, I am extremely fortunate it is when our own connection took place. With some trepidation about what might ensue, I was responsible for inviting Eunice for her first-ever reading of her poems in her ancestral homeland on the sidelines of a path-breaking, monumental art exhibition, ‘Aparanta: The Confluence of Contemporary Art in Goa’ curated by Ranjit Hoskote in 2007. In the event, she was disarmingly charming in person, and altogether radiant on stage. None of us could get enough, and she knew it.
Very late one evening on that trip, on a candle lit terrace overlooking the Arabian Sea, de Souza spoke with great feeling about ‘ways of belonging’ that characterized the many-layered relationship she had with her roots, with complicated implications for how Goa finds meaning within modern India. That conversation led to a new, unique Goa Art + Literature Festival focused on what is usually called “the margins” - Goa, Kashmir, the North East states, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as genres like poetry, translations and graphic novels. Eunice repeatedly presided at the annual event with notable pleasure, earning herself a legion of new fans including Khasi rock legend, Lou Majaw (who followed her around like a hefty puppy for days), and then-Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah (who was photographed looking like a mouse transfixed next to Eunice, rendered helpless by her feline, feminine wiles).
India has been scandalously cavalier to the pioneering Indo-Anglian poets, for outdated and hopelessly misguided nationalistic reasons. It was several years after Arun Kolatkar’s death that his genius was adequately recognized, typically disgracefully only after his work was published to great acclaim in the USA. There is no doubt in my mind the same will happen to Eunice de Souza’s poems, which have a rare universal quality that seem to me inherently resistant to becoming dated. They will last, with impact undimmed, as one of the vital modernist artistic achievements of independent India.
However, it is as anthologist that Eunice truly stands alone. Over decades of spirited labour, she unearthed and revived the work of a prodigious number of overlooked and forgotten writers. Our understanding of the breadth of Indian literature is incalculably enriched by books like ‘Purdah: An Anthology’ (OUP, 2004), ‘Women’s Voices: Selections from Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Indian Writing in English’ (OUP, 2004), and ‘Early Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology 1829-1947’ (OUP, 2005). As she explained in the introduction to the latter volume, she was motivated to “re-map” comprehensively. “Literary battles take place in every culture, colonized and colonizing, and class, region, gender and religion all come into play when deciding who or what creates a nation’s identity, who speaks for it. It is my impression that, in India at least, the battle too often takes precedence over the actual reading of texts. In fact, come of it takes place without texts being read at all.”
It is both typical and maddening of Eunice to have departed a lifetime of burrowing through mountains of archives, while leaving behind just a few slim books of poetry for us who remain. I remember her laughing inscrutably at my suggestion that she was the only writer in the world whose collected works actually dwindled quite appreciably over the years, as lines were re-assessed then deleted, and some poems discreetly abandoned in toto. She was the knife whittling to the irreducible, always trying to distill an encompassing world view to a few spare lines. That microcosmic impulse is particularly evident in her last book of poems, the wry, luminous ‘Learn from the Almond Leaf’ where a poet at the height of her powers returns often to the prospect of the end. All those who knew Eunice de Souza realize this wasn’t an accident. It’s just that she couldn’t trust anyone else to do clear-eyed justice to her epitaph.
Another Poem About Death (Learn from the Almond Leaf, Poetrywala 2016)
I keep hearing sounds
Of wind and water.
There is no wind.
There is no water.
There is no air.
I see the pallor on her face
The hardening hand
There is no one there.
Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer, and co-founder and curator of the Goa Arts & Literature Festival.