Elegy for E
you still dial her number.
You dial Fix,
you dial Dutch Painting,
you dial Almond Leaf.
It always connects.
She always answers
the phone herself.
How does she do it,
line after line?
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
I find it hard to think of Eunice De Souza in the past tense, considering I have known her for two-thirds of my life now. She was a legendary professor of literature when we first met; I, a student hoping for admittance to her class. It was not easy, because Heads of Departments at St Xavier’s College had the autonomy to decide which students were and weren’t qualified to sit for their lectures. I sometimes think about a parallel universe in which she rejected me, and compare it to this one where she didn’t, and arrive at the conclusion that she effectively charted a course for the rest of my life without my knowing it.
Eunice De Souza was many things to many people — a powerful poet with an independent voice who wrote about Catholic priests and Bandra Christmas parties when no one else knew what to say about either; an economical novelist who spoke of love and longing with unnatural ease; a much-loved columnist who introduced readers to all kinds of strange and wonderful writers from around the world; an unforgiving critic who was ruthless in pursuit of her idea of perfection; and an enthusiastic researcher who would think nothing of spending hours in poorly-lit library rooms in search of a forgotten essay. These were roles she wore over a lifetime with an enthusiasm that never dimmed.
For me though, she was always a teacher and, over time, a friend. She taught me for close to a decade, through my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, before accepting a role as my guide for a doctoral thesis on gender attitudes implicit in nineteenth century fiction in English. None of the work I managed to complete over this period would have been possible without her encouragement.
My last meeting with her involved a long discussion on things we always chose to talk about: the undeniable and inevitable decline of Bombay, the state of contemporary fiction and some of her favourite poets. She then invited me — as she always did — to pick a few books from her collection. It was the same generosity of spirit that informed so much of her teaching and made her such an unforgettable presence in the lives of so many of her students. We were lucky to have her, and Indian writing in English will be a lot poorer with her gone.
Lindsay Pereira (Former student who co-authored Women’s Voices: Selections from Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Indian Writing in English with Eunice De Souza.)
‘Eunice’s poems and her work as a teacher are legendary.
But not many people know that among her closest friends
were those in the realm of beasts and birds. The last time
we spoke on the phone – the day before her death – she said
it was odd that people thought conservation meant caring for
them, the beasts and the birds. She believed that in a very real
but mysterious way, they cared for us. “Believing that helps.
doesn’t it?’ I asked.’Yes it does,” she replied. Those were
just about the last words I heard her speak.’
Oh Captain! My Captain!”
If I don’t drive around the park,
I’m pretty sure to make my mark.
If I’m in bed each night by ten,
I may get back my looks again,
If I abstain from fun and such,
I’ll probably amount to much,
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.
—Observation by Dorothy Parker
I can’t say I ever liked Eunice De Souza. But, by God, I admired her.
Her reputation always preceded her. I had just moved back to the city, and everyone I spoke to about doing Literature at St. Xavier’s College would mention her name with reverence. There seemed to be an aura around her. She was a maverick, didn’t hesitate in calling “bullshit” on things, was delightfully sardonic and smoked under a no smoking sign on campus. She was a poetess who sparred with the best of them and a published writer when it actually meant something. Not only was she faculty, she was also part of the syllabus. She was (and she would hate the word) COOL!
Eunice was strict, brusque and had a trademark way of speaking that made everything she said sound sarcastic. She didn’t suffer fools, and quickly ticked off brown-nosers. She despised the lack of independent thought; and if you ever sat blankly in her class or simply chorused an answer by rote, she would chastise you with the most wonderful terms like “Puddings”, “Cabbages”, “Vacuous”. She managed to insult, entertain and educate you all at the same time. She challenged you to be better than you were. And I dare say, many young men, and particularly young women, were inspired to break familial conventions and forge their own paths thanks to her. She introduced us to the magic of Dorothy Parker, the bawdiness of ancient Sanskrit writings and the power of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. She was our very own Keating.
We clashed quite often during my student years on topics ranging from the diminishing levels of courteousness in the world, to the programming of Ithaka (the annual English Department festival). And yet, she was a huge influence in my life.
I was only 18 when she turned to me and said, “Would you like to direct the Ithaka play?” I was thunderstruck. It had never occurred to me. I had always thought I was only an actor. Now, twenty years later, I realise I owe my entire career to that one question. We argued at length about the choice of script, and she was gracious enough to let me win that one. She never questioned or challenged content. And when it came to light that the play selected was looking at the debate between Creationism and Evolution, she went to bat for me with the Catholic administration.
I think I won her over a little when the next Ithaka play I directed was based on writer Henry David Thoreau. She guided me to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and of Thoreau himself. Digging up old books and photocopying them in the pre-internet age. I am extremely grateful for that, because pouring through those writings influenced not only the play, but my life beliefs as well.
Rifling through one of those old photocopies I stumbled across this Thoreau quote:
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.
For me this was Eunice De Souza. She lived life exclusively on her terms. And taught so many of us to seek out our own beat. More than her words, more than her books, more than her memories, she survives in the army of free thinkers she helped foster.
Thank you ma’am.
Quasar Thakore Padamsee
30th July, 2017.
It was with great sadness that I learnt of the death of Eunice De Souza.
Eunice was my mentor, my friend. I was fortunate enough to major in English Literature, at St. Xavier’s college in 1972 and perhaps belonged to one of her earliest batches of students.
Eunice was a fantastic teacher. Referencing was new to us. She taught us never to accept statements, just because they were made by reputed writers. Instead she persuaded us to think, to question and come to our own conclusions. She also encouraged us to apply these critical skills to novels, poems and movies. This influenced my outlook on ideas and beliefs that I had previous blindly accepted. It is also a quality I try to inculcate in my own students – the courage to perceive in one’s own unique fashion.
Eunice had faith in my ability to write and that gave me the confidence to attempt poems, stories and plays. Her standards were impossibly high. She let you know, in no small terms, if she was dissatisfied with your work. If she was pleased with what you submitted, you felt like doing back flips all over the quadrangle! She could be unbelievably supportive if she felt you were sincerely making an effort. She somehow found out that I did not have a particular text book. She also knew I could not stay on after lectures to refer to it in the library, because I had other commitments, so one day she handed me her personal copy of this text to use!
Eunice raised the toast at my wedding and wrote a forward for my book of poems- Different Faces. Over the years, we discussed various issues, exchanged our personal stories and shared a wry sense of humour. When I spoke to her in January, on my last trip to India, interested and encouraging as ever, she wanted to read some of my latest work. I told her, since coming to Australia I seemed to have lost the poetry. Instead, I said, I had been concentrating on writing plays and songs for the school children I teach. Eunice asked me about the songs and I half-sang/recited one of my favourite ones to her. “Don’t worry!”- she said. “The poetry is still there!”
Eunice would have been 77 on the 1st of August, 2017. Happy Birthday, Eunice! Where ever you are, I wish you wonder and beauty, humour and poetry. Thank you for being an important part of my memories and my life!
Marilyn Bayros Noronha
Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot
Damn that book.
Damn that bird.
Another packet of cigs lies in shreds
on the floor.
Show who’s boss, the book says.
I shout at him.
He shouts back.
Really, I may as well have been
That’s the last poem from Eunice De Souza’s last book of poems “Learn from the Almond Leaf”. I can hear it almost as though Eunice had said it to me across a dinner table. She would have spoken the last two lines with a guffaw, hoarse from all the cigarettes, and all the more poignant and merry for that.
From all the years of knowing her as a very dear friend, could I try to identify her most enduring qualities as person and as poet? Laughter, I think; and vulnerability. There was great range to the laughter. Devil-may-care, hopeless, ironical, sharing a happy moment, bitter, a defeated sympathy for the sorrowing world, also victorious. Not many writers can pack all of that (and more!) into a poem of eight lines. She could do that. And as human being she would have had to consent to carry the weight of it all. That’s how poets live. And survive.
And the vulnerability. Like all of us, she was different things to different people. Many learned to fear her sharp comments and retorts. She could be devastating, and cruelly dismissive. But she also had a large following of good friends, and admirers of her work. The vulnerability cut through both the cruel and the sympathetic personae. A fragile core was sustaining all of it.
This fragile core was also astonishingly resilient. Over the years this resilience allowed her to excel in a variety of endeavours: a wonderful teacher, her students from St. Xavier’s College remember her classes with affection and admiration. Editor of a substantial number of publications on the writings of women, many of them personally researched. As a journalist she wrote a widely read weekly column on the arts in Mumbai Mirror. And she nursed a collection of birds and animals in her home (that’s where the parrot in the poem quoted above comes in).
But like all true poets, it is poetry she lived for, those nuggets of condensed words she could mould to express an astonishingly wide range feelings for an equally wide range of subjects.
Here is an obituary she has written for herself, superbly defiant!
Fling my ashes in the Western Ghats
They’ve always seemed like home.
May the leopards develop
A taste for poetry
The crows and kites learn
To modulate their voices.
May there be mist and waterfalls
Grass and flowers
In the wrong season.
Mumbai, 29 July 2017