Eunice de Souza (1940-2017): Poet and inspirational teacher who lived with enjoyment and defiance

A tribute to the poet, who died on Saturday, by a former student.

Those unlucky enough not to have been in her class still have her poems. But Eunice de Souza will be remembered more vividly by students who recall her character-forming skin-flaying sarcasm, which left its 19-year-old recipients both dazed and admiring. To be a student in the English major classroom at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, in the 1980s was to be scorched occasionally by her bruising gaze as she flicked knowingly at the safe domesticity of community life. She goaded us into acknowledging that our futures had already been safely plotted in pattern books and like so many Miss Havishams in reverse, we would succumb to the frothy white prettiness of identical wedding dresses and cakes and children and photo albums that we were forewarned not to bore her with on her train commute into work everyday.

Our hearts bled for the unsophisticated unfortunates who may have thrust these into her lap at intervals and for our own now tattered futures. It was the first time that we had encountered poetry that gripped accurately at the smallness, closeness, the familiarity of Catholic life, dragging it into a light that showed its dim corners and darkness. It was shockingly disloyal and enabling. It gave us a language we had never possessed before. It showed us how to stand within and without the byways of words and cultures, the overused and the unnoticed. It was these routes around Pune and Bombay that were blooded by contemporary poets whose words recreated the local in modernist Bombay English, with the associated world of Bombay Marathi not too far behind if we could step out of our cultural corners.

Her astonishing book of poems, Women in Dutch Painting, occupied a distinct place at the time: a book that much like the poet, gave no quarter. She embodied unquestionably, a possible feminist life, lived with enjoyment and defiance, which elicited our responsive regard. “Oh for god’s sake!” she would say, touching the customary silver choker around her neck, of feminists who criticised her adornment and jewellery, “I just put this on as a way to get going in the morning!” The singularity of her personality exacted a price as it might, for large personalities in small places characteristically do not leave a lot of space for co-habitants. But these may be counterweighed or not, by acts of support to those who had transgressed social boundaries. In any case, she would not care.

 “Learn from the almond leaf
which flames as it falls.
The ground is burning.
The earth is burning.
is all.” 

— 'Learn from the Almond Leaf' from 'Learn from the Almond Leaf' (2016)/

Certainly, there was nothing remote or ungenerous or disabling about her presence at St. Xavier’s – quite the reverse. A stream of poets and poems appeared in our classroom, from Santan Rodrigues to Nissim Ezekiel and Keki Daruwalla. Adil Jussawalla attended a seminar in the damp college offsite campus in Khandala. Things we took for granted with the privilege of students – poets who emerged to lecture us, and teachers who took long-distance trains to drizzly places, because what could be more enjoyable?

There were no limits to her syllabus and we learnt to recognise the poetry of the Polish underground alongside American lesbian prose. Everything was new as it often is or used to be, to undergraduates. She and other teachers in the department honed our ears for modernist writing, publishing books, and holding literary festivals and plays. She continued a literary life outside the department, writing novels, newspaper columns, attending literary festivals and editing anthologies, along with collections of poems, among which were Ways of Belonging (1990), A Necklace of Skulls (2009) and the most recent Learn from the Almond Leaf (2016). No work of fiction or poetry equaled the early books of poems, but here is another from the last collection:

“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.

— ‘Western Ghats’ from 'Learn from the Almond Leaf' (2016).

She gave us a singular education, the gift of private appreciation of language and the enjoyment of beholding her unique person, an example for young people before they are nudged into conformity. Her reading aloud of poems before she began to teach them is a long-standing aural memory for students, some of whom got married, happily enough in white dresses.

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