‘Who will love Eunice de Souza’s birds and strays now? A friend recollects the poet’s other life

‘We spoke of our lives and our jobs, our neighbourhoods – and not of poetry or books or ideas.’

I met Eunice de Souza in Hyderabad for the first time, way back in the mid-1990s. I was still trying to get used to the fancy moniker – “deputy secretary” – which the Sahitya Akademi had recently conferred upon me, and mostly felt something of a fraud at writers’ gatherings. I never pretended to be an intellectual; however, I did observe keenly the various things intellectuals did and said, and the subtle ways in which they conducted their intricate politics.

At Hyderabad that year, I was tasked with shepherding a large party of writers and scholars who had all gathered for our annual board meeting under the convenorship of Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee. The entire party was housed in the staid but leafy guest house of CIEFL (now EFLU) and in between the administrative errands, I noticed how Eunice stood apart in that august gathering – a poet among academics, it seemed to me, her large bindi catching the sun.

Shining in a corner

As the meeting commenced in the rather sombre committee room, once or twice she made worthy points, but when these were cast aside – for one reason or another – Eunice angled her body outward, almost as though she had left the meeting, and began smoking her special brand of cigarettes, one after the other. Since I was always bullied at meetings myself and could never strike such a pose, I found myself falling a little in love with her. Later that night, while the dignitaries people talked about dignified things, Eunice and I fell into a tentative friendship, talking of the quotidian and the mundane.

Her lacerating sarcasm is the stuff of legends. Had I known of it then, perhaps I would not have dared to sidle up to her to chat. But I didn’t, and so when she nursed her vodka, I thought to interrupt her. And then – and later – it was her gentleness that I encountered. We talked about the peculiar trials of being only children and the problems of living with tyrannical old women (her aunt, my mother, both Aunt Agathas to cross reference Wodehouse). We spoke of our lives and our jobs, our neighbourhoods (Vakola, CR Park) – and not of poetry or books or ideas as everyone around us was doing importantly. We might have made fun of these important subjects too.

Later, when I began to read Eunice’s poetry, I found several I loved. Here’s one:

Meeting Poets

Meeting poets I am disconcerted sometimes
by the colour of their socks
the suspicion of a wig
the wasp in the voice
and an air, sometimes, of dankness.
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea.

The otherness of children too, I had commented to her darkly when we met recently and I told her how much I enjoyed Advice to Women. We discussed her poetry rarely, unless it was to complain (mildly) that there were many of her poems I did not quite understand. A poem must not make sense in a way that it can be paraphrased, she explained to me then. A poem must simply be.

Over the decades, Eunice and I maintained our camaraderie through phone calls and emails and occasional visits to each other’s cities. There were some literary events too. She invited me home for dinner and introduced me to her elderly aunt and birds. I learnt that she would have a hundred rotis made every single day to feed the stray dogs she had adopted (roti and meat, mind you). She would ask after my children and my (tyrannical) mother. I would ask after her scattered family.

Away from networking

One memorable occasion two years ago, she found herself in Delhi at a literary festival that annoyed her greatly. Pushy writers got on her nerves, and Delhi seemed to her to be a lodestone for the networking types. I rescued her and we spent an afternoon ambling around Khan Market, shopping and eating. The weather was delightful, the food excellent, but Eunice was missing her darlings.

Her parrot was known to pout the moment she stepped out of her room in a sari (since it meant she was going out) and ignored her pointedly when she returned from her trips. Her once-tyrannical aunt was also now much subdued – and she found herself wanting to return home and travel less. A couple of weeks after this, she wrote to me to say that her aunt passed away. This was in 2013.

A few weeks ago, Eunice called me suddenly. I was in the middle of madness. “I am due to retire on the 31st of July,” I told her. “Come to Bombay after that,” she said. “Come here and relax.”

As I contemplated the news of Eunice’s passing, and the messages and notes from poets and scholars came flooding in on social media, I found myself worrying most about her birds and strays. Who will love them with the eccentric generosity of a great poet’s heart now? I wondered.

Gitanjali Chatterjee was a Deputy Secretary at Sahitya Akademi for 25 years.

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