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‘Death is always there somewhere in my head’

On Saturday, July 29, three days before her 77th birthday, Eunice de Souza died. It was an exit reminiscent of her finest poetry—swift, startling, unfussy, unequivocal.

In the course of a long conversation in 2008, she had told me that death was a longstanding preoccupation. “It’s probably because I’m 68, but only partly. Death is always there somewhere in my head.”

She also mentioned at the time that she was finally “almost perfectly happy”. Coming from a poet who described herself with fine self-directed acerbity as ‘a sour old puss in verse’, the admission was disconcerting.

That moment stayed with me for many reasons. Mainly because of its unexpectedness. I first met de Souza when I was an undergrad student in 1986. Tales of her whiplash irony were legion. Generations of lacerated survivors of the Eng Lit Department at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s vouched for it. The perfect accoutrements to her acerbity were a world-weary air, a carelessly draped hand-woven sari and languid cigarette.

The result was seriously glamorous. But there was more than façade, I discovered. De Souza was an exceptional professor. Her lectures on literary modernism, particularly on T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath, were intellectually strenuous, thought-provoking, excellently prepared. If she was the stuff of campus myth, it was with reason.

The razor blade vision

And there was, of course, the poetry. De Souza will be remembered as one of Anglophone Indian poetry’s significant voices. If Kamala Das brought female sexuality into Indian verse, de Souza ushered in female rage—a white-hot, page-searing, bone-chilling fury.

I look striking in red and black/ and a necklace of skulls’, the speaker declares in one poem. And whether it is Father X D’Souza, Mother Superior, an insular ‘Portuguese-bred colleague’, the beatific ‘Wise Woman’ (smiling ‘vacuously, like a plastic flower’), or ‘dynamic men who sell better butter’, her irony was democratic, trenchant and unsparing.

The most distinctive feature of her verse was its economy. One had the feeling that a de Souza poem had been cooked under such intense heat and pressure that only the barest minimum language remained—spare, attenuated, fine-grained. In a poem of 48 words, she concludes with the wry line: ‘Even this poem has forty-eight words too many.

Cuts like a knife

The individual set against the world at a resolutely adversarial angle is a recurrent trope in de Souza verse. It is certainly dominant in her 2001 novella Dangerlok—a series of sharply ironic vignettes of Mumbai life—and can be found as early as her first book with its memorable poem, ‘Autobiographical’: ‘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.’

As poet, that razor blade was used to devastatingly good effect. It imbued her work with scorching edge and ferocity. But outside the poetry, that razor seemed, to some, to be wielded a bit too freely. It left me, as a student, with the distinct impression that spleen was the primary prerequisite for the creative life.

It was only much later that I grew aware of the deep and searching self-doubt of which de Souza was also capable. In a reflective moment, she told me that she now found her early poetry too acrid. Her later poems, she felt, were “calmer, more nuanced, less one-dimensional. They concede inadequacies in myself as well. They combine both qualities that I admire: a lyricism with a sharpness and economy.”

While de Souza continued to see the world around her as seething with animus, she seemed to have found another way to deal with the “dangerlok”.

There was certainly more sardonic amusement than vitriol in her poetry in later years, a growing capacity for wry self-implication, and in poems to animals, in particular, a gentleness and affection. Above all, there was the hard-won equipoise.

Joy—the word treated with contempt in the classroom—was now kosher. “I’ve had many bad years, many severe depressions. But there are days now when, despite the state of the world, I’m really honestly happy.”

The courageous candour of that line struck me deeply. It still does. In a memorable poem, de Souza writes:

Keep cats/ if you want to learn to cope with/ the otherness of lovers.’ It ends with the line, ‘That stare of perpetual surprise/ in those great green eyes/ will teach you/ to die alone’.

Eunice de Souza leaves behind her poems. And softening angles notwithstanding, they bear witness to a remarkable artist who remained a stoutly independent life traveller, refusing to lose spirit, nerve or idiosyncrasy until the very end.

Over this finely crafted legacy of fury and tenderness, one imagines ‘the sour old puss in verse’ looking on with ‘grim satisfaction’—unblinking, stoutly, defiantly individual, and perhaps even, for a moment, radiantly happy.

The author is a poet and writer.

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