My students think it funny
that Daruwallas and de Souzas
should write poetry.
Poetry is faery lands forlorn.
Women writers Miss. Austen.
Only foreign men air their crotches.
– Eunice de Souza
A literature teacher has to find a way – often indefinable – to teach her students to see literature as more than the ‘story’ of a novel or rhyming words in a poem. One of the ways Eunice de Souza did this was in her way of reading poetry out loud – nudging her students to recognize what poetry sounded like, and the ways in which prose in some instances could sound poetic.
She warned against looking for her life in her poetry –
Don’t Look For My Life In These Poems
Poems have order, sanity
aesthetic distance from debris.
All I’ve learnt from pain
I always knew,
but could not do.
But in her poetry, it was easy to recognise her unmistakable voice. One of things that stayed with me from her classes was her emphasis on the work that went into crafting a poem – the painstaking editing of the draft of a poem to select one word instead of another. She would speak about how, in her experience, a poem could sometimes begin with a snatch of conversation or a phrase heard somewhere.
It is easy to be aware, in her own poetry, of the poet’s sharp ear that unerringly picks up and ruthlessly mimics the cadences of the smug and privileged –
Feeding The Poor At Christmas
Every Christmas we feed the poor.
We arrive an hour late: Poor dears,
like children waiting for a treat.
Bring your plates. Don’t move.
Don’t try turning up for more.
No. Even if you don’t drink
you can’t take your share
for your husband. Say thank you
and a rosary for us every evening.
No. Not a towel and a shirt,
even if they’re old.
What’s that you said?
You’re a good man, Robert, yes.
beggars can’t be, exactly.
As I recall it, first year BA students in Bombay were required to do a mandatory English language course – that could, in the hands of some, have been tedious. Eunice transformed that class when she taught it – and it was after one of those classes, in my first month at St Xavier’s College that she called me over to lend me her copy of Ibsen. It was not for an assignment, nothing that would be marked. But somewhere in that huge classroom she had spotted a student who might like to read Ibsen and hear Nora slam the door on her marriage.
I cannot overemphasize the shock of joy it gave young women – just embarking on adult life, and in my case freshly arrived in the big city from a small town – to see a woman like Eunice. It was liberating to see that a woman need not be nice, or well-behaved, or even polite; that graying hair and wrinkles, like real hurts that made you ‘head for the abyss with/ monotonous regularity,’ could be worn with grace and strength.
The college authorities decided one day that they needed to ask women students not to wear skirts above the knee, and to ban students from smoking on the college grounds. The Vice Principal came to our classroom to make this announcement: its effect was marred considerably by the sight of Eunice at the back of the room, pointedly lighting up a cigarette with a trademark look of ironic amusement on her face.
As a teacher she managed the feat of being both intimidating and enabling. She never tired of warning that she had no time to waste on students who sat in literature classes only to try and pick up the skills to ‘sell soap’ (get a job in advertising) later in life. She made it clear she did not suffer fools gladly – but many students who attended her classes and made an effort to do more than ‘just sit there like cabbages’, found, sometimes to their own surprise, that they were not fools, and were in fact capable of competence, originality, and even brilliance. Being subjected to Eunice’s sarcastic barbs did not destroy one’s confidence – in some strange way it became something the reprimanded student could remember with a kind of pride.
I entered a class early once and found her pacing up and down, waiting – and emanating tension: she was very demanding of her students and of herself too. That day, I felt the need to try and withdraw a little from that painful intensity. That’s why, during class, I had taken my eyes off her briefly, glancing out of the window at a Gothic spire – only to have her ask, ‘Kavita, are you with us? Or are you having a mystical experience?’
Some students – I among them – had participated in some protest actions including a street play outside the college gate, and some leafleteering, in support of striking canteen workers. The parents of some of these students had been summoned by the then Principal Emil D’Cruz. Reportedly Eunice met the Principal to warn him against taking any disciplinary action against her English literature students: something that might have also thwarted him from acting against the students from other disciplines.
It was in her classroom that I was first introduced to anti-war poetry – the poetry of young English men who had started out writing patriotic verse about the glories of war before becoming soldiers and experiencing the horror of World War I trench combat. One such poem rebuked civilian propagandists for the war, suggesting that if they too could witness the effect of gas on a soldier’s body, they “would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori (sweet and fitting is it to die for one’s country)’. Another spoke of the ‘pity of war, the pity war distilled’; and told an ‘enemy’ soldier, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ The experience of hearing Eunice read those poems aloud made it impossible for me to feel the slightest patriotic thrill at jingoistic war-mongering ever again. I doubt if even a tank on my campus could wipe out the impact of those poems, brought alive for us by Eunice.
Eunice taught us how to read: not only literary works, but any text at all – to read between and behind the lines of a newspaper or a speech. She introduced us to the language of film, showing us Battleship Potemkin, Birth Of A Nation, Charulata and Picnic At Hanging Rock. On one memorable occasion, she dictated this passage to us:
Good order is the foundation of all good things. To be enabled to acquire, the people, without being servile, must be tractable and obedient. The magistrate must have his reverence, the laws their authority. The body of the people must not find the principles of natural subordination by art rooted out of their minds. They must respect that property of which they cannot partake. They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportioned to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice. Of this consolation whoever deprives them, deadens their industry, and strikes at the root of all acquisition as of all conservation. He that does this is the cruel oppressor, the merciless enemy of the poor and wretched; at the same time that by his wicked speculations he exposes the fruits of successful industry, and the accumulations of fortune, to the plunder of the negligent, the disappointed, and the unprosperous.
Without telling us who had written it, when, and in what context, she asked us to ‘Try and figure out the ideology, the politics of this piece of writing.’ One woman student volunteered, ‘It must be written by a communist.’ Eunice, a very slight smile playing on her face, asked ‘Why do you think so?’ The student replied, ‘Well, it sounds very authoritarian, with all those ‘musts’ laying down the law… And it’s the communists that are authoritarian aren’t they?’ Spotting my friend Neha squirming next to me like she was on hot coals, Eunice remarked, ‘Yes Neha, do tell us before you burst.’ And Neha spilled out ‘But this is clearly someone who is writing against the communists!’ She was right: it was Edmund Burke, writing about the French Revolution.
One summer some years ago, Neha and I dropped in on Eunice at her house. The landing and steps to her flat were covered with snoozing stray dogs, who made way lazily for us. Her front room was oppressively hot: and she endeared herself to me when she told us apologetically we couldn’t switch the fan on, on account of her two parrots. We were enchanted to see the parrots perched above on curtain rails, making rude sounds clearly urging her to throw us out. One of the parrots would call orders from another room, sounding more and more annoyed if Eunice was a little late responding – ‘A friend calls him Mr de Souza.’ She told us about a stray dog on the Bombay University Kalina campus, who would go hungry to feed her pups. I told Eunice that several cats I knew smacked their own kittens if they tried to take away the mothers’ share of food. She replied, ‘Much more sensible, don’t you think?’
Some years ago, I had to help organize a poetry reading – at which a noted poet (whose poetry I love and whom I was meeting for the first time) came and made an insufferable pest of himself. As I felt my exasperation at his behaviour rise to alarming levels, I suddenly recalled Eunice’s poem ‘Meeting Poets’, in which she remarked at being disconcerted at meeting poets in real life and concluded:
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea.
Eunice is no more – but every time a snatch of her poetry or some acerbic remark of hers comes to my rescue in some situation or the other, she and I will exchange an amused glance.