de Souza, Eunice

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de SOUZA, Eunice

Nationality: Indian. Born: Poona, 1 August 1940. Education: University of Bombay, B.A. (honors) 1960, Ph.D. 1988; Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, M.A. 1963. Career: Since 1969 lecturer in English, and since 1990 head of the Department of English, St. Xavier's College, Bombay. Arts columnist, Economic Times, Bombay, 1973–84; literary editor, Indian Post, Bombay, 1987. Address: St. Xavier's College, Bombay 400 001, India.



Fix. Bombay, Newground, 1979.

Women in Dutch Painting. Bombay, Praxis, 1988.

Ways of Belonging: Selected Poems. Edinburgh, Polygon, 1990.

Selected and New Poems. Bombay, St. Xavier's College, 1994.

Other (for children)

All about Birbal. Bombay, India Book House, 1969.

Himalayan Tales. Bombay, India Book House, 1973.

More about Birbal. Bombay, India Book House, n.d. Tales of Birbal. Bombay, India Book House, n.d.


Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Editor, with Adil Jussawalla, Statements: An Anthology of Indian Prose in English. Bombay, Orient Longman, 1976.

Editor, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1997.


Critical Studies: "Three Poets Come of Age" by Kersey Katrak, in Sunday Observer (Bombay), 12 December 1982; in Modern Indian Poetry in English by Bruce King, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987; by Elizabeth Reuben, in Indian P.E.N., April-June 1989; "'One Long Cry in the Dark'?: The Poetry of Eunice de Souza" by Veronica Brady, in Literature & Theology (Oxford, England), 5(1), March 1991.

Eunice de Souza comments:

The first poems I wrote were about what it was like to grow up in Poona, in a conservative Goan Roman Catholic milieu. Most of these poems are in the form of dramatic monologues. I generally like to use the speaking voice when I write, and many poems are in the form of conversations about relationships, about critics who tell me how to write, and so forth. I like poems to be spare and economical. There are a number of poets whose work I feel close to, particularly the medieval saint poets in India and Emily Dickinson.

*  *  *

In her first collection, Fix, Eunice de Souza established herself as a writer of short poems in which a surface structure of controlled irony masks an often painful and violent subject matter. The title is instructive, suggesting both a problem and the repair work that is needed. As a satirist of Roman Catholic, middle-class hypocrisy in the Goa of her birth and upbringing, de Souza favors a conversational idiom, urbane and seemingly matter-of-fact and with very English cadences, that at first conceals and then reveals an often extreme distress. Beneath a fluent and knowing utterance there stir feelings of anger, confusion, and desolation. The opening poem, "Catholic Mother," focuses initially upon the father of a large Catholic family but then turns from apparent celebration of the male to the mother whose silence speaks volumes:

   Pillar of the Church
   says the parish priest
   Lovely Catholic Family
   says Mother Superior
   the pillar's wife
   says nothing.

Such understatement is typical as de Souza, taught by Irish nuns in a convent school in Poona in Maharashtra state, brings an astringent wit to bear upon tensions and stresses that are in part a legacy of Portuguese colonialism. "Marriages Are Made" explores the peculiar mingling of Indian and Christian practices as the life of a young woman is arranged for her in ways that reduce her to the status of an animal being examined for possible faults in pedigree, while "Feeding the Poor at Christmas" exposes the self-serving and unfeeling elements in supposedly Christian charity. In similarly dry, laconic tones "Sweet Sixteen" presents the fear and ignorance of sexuality promoted by a Catholic upbringing as it affects young girls:

   At sixteen, Phoebe asked me:
   Can it happen when you're in a dance hall
   I mean, you know what,
   getting preggers and all that, when
   you're dancing?
   I, sixteen, assured her
   you could.

In different ways de Souza examines problems and uncertainties associated with color and with ethnic divergences. The aging Anglo-Indian of "Miss Louise" lives in a world of fantasy, where she retains the sexually desirable attractiveness she had dreamed of all her life. The light-skinned woman in "Mrs. Hermione Gonsalvez" reveals other aspects of nostalgia and of male oppression:

   In the good old days
   I had looks and colour
   now I've only got colour
   just look at my parents
   how they married me to a dark man
   on my own I wouldn't even have
   looked at him.

As she dramatizes these voices, de Souza's ear for the trick of speech in Anglicized middle-class Indians lends conviction to her portrayals. "Conversation Piece," which generated considerable hostility in the Indian press from Hindus angry at what they took to be an insult to their religion, quietly registers cross-cultural divisions and misunderstandings when a Portuguese-bred aunt picks up a clay lingam, a phallic representation of Siva, and asks,

   Is this an ashtray?
   No, said the salesman,
   This is our God.

It is clear that de Souza's brief inscriptions, often seemingly casual in their mode of delivery, are taut with repressed levels of deep anxiety. Her father died when she was a young child, and difficulties related to this can surface in a traumatizing imagery of cutting, slashing, and sometimes self-laceration. "Forgive me, Mother" is one such poem, tracing complications in the developing and sustaining of a relationship: "I was never young. / Now I'm old, alone. / In dreams / I hack you." The poem "Autobiographical," which affects a cavalier, distancing stance at the beginning—"Right now, here it comes. / I killed my father when I was three"—goes on to chart deeper senses of failure and self-recrimination, including suicidal urges, and "One Man's Poetry" encodes an imagery of disintegration—"My limbs begin to scatter / my face dissolve."

De Souza's second volume, Women in Dutch Painting, much of it written during a six-month visit to England in 1983–84, presents a somewhat more relaxed countenance to the world as she broadens her horizons and produces poems of more measured self-interrogation. "The Hills Heal" draws strength from a natural environment and acknowledges therapeutic value in the writing of a poetry that can contain destructive impulses by giving them form:

   Yet the world will maul again, I know,
   and I'll go gladly for the usual price,
   Emerge to flay myself in poems,
   The sluiced vein just a formal close.

In a similar gesture, which nonetheless retains discomfiting elements, "She and I" returns to a maternal relationship where, after a lifetime's silence between them on the subject of the father's/ husband's death, the mother begins to speak about him. The release seems to portend her own death, thereby creating a further complication between mother and daughter, as the poem acknowledges: "I am afraid / for her, for myself, / but can say nothing."

If Women in Dutch Painting is generally more composed in its attitudes, it is still a record of troubled feelings. Although "Another Way to Die" ends on a restorative note, its imagery of dissolution picks up a thread of concern from Fix, and while "The Road" can contemplate a Catholic childhood with greater equanimity, it also recognizes continuing uncertainties. "Songs of Innocence" traverses the enclosing securities of a catechized childhood only to register the gap of difference between then and now. Its fourth section tells of a return to Goa, "searching for roots" but finding instead a crumbling place of origination that no longer sustains a sense of self. But in the fourth poem of the sequence "Return," de Souza discovers different ways of relating to a domestic community. Referring to a newspaper account of an attempt by Bombay prostitutes to break with their past and improve their life prospects, the poem wryly concludes, "I know something / of how you feel." It seems, too, in the poem "Notations" that de Souza can find in ballads a way of locating her own very different writing in a tradition that may offer sustenance. At least she discerns in ballad writing qualities to which her own poetry can respond: "No cut to abstractions. / It happened: that is all they say. / It happened."

—Colin Nicholson

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