Murzban Shroff: A life in verse and prose

Jul 30, 2017, 08:45 IST | Murzban Shroff

As poet, novelist and anthologist Eunice de Souza passes away at the age of 77, her former students remember the legacy of her acerbic wit that made her a tour de force

1983, St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, I run breathless after a smart sari-clad woman sashaying down the wooden corridor outside the main office on the first floor. "Ma'am," I say to her as I come up, trying hard to still the boyish pounding in my heart. She turns and meets me with a cool gaze. "Yes?" she says, suggesting by a narrowing of the eyes that I should say what I had to with least ceremony and even less ambiguity. "Ma'am," I say to her. "I have a request. May I please drop your papers for the prelims? "And why is that?" she asks, without a flicker of surprise. "Because I am not prepared. At least not in the way you would want me to be," I say. "And are these only my papers you wish to drop or some of the other papers, too?" she asks coolly. "No," I say. "Only yours." "And why is that?" she asks. "Why only my papers?" I pause, then say with hesitation, "Because I know you will understand." A silence follows. She looks at me penetratingly, as though reading my mind, as though scanning my intentions; then nods curtly, a "yes," and walks off.

And now I am trying to deal with a warm expansion in my heart, a swell of gratitude for having been understood, trusted by someone I deeply respected, someone in whose lectures I had sat enthralled, glad, ever glad, for having taken up English literature. This was Eunice de Souza, my firebrand teacher, role model of my youth, who day after day brought alive the poetry of Langston Hughes and Yeats and Cummings and the plays of Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams and who taught literary criticism with such fiery zeal that years later I would bring that analysis and knowledge to not just my work but to every book I'd read.

In her method of teaching, Eunice simply went by that old Marxian axiom: Question everything! Hence, every sort of fad of the day was pulled out and ripped apart in a social-cultural context. We would look at everything through the lens of literature and, honestly, life did look good that way. Her way of teaching would give us a more pampered vision of life, a democratic space, where individual thought was shared, encouraged, and accepted, and where language was used unsparingly to break through barriers of consciousness.

In one of her poems — I think it was Bequest — Eunice laments: "I wish I could be a Wise Woman, smiling endlessly, vacuously, like a plastic flower, saying Child, learn from me." This was Eunice at her ironic best, lamenting what she could never be, which was to say, wordy, profuse, and pretentious. No, Eunice was much like the poetry she wrote: dark and frugal and laconic, never a word more than necessary, never an unwarranted emotion.

And yet, she was one of the most generous people I have known, generous with her time and knowledge. When I had my first public reading, it was to Eunice I ran to, in order to build my confidence. Seated in her Kalina apartment, I read out my pieces to her, and she gave me her opinion with her customary precision. Only when I was leaving I realised she was unwell.

In the last few years, we were in touch through a common friend, Dr Chris D'Souza. And Dr D'Souza only confirms what I always knew: Eunice's incredible generosity. She enjoyed the unbridled devotion of those who served her, among them a rickshaw driver called Ganesh who would double up voluntarily as a medical aide.

When Dr D'Souza called me this morning, he began telling me she had been calm and composed even while in the Intensive Care a few months ago. I could not help but recall those words of hers: "Keep cats if you want to learn to cope with the otherness of lovers, otherness is not always neglect… That stare of perpetual surprise, in those great green eyes, will teach you to die alone."

Murzban F. Shroff is the author of Breathless in Bombay and Waiting for Jonathan Koshy

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