The Eunice I Knew

I met Eunice first in very best way – in poems, just as she recommended. Women in Dutch Painting was the first book of poetry I remember reading, as opposed to poems in anthologies or single poems encountered and half-remembered. My mother’s friend, who worked with Nissim Ezekiel at the PEN in Bombay, gifted it to her soon after it was published. But it was I who annexed it, and read it to shreds.

In her poems, Eunice was a poet of few words. But what words they were! Everything that the poems we studied at school were not. They drew blood. They said so much with such economy and hinted at such depth despite appearing to be all polished surface. That collection was the beginning of my reading poetry for the sheer pleasure of it.

In person, I met her just once, at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival, in 2013. At the end of an evening of poetry, Eunice read last. I think she read new poems, from what would become her last collection – Learn from the Almond Leaf (Poetrywala, 2016) – but were at the time, unpublished. There were birds in the poems; this is the only thing of which I am certain. Sitting off to one side on the stage, I heard Eunice read these poems that were even more brief than the ones in earlier collections. They ended almost as soon as begun. Eunice warned us, but I was not prepared for how little there was to absorb, when read aloud. I wondered later how she felt about reading them in front of such a large audience hidden behind bright lights. The applause that followed may have been meant entirely for her, but we all shared in it.

Later, over drinks, I sat beside her and attempted conversation. In my mind, I held all the things I knew of her: her poetry of course; but also anecdotes recounted by students both awed by and deeply proud of having had the good fortune to have been taught by her. If we said anything meaningful to each other, I regrettably cannot remember it. I did write to her, however, saying all the things I’d wanted to say but was too tongue-tied to. Her quick and warm reply was one I will cherish – it is possible, after all, to keep and be moved by emails – and will regret always that I did not take seriously her invitation to keep in touch.

I wonder now why I didn’t. One of the things I have admired most about the previous generation of Anglophone poets is their enduring friendships. They designed each others’ books, reviewed each others’ works, started poetry collectives, and – thanks to Eunice teaching at St. Xavier’s – made it possible for young people to hear first-hand, the best poets of that generation read their work in classrooms. This, long before literary festivals were a feature of our cultural landscape.

Eunice was also an anthologist, the kind whose growth could be mapped through her Introductions. If, in Nine Indian Women Poets (Oxford University Press, 1997), she was acerbic and dismissive of Sarojini Naidu and Toru Dutt, by the time she came to put together Early Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology 1829-1947 (Oxford University Press, 2010), she learnt to see, in the context of empire and the condition of coloniality, the space occupied by these two poets among others.

Eunice, along with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Adil Jussawalla, felt deeply the lack of scholarly work that provided a context to Anglophone Indian poetry and extended the critical space around these poets. Introductions to anthologies have, for a long time, provided practically the only critical assessment of the works of poets.

Eunice, though, went that extra mile. Beyond the work she did anthologizing poets, the importance of which we will only begin to realize in the future, she put together a book of interviews with the major poets of her generation in Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets (Oxford University Press, 1999), accompanied by those iconic photographs by Madhu Kapparath that we all remember, of Arun Kolatkar, Mehrotra and de Souza herself.

That this exercise hasn’t ever been repeated is astonishing, but even more breathtaking is the scope and the sheer importance of these conversations. Having pulled out my xeroxed and spiral-bound copy of this book, I am realizing how truly these are conversations – Eunice takes her time asking questions; she makes comments; invites elaboration. In her interview with Keki Daruwalla, she says at one point, “I recall you travelled extensively as a child.” How can she ‘recall’ this fact? How did she come by it?

There’s so much work that’s gone into these questions – Eunice had to have read everything available on each poet: every article they wrote, every journal or magazine they began and abandoned or contributed to, every poem of every collection they wrote.

By example, she created a path that younger scholars could and should take.

But back to Eunice’s poetry. When her last collection was published last year, I ordered my copy but only dipped into it on the day it arrived and left it unread for months.

Reading it now, as if it were just released – like David Bowie’s Blackstar two days before his death– I think of these poems as those works of art produced at the moment of death. Jisei, the Japanese call it, the poems reflective and the form spare:

Learn from the almond leaf
which flames as it falls.
The ground is burning.
The earth is burning.
Flamboyance
is all.

Goodbye, Eunice.

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Sridala Swami Written by:

Sridala Swami has written two collections of poems: Escape Artist (Aleph Book Co., 2014) and A Reluctant Survivor (Sahitya Akademi, 2007). She lives and works in Hyderabad, and writes a blog at The Spaniard in the Works.

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