Finding solace in art

Sofia De Souza has found therapy in art, to endure through her struggles with illness and her dad’s passing away. A strong believer that there is hope all around, she shares more in a heart-warming conversation with NT BUZZ

Danuska Da Gama | NT BUZZ

Content to remain in the background, Sofia De Souza was initially hesitant to speak about being raised in a political home

The daughter of politician late Francis De Souza, and sister of Joshua De Souza who is now taking forward the baton in Mapusa, she strictly wanted to focus on how art therapy has been working for her. However, the soft-spoken young lawyer and artist soon opened up about her life.

Excerpts from an interview

Q. Dads and daughters always share a special relationship.

My father was my mentor and best friend. We spent many hours talking about the universe, existentialism, and how the real world works. He was a highly logical person and I, a highly emotional one. He always told me to think of things logically and I would feel less emotional about them, and I would tell him that if he understood where the emotion came from, he would see how logic didn’t always provide the solution. I think we were a team, two intellectuals with minds working in sync.

Being sick quite often I had many sleepless nights, and that time was spent reading, watching movies and sharing the limits of our imagination. Post law, I wanted to specialise in dispute resolution, and it’s only through his support that I had the opportunity to pursue a certificate course in mediation at Harvard Law School. Studying is something I will never stop doing because it will always keep me connected to my father.

Q. So what was it like growing up as a politician’s daughter?

My father will always be the greatest man I’ve ever had the honour of knowing. He helped people long before he became a politician, without a penny left in his pocket he always gave what he had to those in need. It was difficult to grow up with a political background, but not because my parents made it so, but due to the expectation of people around us. People either loved you without knowing anything about you or hated you without knowing anything about you. The assumed privilege was a burden especially when there wasn’t any from home.

School and college were the toughest because peers always assumed things were handed to you because of your background which led you to constantly second-guess myself. I found it incredibly difficult to keep up and find genuine friends. A lot of people had a vested interest. I can say I am blessed that I have just a handful of friends that I consider my confidants who have never let me down.

The general assumption that all politicians were corrupt scoundrels, were comments loosely thrown around. It always hit me harder because my father was one of the exceptions. A double graduate with degrees in science and law, he was fit to be a legislator but was hardly acknowledged. People looked and spoke to us like we were constantly looking for a way to steal and cheat the public. Sometimes it felt like being the child of a criminal, without any wrongdoing. Once, a teacher at school took it upon herself to offer support if I needed to distance myself from my family, that incident scarred me. It shook me because I suddenly realised the perception people had of us.

It took a lot of family support, my aunts who have never left my side and a brilliantly patient psychologist to help me uncover a lot of hurt, fear, stigma, hate and self-doubt that built up over the years. I stayed in my shell, my home where I felt safe, or miles away where I could be anonymous.

Q. You took up the profession of your dad – law.

I’ve had an auto-immune disorder for a long time. It got severe over the years, which is why I’ve mostly been indoors. I prepared for my Class 12 exam sleeping in a bathtub because my entire body was covered in psoriasis and I was in so much pain all the time. At that time, we didn’t know as many home remedies as we do now to manage the illness. My mum sat beside me all through the night because she didn’t want me to feel like I was suffering alone. She was so afraid that I’d doze off and drown. I managed my B Com because college was right next door and the faculty was aware of my illness and was understanding. Understanding the law was something that came naturally, being so accustomed to hearing about various issues. It was something our parents discussed in the context of general knowledge and current affairs.

In January 2012, I was severely ill and hospitalised, that was the experience closest to death. My parents were insecure about letting me go away from home as I was still in recovery with a lot of immune suppressants. I hated doing nothing and so I joined law, as education is never wasted. I didn’t know where my path would take me at the time but I’d still be in Goa with my family to look after me if things got bad again.

Q. What happened then?

When you’re constantly ill – 16 years now, life is so unstable. It’s hard to plan the future as you’re in constant uncertainty and disappointment. I’ve had comments like “it’s just your skin, you can’t be so shallow that you’re worried about how it looks”. But skin is the largest organ. When your entire body feels like it’s on fire or it’s about to rip apart, all your nerves are on edge all the time. Add to that, monsoon allergies, constant episodes of hives and rashes that would make me want to tear off my skin, along with aching muscles and stiff joints. A couple of people even said: “at least it’s not cancer, you’re not dying… so there’s no big deal.”

Yes, I wasn’t living in the fear of near death, but each episode brought so much suffering and pain that death seemed better. The worst feeling is when food or air you breathe triggers the illness, or even worse – your emotions. Feeling upset or angry sometimes lead to a flare-up, but the flare-up in itself causes anxiety. It’s a vicious circle, and the most annoying thing anyone can say is “stay calm!”

Q. Travelling is something you always enjoyed. Tell us about those sojourns.

2015 was a good year as I had just met a new doctor in Mumbai who promised a better life- where I could be independent and plan my future. For nearly a year and a half, I was free of pain and discomfort. Instead of rushing into a master’s degree, my parents and I decided that a break year might do some good. I tried kick-boxing, swimming, windsurfing and just wanted to try everything that was out there. I went to New Delhi for an internship in international relations. I then went to Alaska, where I joined a programme and lived on a farm with accommodation and daily meals in exchange for farmhands. My family and friends jokingly asked why I had to go so far away just to work in a field when we have our fields here in Goa. But, it was the freedom I was after, the anonymity.

Q. And then later how did dad’s sickness affect you?

It shook me. The strongest man I ever knew turned into something physically so fragile. From always being a patient, I had to join my mother in being a caregiver and decision-maker. I learned the emotion of helplessness, watching someone you love so much suffer so deeply that you’d desperately do anything to take away their pain, even if just for three minutes. I couldn’t recognise the person he had become towards the end. Everything he ever told me about life suddenly didn’t seem applicable. There were good days and bad days.

Q. His passing away must have been very hard…

No one is prepared for death, even with the best help. When it happens to people you care about the most, it hits you so badly that it’s numbing. I lost all sense of space and time. The most deafening thing after papa’s passing was silence. We always had a house full of people, no matter what day or time it was, and in the more recent months before he passed, a crazy schedule at the hospital, and suddenly it all stopped. People that were once our closest friends somehow never found their way back to our home.

My father was and always will be irreplaceable. There’s a void in my life that I cannot yet explain. Often, I just assume he’s away at work, or travelling and that he will be back in a couple of days. Visits to the grave don’t make any sense as I know there’s a physical body in the ground but when I’m there looking at the ground, my emotions don’t catch up. There are days when I talk to him aloud, sometimes I scream at him for not responding. I wish he would just connect, just reach out and tell me that everything will be okay.

Q. You’ve now immersed yourself in art. Was that a way to find an outlet for your emotions, or was it a calling that you had kept on the backburner?

Within a year, I lost my father and two of my pets. The loss was devastating and my body was struggling to cope with the heartache. My disease was at its worst. My legs were throbbing with pain, they were completely swollen and I couldn’t touch them to the ground or walk. No one could figure out what was wrong or how to make it better. Between physiotherapy, saltwater, and cheerful family and friends, I discovered watercolours. I focused on what I could do with my perfectly good hands than what I couldn’t do moving around on my legs.

It’s been a year now since I’ve started painting. Art was something I was always curious about but always made to feel like I didn’t have the talent for it. My first set of paints I borrowed from my younger cousin just to play around with. I loved watching the colours explode when they were on wet paper. They would just flow so freely. There is something so therapeutic about just being there- still, watching, not thinking or feeling.

Q. So tell us about art as a therapy and hobby now?

I mainly paint in watercolour. Things that I’ve been painting now are what I’ve learned from tutorials on YouTube, many of whom are self-taught artists and I draw inspiration from them. I’ve learned that art is more a skill than a talent; some people are born with a natural sense of creativity and others learn over years of patient practice.

Q. Where do you find inspiration for your artworks?

I like painting decorative pictures and sometimes the pieces I’ve made are keeping the individual’s personality in mind. One of my latest pieces is the ‘Teacup Kitten’, for my godmother, as her favourite things are drinking tea, her Dutch tea set, and cats.

It’s a fairly simple concept one might think, but coming up with an original idea and formulating it on paper in the vision that your mind sees it, is the harder part.

A piece that I’m conceptualising but not yet started working on is ‘an idea of heaven’. It’s inspired by a dream I had of my grandfather who passed away in 1994, and it’s a memory that I still hold on to.

My ideas are many, but my hands need time to learn the skill. In time I hope I can put on paper what my mind’s eyes see.

Q. Tell us about your mother, someone who is seldom in the limelight.

My mum deserves more credit than she’s given. A stay home mom didn’t mean she only cooked all day. Throughout my illness, she has been my rock. She always made sure I never felt alone. She always found new and creative ways to keep me busy. She’s my hero and I hope that when I have a family of my own, I’m at least half as great as she is.