Yvonne Vaz Ezdani
The Exodus of Indians from Burma:
New Songs of the Survivors
New Delhi: Speaking Tiger. 2015
Pages 219 | Rs 350
Reminiscences of courage, faith, hope and human endurance by the refugees of Burma during World War II
The book The Exodus of Indians from Burma: New Songs of the Survivors is a sequel to Songs of the Survivors and depicts the travails of refugees, predominantly Goans, who had to flee Burma during the period 1941-42 when the Japanese mercilessly bombarded the nation to overthrow the British regime. Yvonne Vaz Ezdani has painstakingly and patiently reached out to various sources and assimilated information from across the globe, in order to bring out her first book Songs of the Survivors (Dec 2007) and now this revised second edition New Songs of the Survivors gives credence and visibility to the remnants of oral history which is fading away with time and passing on of the older generations.
The trauma, maladies and tragedies that prosperous and well entrenched Indians living in Burma endured when Japan bombed the nation, compounded by the growing resentment and fear of being attacked by locals as well as the Japanese, forced a vast majority of Indians to depart via the most arduous route in history coined as “A Forgotten Long March,” by historian Hugh Tinker. This forms the subject matter of the book.
Yvonne Vaz Ezdani grew up in Burma, graduated from Rangoon University, got married and had two daughters there. Her grandparents and uncles lived through the entire war period and have actually borne the brunt of it all and rebuilt their lives from scratch after the war. They have seen the sufferings of their friends, relatives and the dire situation that compelled people to resort to the last option of “probable survival amidst all odds,” the unchartered route across the mountains to reach the Indian borders. Yvonne Vaz Ezdani’s grandparents and uncles returned to India only in the 1960’s and her own family repatriated to Goa in the early 1980’s having lived through good and bad times. There couldn’t have been a better reason for Yvonne to collate, edit and bring to light stories of the Burma refugees. Of course, memoirs do have limited memory, especially since the older generations have not been maintaining a written record and most of the narrations are oral citations. Therefore, to some extent there could be a slight distortion of facts or events, but that does not in any way undermine what the refugees went through or the contents of this book.
The book also gives a cursory account of the Burmese history with a view to putting in proper perspective, the increasing racial resentment between Burmese and the Indians. The period from 1824 to 1886 witnessed three Anglo-Burmese wars and a steady flow of Indians into Burma for various key jobs. This influx continued in full force when Burma became an Indian province in 1886 thereby sowing seeds of hostility between Burmese and the working class Indian community. This racial animosity reached a crescendo during the dock strike in the 1930’s. The ensuing anti-Indian riots and the inability of the British to quell the rebellion resulted in bloodshed. This was perhaps the start point that led to the departure of a large number of Indians from Rangoon.
The exodus further escalated during the Japanese attack in 1941-42. The British did not expect Japan to invade Asian territory and hence their preparation for the war was seemingly inadequate. The terror stricken people were forced to leave the country practically leaving behind or losing their wealth, property, lifetime savings and near and dear ones. Apparently the “white route” which was relatively shorter and easier was earmarked for the Europeans and Anglo-Indians. Indians had to take the much tougher “black route”. There was an acute failure on the part of the Government to evacuate people who had adopted Burma as their homeland.
Many families who went back to Burma after the war to re-establish themselves had to finally come back in the 1960’s through the 1980’s due to restrictive migration policies of the Government and issue of citizenship. It is praiseworthy that India welcomed back the refugees, at all stages and allowed them to freely settle down in different parts of the country like Belgaum, Nagpur, Goa and Chennai, to name a few.
The vivid description of the walk where several people died of disease, exhaustion and starvation, lack of medical aid, relief camps and so on is appalling to digest. Almost every person who reached India was in skins and bones and immediately hospitalised. They are the survivors whose stories have reached us.
In order to complete the picture, Yvonne has also included excerpts and bravo stories of other communities which truly capture one’s hearts. I would like to mention one such excerpt titled “White Butterflies” by Colin McPhedran where he narrates his family saga about his long trek to India. His account of the bombing of Myitkyina airport where people scrambled into the last flight hoping that it would take them to safety, but which instead goes up in flames, shows the sheer urgency and desperation to escape. It is horrifying to imagine the plight of not only those who were in that plane that exploded but also those who saw the charred bodies thrown out of the aircraft.
As a whole, this book speaks volumes about mixed emotions that war brings with it – utmost devastation, hatred, fear, looting, merciless killings, camaraderie, optimism, pessimism, hope, courage and above all fortitude and spirit to embark on the journey to safety.
Amitav Ghosh has aptly summarised the book in the Foreword as: “It is, so far as I know, the first attempt to write an oral history of the ‘Forgotten Long March’ drawing on the recollections of survivors and their descendants. Indeed the book is much more than an oral history: the manner of its telling is such as to allow the reader to witness the events as they unfold, giving the narrative the vividness and momentum of a novel.”
Yvonne has very nicely and carefully edited and placed each and every true life story in such a way that makes this book an interesting read from the start to the finish and touches one’s heart. A well thought out development from the “Songs of the Survivors.” This book is to be appreciated as it has given space to the voices of the refugees and a chance to reach out to their progenies. Yvonne’s efforts in this direction are laudable. I recommend that this book be understood in its true spirit – whatever history books do not teach us for want of recorded details is best learnt from oral tradition.