New Songs of the Survivors
Yvonne Vaz Ezdani
Yvonne Vaz Ezdani’s New Songs of the Survivors follows her 2007 book, Songs of the Survivors. Both books detail the tribulations of Indians—mostly Goans—who fled Burma in 1941-42 amid the bombing of the nation by the Japanese to overthrow the British regime. A rich document of oral history of those who lost their homes and homeland, New Songs of the Survivors is also about Ezdani’s family—her uncles and her grandparents who lived through the war. The author has spoken to various families and individuals who were displaced to collate information, perspectives and anecdotes that bring to life the trauma of Indian families who had settled well in Burma and then had to sever their umbilicals, thanks to war and a growing resentment from the indigenous Burmese, who saw them as usurpers of what was rightfully theirs.
Ezdani—who grew up in Burma, graduated from Rangoon University, married and bore two daughters in Burma before her family had to migrate to Goa in the 1980s—brings back the sense of loss and longing many of the refugees, now advanced in years, still feel. Of course, with oral history’s reliance on memory, some particulars could be a little exaggerated or with the edges polished off, but that doesn’t detract from the travails the refugees suffered.
The book also brings in facets of colonised Burma’s history, how the Raj’s conflict with Burma drew Indians, who, as officials of the Raj, prospered economically. This prosperity was in stark contrast with the penury of the indigenous Burmese and tensions always simmered under the surface in the relations between the locals and Indian immigrants. This detailing forms a socio-political backdrop for the distrust, hostility and aggression that marked interracial relations in Burma in the 1930s when the dock strike was on—this culminated in anti-Indian riots, following which the first round of exodus came about. The exodus intensified in 1941-42, following the Japanese attack on the Raj in Burma, with Europeans and Anglo Indians led down a shorter and easier ‘white’ route out of the country, while Indians had to take the longer, perilous ‘black’ route.
The survivor accounts that Ezdani draws from not only detail the horrors of the actual migration journey undertaken—people died of exhaustion; of disease and starvation; many were almost immediately hospitalised on reaching India—but also the fragmented lives of families separated, of people who were forced to build their lives anew in the dusk of their lives. But ultimately, they are also stories of hope that must reach beyond the boundaries of the memories of the few generations that lived them. The ‘Forgotten Long March’ , as the exodus is called, now no longer runs the danger of being the ‘lost’ long march as those who lived through it pass on.