Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ
During the Second World War, many of the Indians settled in Burma were killed when the Japanese bombed and invaded Rangoon and other areas. The rest had to give up everything and flee to India. Yvonne Vaz Ezdani from Saligao has documented some of the stories, drawing primarily on recollections from the survivors and descendants of Burma’s once-thriving Indian community in her second book, ‘New Songs of the Survivors – The Exodus of Indians from Burma’. (This new book is a sequel to the ‘Songs of the Survivors’ which focused primarily on the Goan community in Burma.) It is a compelling book based on courage, faith and grit. It is the first attempt to write an oral history of the ‘Forgotten Long March’— one of the biggest and most harrowing migrations in recent history. Interestingly, the book also features a foreword by prominent writer of historical fiction, Amitav Ghosh.
Q: After your first book ‘Songs of the Survivors’ in 2007 what compelled you to follow it up with ‘New songs of the Survivors-The Exodus of Indians from Burma’?
When the first book was sold out I was asked to work on a second edition and make a few changes but the second book turned out quite different from the first. I also wanted to add stories of other Indians in the book as compared to Goans they had to face more hardship and discrimination so their experiences were often more difficult. The second part of the book is about non-Goans who fled Burma.
Q: Since the number of survivors is dwindling, how important is it to preserve these stories told to family members and passed down through generations?
If the survivor’s stories are not preserved they may soon be forgotten or as they are passed on from generation to generation they could become distorted with the telling and retelling. One family told me how their uncle had painstakingly hand written his experiences of WWII in Burma but termites had destroyed the papers so they burnt them up.
Q: Do you believe that oral history based on memory is the best source to write books about the past?
Firsthand accounts are always more factual and will contain more relevant details. There are many events like these which haven’t been documented as oral history so some facts are lost. I had written the first book more for the families of the survivors.
Q: The book has much more than just oral history…
These are stories of struggle and hardships that have been overcome and of displaced lives rebuilt anew. So they also bring out the strength and resilience of the human spirit that shines through in such situations.
Q: Why the names ‘Songs of the Survivors’ and ‘New Songs of the Survivors’?
The survivors whom I spoke to were cheerful and remembered happy times in Burma. They were young children when they left Burma so they had their parents to take on the responsibility and struggle of building up their lives again from scratch. Perhaps that is why they don’t seem scarred by the trauma. A number of the Goans who went to Burma in the late 19th and early 20th century, were musicians who played in famous bands and were well known in the social circuit. Some played background music for silent movies. There seemed to be a lot of music in the stories I was told.
Q: Why do you think that there is a growing urgency to create and preserve records of such important aspects of history?
The urgency is to record the facts while the events are still vivid and real in the minds of those who experienced them. With the passage of time interest wanes and for those doing research it becomes more difficult to access data.
Q: What were some challenges you faced while working on your second book?
Making time to complete the book was a challenge, getting stories for Part 2 of the new book took some effort and of course in Part 1 I had to weave the stories from the first book into one narrative which was not really easy but I was fortunate to have Jerry Pinto help me edit the book hence it wasn’t so stressful. In fact looking back now I quite enjoyed the process.
Q: Tell us about realising your dream of becoming an author
I cannot say it is fulfilled although I am grateful that two of my books have been published and are getting good reviews. I still have that secret desire to write a great piece of fiction, a novel that will be a bestseller. Now that’s no longer a secret.
Q: If you had to go back to Burma… what would you want to see there?
What I miss most is the tranquil life and the warm smiling faces of the Burmese people. And of course the food. I hope it is all still there in spite of all the years of hardship the people have been through there. I know there are changes political and social but I hope I will still see the simple genuine goodness of the people and the beauty of the Shan State where we lived.
Q: If you had to write a book on a burning issue plaguing the world which one would it be and why?
I think what bothers me most is the Syrian refugee crisis. How can humans inflict so much suffering on fellow humans? Are political ideologies and individual egos more important than people? The senselessness and insanity of wars for any reason disturbs me. But I don’t think I want to write about the refugee crisis now. It is too raw and painful.
“While at Mawlaik, I used to meet all the Goan and Anglo-Indian evacuees passing through. One day, a Goan lady, rather old and ill, arrived along with her daughter and daughter-in-law. They could not proceed further so they took up a room in the bazaar quarter. When I heard of their arrival I went in search of them and found them. The old woman was in a bad state of health. The old woman died in three days and her body was moved to the nurses’ quarters. Now there was no undertaker there to do the needful for the disposal of the body and the two young women could do nothing. So I made enquiries and one Mr Edwards offered to help me. He brought some Burmese carpenters who made a long box to be used as a coffin. I inquired and found that there was a Christian burial ground at Mawlaik in which several Europeans of the BBTC Ltd (Bombay Burma Trading Corporation) were buried. I obtained the necessary permission from the Deputy Commissioner’s office, paid for the ground and for digging the grave, invited all Christians from the evacuees’ camp and carried out the funeral prayers myself according to the daily Missal and buried the woman. Some 30 evacuees attended the funeral.”
(A few months after the first edition of Songs of the Survivors was released, a nun from Goa came up to thank Yvonne with tears in her eyes because she now knew that her grandmother, the Mrs D’Souza that AJ D’Cruz wrote about, had been taken care of and had had a proper burial. The family had always assumed that the grandmother died during the trek and her body was left lying unburied by the track and this had saddened them.)
“While at Mawlaik, two weddings took place. In both cases the brides were Catholics. We tried to get a priest from Mandalay but did not succeed, so I gave the Deputy Commissioner my Daily Missal and he carried on the services as laid down therein. One wedding took place on Good Friday. This could not be helped as the bridegroom was going away to join his post early the following morning. The reception of one wedding was held in the Circuit House and that of the other in the Mawlaik Club.”
(From A J D’Cruz’s diary of the trek, which is included in the book.)
“And on that long, difficult walk from Burma to India, some people became so weak with hunger that they did not even have the strength to pull out grass from the ground to eat. Instead they had to lie down and eat the grass off the ground like cattle,” my father would say, his voice full of awe at such determination to live.
When I began to write this book, I sought for others who would corroborate my father’s story because it was so disturbing. I offer it here as the catalyst for this book, this enterprise: the image of an Indian in some dark jungle, lying on the ground in such a state of exhaustion that he would nibble grass in order to survive.
(Excerpt from the Introduction of the book)
“It was a cold December night in Rangoon. The year was 1941. Burma was being mercilessly bombed by the Japanese. Everywhere people were fleeing the country. My mother packed a few things and we went to the airport with my baby brother in mother’s arms. That night, the aerodrome was bombed. Frightened and nervous, we returned home.
Life in Rangoon became unbearable for us, father had been killed on the battlefront early in the war and there was no one to take care of us. Besides, life was insecure in the war-stricken city. When friends decided to come over to India with their families, mother agreed to join them. Then from Upper Burma began our long, grueling trek to Assam.
I was only about three years old at that time. But I was to hear about that torturous journey often from mother.”
(Words of Helen, the legendary dancer from Hindi cinema. An excerpt from Jerry Pinto’s account in ‘New Songs of the Survivors’.)