New Songs of the Survivors
By Yvonne Vaz Ezdani
Price: Rs 350
It was 14 August, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito signed the instrument of Japanese surrender which marked the end of World War II. It was a world which we would hardly be able to recognise, with technology, lifestyles and attitudes which are obsolete now.
Despite the seventy years that have passed since it ended, the Second World War lives on in popular culture and our collective conscience. In books, movies and videogames we get insights into the lives of the soldiers, the acts of heroism and the stories of the battles. But scale of the conflict, covering six years and most of the earth, means that the war is not remembered uniformly.
While the war in Europe or the one in the Pacific is frequently depicted in popular retellings, the war in Asia is portrayed less often. Yvonne Vaz Ezdani’s New Songs of the Survivors chronicles one of the lesser know parts of the Burmese theatre, the evacuation of the Goan-Indians from Myanmar.
Using accounts of the individuals who made the arduous march through the thickly forested terrain of northern Myanmar to the safety of India, she creates a human history of the calamity. The numbers by themselves tell a startling story, with the two routes from Yangon to India being traversed by 500,000 Indians over the entire period of the evacuation, but the numbers do not relate the magnitude of each of these journeys or the sheer privations which were endured by the people who undertook them.
The Japanese conquest of Myanmar progressed at a rapid pace, with the Imperial Japanese army advancing in three months from the southern reaches of the country to Yangon. The chaos that this caused in the colonial British administration is reflected in the decision to relocate the government into India, along with evacuation of most of the Europeans and Eurasians. This decision meant that the large civilian population, including the large Indian contingent was left largely to fend for themselves. The fear of the Japanese, and the affiliation that the Indian community felt towards the British meant that most of them chose to risk the trek to India rather than stay in a Myanmar under Japanese control.
The lack of any substantial evacuation plan is evidenced by a contemporary evacuation instruction leaflet that Ezdani has included in the book. The leaflet gives prospective evacuees a basic overview of the route which they would need to take through the length of northern Myanmar, while listing with a bureaucratic aloofness the dangers which they would face, further informing the citizens that they would need to undertake most of the journey on foot.
One sentence in the document ”The baggage and belongings MUST, of course, be carried by the individual” reveals both the onerous task which faced the civilian population if they were to get to safety in India, as well as the lack of concern of the colonial administration.
Using the few written accounts which remain of the long march, along with the testimony of those still alive, Ezdani manages to create a picture of this physically tiring journey, replete with perils of the terrain they were crossing and plagued by epidemic malaria and cholera.
While the war in Europe or the one in the Pacific is frequently depicted in popular retellings, the war in Asia is portrayed less often. This book chronicles one of the lesser know parts of the Burmese theatre.
The author cleaves the book into two halves, the first one features accounts of the Goan community during their trek to India, while the second one looks at the journeys through the lenses of other observers. This structure enables her to supplement the experiences of the Goan evacuees along with those of the others to give a more inclusive description of the expedition.
A sense of loss permeates the personal narratives, and this extends beyond the difficulties of the voyage or mislaid livelihoods, this sense of loss emanates from missing minor personal belongings, from a yearning for a familiar place now left behind, from the end of a way of life.
The narrative lacks the voices of the working class Indians, many of whom worked in Myanmar, but this could be due to the paucity of accounts which they left. Whatever may be the cause of this, the lack of an account of the experience such a large body of people means that the story of the long march from Myanmar is not fully told.
The Second World War is seen as a battle against the fascist forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but this narrative often obscures the enormous cost paid by civilian populations caught in the middle of battlefields. The fear and uncertainty which they faced left lasting scars, and shaped the way for a more peaceful world to emerge after the war.
Ezdani manages to document this essential part of our history, which displays the tenacity of the human spirit, and its capacity for good, with acts of kindness from complete strangers in the midst of the gloom of Myanmarese jungle representing the very best of human nature.
The vividness of the individual accounts ensures that New Songs of the Survivors is a riveting read, and the evocativeness of the stories of those who made the trek mean that this book would stay with you long after you’re done reading it.