The great escape

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The great escape
On the morning of December 23, 1941, Japanese Air Force carried out air raids on Rangoon in Burma killing many Indians among others settled there.

Rangoon, then, had a sizeable Indian population and many of the Indian settlers were Goans. Residents of the city were anticipating the arrival of war in Burma following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor just 15 days ago. Nevertheless, the air attacks came as a major shock as many were in the thick of preparations for Christmas, just two days away.
Many were killed in the air raids that continued over the next few months.

The city was thrown into a complete state of chaos as Indian settlers who managed to escape the attack started fleeing to India through various routes. Those who could afford flew home. Many fled by ship, braving aerial and submarine bombardment, but hundreds and thousands walked to Manipur through mountains and then Assam while many others walked across the Hukaung Valley, also known as the Valley of Death.

Writer Yvonne Vaz Ezdani has come up with her second book on the subject, New Songs of the Survivors, in which she has recorded stories of survivals and trauma experienced by Goans during the 1941-1945 air raids by Japanese forces.

This book is her account of the horrors of the attacks and the trauma people experienced while fleeing the country and of the difficulties of those who chose to stay back in Burma, now Myanmar.

The earlier version of the book titled Songs of the Survivors that was published in November 2007, is a collection of stories of trauma written by Goan survivors who suffered following the Japanese invasion of Burma, and during their exodus from the country back to India. Ezdani, as the editor of the book, also speaks about her experiences in the postscript of the book.

In New Songs of the Survivors, Ezdani comes up with her own account of the events that unfolded during those years, reframing accounts of the earlier book into one narrative but making a distinction between events and thematically arranging the narrative.

She first heard of the horror stories from her father Lucio Alexander Vaz. When she first began to write this book, she sought survivors who would corroborate her father’s story.
Even as hundreds of people fled the country, there were many who stayed back in Burma. To them, just as British had colonised Burma, the Japanese were another coloniser of another colour. “But they would carry the physical and psychological scars of this experience for decades. They often told of those dark days, the horror and the hardships they faced, and how they lived in fear of the Japanese soldiers,” says Ezdani.
New Songs of the Survivors has distinctly two sections — one, detailing the story of Goan voices, and the second, half-focusing on other individual voices.

She starts her narrative with idyllic, peaceful times in Burma, throwing light on the relatively carefree lives enjoyed by the settlers there. But with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the threat of war in Burma becomes real. Schools in Rangoon had closed down because of this threat. “Everyone knew that war was coming, but no one could really believe that the city would be bombed,” says Ezdani.

Air raids commenced on December 23, 1941. And so did the exodus. But not everyone could leave. The British government had arranged to evacuate people but only a lucky few could avail of this arrangement.

The government of British Burma failed to provide a systematic plan for civilian evacuation, says Ezdani. Weaving accounts of survivors who trekked across mountains, open country roads, forests, Ezdani brings to the reader stories of courage, compassion and suffering.

Amidst the stories of the various facets of the Japanese invasion and the impact on Indian settlers and refugees, Ezdani also spends time highlighting the prevalent political situation in Burma then. The Burma Campaign that ran from 1942 to 1945 was one of the longest and the most difficult campaigns in the Second World War. The campaign that ended in the victory for allies and Burmese people has been fought over difficult and dangerous terrain by troops a long way from home. Burmese people welcomed the British as liberators and not conquerors. Many Goan survivors did go back to try and see if they could re-establish their lives.

The latter half of the book that focuses on other voices or non-Goan voices, provides glimpses into survivor tales of actor Helen, Benegal Dinkar Rao, Shakuntala Peter, Gerry O’Connor and M P Vedachalam, who was a school student when he trekked to safety.

Ezdani has woven several survivor stories in her narrative, almost lending a story-like feel to the reader. The book makes for simple and engaging read but survivor stories tend to merge into one another because of the striking similarity in the experiences faced by people who fled. Nevertheless, an important read as you get to read a slice of history laid out from real experiences of people.

New Songs of the survivors
Yvonne Vaz Ezdani
Speaking Tiger
2015, pp 264, Rs 350

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