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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 32 New Delhi July 30, 2016

Vivid Portrayal of Massive Human Tragedy

Monday 1 August 2016, by D. Bandyopadhyay



New Songs of the Survivors: The Exodus of Indians from Burma by Yvonne Vaz Ezdani; Speaking Tiger, New Delhi; 2016; price: Rs 350 (paperback).

Human memory of any important incident or event has now become a major source of history. There are pitfalls. Memories may fail. Memories may get clouded by other events thereby distorting memories of the events. In fact, in earlier days history depended entirely on written and/or archeological evidence, references in literature, epics and the like.

But in recent times “Oral History” has become a major source of recording an important event. In India we are not in the habit of writing out individual experiences of participating in any notable incident. Thus, one of the main sources of history does get lost.

Yvonne Vaz Ezdan’s book, New Songs of the Survivors; The Exodus of Indians from Burma,  is a remarkable piece of literature based very largely on human memories. Amitava Ghosh in his introduction rightly said: “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 descendents. Indeed the book is much more than an oral history. The manner of writing is such as to allow the reader to witness the events as they unfolded giving the narrative the vividness and momentum of a novel.”

The accounts of human suffering are rarely pleasant reading. The author’s father, Lucio Alexandar Vaz, writes: “And on that difficult walk with hunger, they did not even have the strength to pull the grass from the ground to eat. Instead they had to lie down and eat the grass off the ground like cattle.”

The author is fully aware of the weakness of any oral history: “Many factual stories remain only in oral tradition: they are passed from generation to generation and each telling distorting them a little. Some simply die with the passing of those who lived through them. And so, I began making rough notes of the stories I was told.” The author carries the story to a higher plain when he writes: “While recapturing the memories of a generation that is advancing in age, New Songs of the Survivors also seeks to record little known tales of determination of survivors that are relevant not only to the period of history in Burma and India, but to the human spirit everywhere.”

The British colonial masters discriminated against Goans even though they wore European clothes and spoke the Portuguese language. They were not allowed to be members of the British Gymkhana Club. Though they distinguished themselves from other Indians, the Britishers treated them as shabbily as any colonial person. Goans did not have any particular skill nor were they highly educated, but by the sheer sincerity and hard work they acquired wealth and respectability. The colonial masters valued their services and often promoted them out of turn. That way they thought that they were a cut above the other Indians.

As described earlier during the recollections from the survivors and their descendents, this book is an excellent story of the forgotten “Long March”, one of the biggest and most harrowing mass migrations in recent history.

The author has succinctly put it as follows: “While recapturing the memories of a generation that is advancing in age, New Songs of the Survivors also seeks to record little known facts of determination and survival that are relevant not only to that period of the history in Burma and India, but to the human spirit everywhere! The progress of human civilisation had been from the stage of migrating and hunting-gathering occupation to settled life through agriculture, formation of villages, towns, cities and the associated activities therewith. Mass migration of human being is both a colossal mass tragedy and undoing of the entire process of history. Agony and suffering of the participants cannot be understood by us living in settled and peaceful civilised society.”

This book is a major contribution to the portrayal of the massive tragedy of human beings in recent times. This is worth keeping in one’s own private collection.

The reviewer, an erstwhile administrator and expert on land issues, is currently a Rajya Sabha member representing the Trinamul Congress.

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