I enjoyed Songs of the Survivors tremendously and only wish I had an undisturbed week-end to read this fabulous book.
Here we have a fascinating oral history and the memoirs of many Christian Goans who lived in Burma, prior to, during and after WW2.
While many Christian Goans travelled westwards from Goa to British, and Portuguese East Africa for economic reasons, some chose to travel east across mainland India to ports like Madras and Calcutta and thence by ship to Rangoon in Burma. This book is entirely about their experiences of life in Burma.
For many readers, this account of life in Burma will be something entirely new, and in my case, made me reflect on the differences between the lived experiences in Burma and of those Goans who went to East Africa, comprising Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar of the time. Undoubtedly, there were parallels between those in Burma and those in East Africa, especially, in relation to religiosity and a measure of joviality and a fun culture largely within the community itself but I think I detected less dedication to sport in Burma. However, the numbers in Burma were relatively small and inclined to be settled mainly in and around Rangoon, the capital city of Burma.
The twenty-seven chapters in the book vary considerably in length but provide much detail about the earliest Goan travellers from Goa and India to Burma and their patterns of settlement in Burma that was then part of the British Empire. The occupations they were engaged in were as doctors, school and college teachers, pharmacists, people in the retail trade, and those in administrative and executive posts. In particular, there were accomplished musicians who performed in small orchestras in clubs and in smart hotels. They also taught music privately and traded in musical instruments.
In general, we get a fulsome picture of many in the professions but there seems to be scant information about those as semi-skilled or skilled workers----the kind that were so plentiful in East Africa. Apart from confectioners, were there no Goan tailors, workers on trains like stewards, chefs, barmen, mechanics and similar workers in Burma? Also, a surprising number of those who provided accounts in the book appeared to come from a small number of villages in Bardez, North Goa, and one got the distinct impression that they were from an extended 'clan' who helped male villagers in the emigration process from Goa, later in the pursuance of wives from much the same villages in Goa and their settlement in turn in Burma.
In general, the Goan settlers in Burma seemed to have enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle with Burmese servants to meet their every need. Indeed, one such settler described Burma as "a land of milk and honey." However, this salubrious existence was shattered quite abruptly between December, 23, 1942 and the start of the new year with incessant Japanese aerial bombing of Rangoon and surrounding areas. The Japanese swiftly defeated the ill-prepared British garrison and then occupied Burma until some two years later when the British were able to retake Burma after much hard fighting.
Much death and destruction followed the Japanese invasion and a huge panic followed by people desperate to get out of Burma in whatever way possible. A few were lucky to obtain early air and sea passages of evacuation (despite marauding Japanese submarines in the vicinity), from Rangoon to ports in India but many had to engage in a massive trek across Burma to safe havens in India by foot, mule, and minimal motorised transport through rough jungle terrain and sometimes by small boats on the innumerable rivers and their tributaries. Much danger was encountered in this fearful endeavour with a shortage of water and food in extreme heat and uncertainty about enemy positions along different routes. Many succumbed to exhaustion, tropical diseases, snake bite and the ravages of wild animals. Above all, separated members of families suffered much anguish about whether their loved ones were alive or dead on this great trek including those who had to stay put in their jobs or businesses and remain under Japanese rule. Subsequently, when the British retook Burma and some of the Goans and other fellow Indians returned, there were new concerns. These included unrest from marauding gangs of dacoits, assassinations, and armed insurgents wanting power for themselves, until a semblance of order emerged with Burmese independence in late 1948.
My reading of this exciting book illustrated many of the dilemmas faced by any editor. Should Yvonne Vaz Ezdani as the editor, have provided firm guidelines to the contributors about structuring their inputs to a formula or was it acceptable for her to seemingly provide much freedom to recount what they wished and to pour out their emotions? There clearly are good reasons to have allowed much freedom to recount all they wished but this had the effect of generating some degree of similarity and repetition within presentations particularly during the brief period of the aerial Japanese attack and the immediate aftermath. I saw this as perhaps a minor shortcoming in the editorial dilemma in putting the book together. On the other hand, I accept that such a view could be countered by the fact that each contributor managed to provide common themes about fear, uncertainty and bravery in wholly unexpected circumstances but there are also fascinating unique illustrations from them about what occurred at the time.
In Songs of the Survivors, there is an excellent story of sturdy and intrepid entrepreneurs from Goa who made their way to unknown parts of Burma to effectively help in the running of this corner of the British Empire just as other Goans did so in British East Africa. Yet, there were others who went to Portuguese East Africa to do much the same. One therefore can't help but wonder why such talent, grit, determination and dedication could not have been utilised at home in Goa itself---but then this is clearly another story altogether!
I believe that Vaz Ezdani has beautifully provided the historical context of the time in a substantial illustrated introduction about Burma, and exemplified the ebb and flow of life in calm and tumultuous times. The depiction of solidarity with fellow Goans and fellow communities of Indians as well as the Chinese in Burma comes through well. Above all, the relationship with the Burmese over several decades appears to have been warm and cordial and there are fascinating stories about encounters with individual Japanese commanders and administrators who were engaged in their wartime 'custodial' role that they might not have relished doing, so far away from home.
There is ever so much in this book and apart from hoping that many people will read it because it is warm, fascinating and informative, it is my hope too that, a film can be made of life in Burma, and especially highlighting the grit and fortitude of fellow Goans in good and bad times there. Such a film could surely have its premier at one of our future Film Festivals in Goa.