Amitav Ghosh on why 'New Songs of the Survivors' needs to be read

[Foreword] Yvonne Vaz Ezdani’s book on the 1942 exodus evokes powerful images of Burma's once-thriving Goan community.

 |  3-minute read |   16-12-2015
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To write about the Indian past is almost inevitably to be confronted with a disheartening paucity of source material. I had to face this problem in a particularly acute form while writing about the 1942 exodus from Burma in my novel, The Glass Palace. Such documentation as I was able to find was overwhelmingly of British provenance; accounts written by Indians and other Asians were pitifully few even though they were by far the most numerous amongst the hundreds of thousands of people who left Burma at that time.

yvonne_121615044023.jpg Yvonne Vaz Ezdani; Speaking Tiger Books; Rs 350

In his article "A Forgotten Long March", the historian Hugh Tinker writes: "Because the thousands on the march included every section of the Indian community in Burma one might have supposed that some among them — teachers, writers, social workers perhaps — would have recorded their memories of the experience. Perhaps some did: but it has not been possible to trace any such personal account. For most, it was an experience they wanted to forget: and who anyway was interested in reading their experiences? They were not heroes: either to other Indians or to the Burmese or the British."*

Fortunately, the situation is not quite as dire as Tinker’s observations suggest. Over the years, I have heard reports of books and magazine articles in a number of Indian languages including Bengali, Assamese and Tamil: a systematic search would probably bring many such to light. Some other accounts, written for family consumption, have also begun to surface of late — and it is a matter of great pride for me that my website has played a part in this. Several survivors, and members of their families, have written to me about the exodus; a memoir written by a participant, Captain Nadir S Tyabji — a truly remarkable document — has also appeared as a series of posts on my blog.

But there can be no doubt that a very promising body of material remains as yet largely untapped: human memory. At this point in time, seventy-two years after the event, the number of remaining survivors is very small. But many stories have been passed on within their families and it is of the utmost importance that these be preserved.

With every passing year the urgency of creating a written and accessible record grows ever more pressing: this indeed is why Yvonne Vaz Ezdani’s New Songs of the Survivors — based on the memories of Burma’s once-thriving Goan community — is so important. 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 descendants. Indeed the book is much more than an oral history: the manner of its telling is such as to allow the reader to witness the events as they unfold, giving the narrative the vividness and momentum of a novel. It is a remarkable and innovative account and deserves to find a large readership.

*Hugh Tinker, ‘A Forgotten Long March: The Indian Exodus from Burma, 1941’ Journal of South East Asian Studies, 7/1, March 1975.

(This foreword from the book was published with permission from Speaking Tiger Books.)

Writer

Amitav Ghosh Amitav Ghosh @ghoshamitav

The writer is an Indian author, best known for his Ibis trilogy.

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