Facing an inexorable enemy, they fled – the lucky ones flying out, some over the sea, while most others had to trudge across difficult terrain with a range of predators, including two-legged ones, to reach safety. Left behind in all cases were properties and businesses built painstakingly over the years while ahead was an uncertain future. They were not the Partition refugees but victims of a earlier displacement – Indians fleeing Burma as World War II arrived.
However, their story, occurring just a few years before 1947, is less-known, as is of the glittering Indian presence in Burma (renamed Myanmar only in 1989), and a part of British India till 1937.
Till the war, ethnic Indians made over half of Rangoon’s population and 16 percent of the whole country – including a large chunk not technically British subjects as they hailed from Portuguese Goa. Survivors have now thinned out and memories obliterated but there was a time when catchy Hindi film song “Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon” would have not been strange for Indian audiences as well as the setting of the Ashok Kumar-starrer “Samadhi” (1950).
It is these stories – both of the days of glory and the uncertain days of flight (or staying back under the Japanese for a few intrepid or hapless Indians) – that Yvonne Vaz Ezdani seeks to prevent from being forgotten in this work.
A school teacher-turned-counsellor, Ezdani, who herself was born in and lived in Burma where her Goan family had been for two generations at least, obtained her initial inspiration for this book from stories her father told her about the war days.
A few of them had “some moments so startling in their ability to conjure up pictures that I have not forgotten them”, such as about some refugees fleeing overland so hungry but so enfeebled “that they did not even have the strength to pull out grass from the ground” and “had to lie down and eat the grass off the ground like cattle”.
She worked on collecting such stories, which for her, “had acquired a particular potency because the bombs had come so close” with her “grandparents, parents and uncles lost their home and everything they had” in a Japanese air attack. They were just one of many – though her family had to stay back and her mother think fast on her feet to escape unwelcome attentions of the Japanese.
The actual catalyst came in the late 1990s when Thelma Menezes, a half-Burmese former freelance journalist, then ill and bed-ridden but one of those who had made the arduous trek to safety in 1942, convinced Ezdani to record these stories for posterity and also helped her get some more material.
“I realised that most people in India had no idea of the incredible accounts of extreme hardship faced with so much courage and resilience,” says the author and her book was “born out of this desire to share the oral, first-hand accounts I had collected over the years”.
This second edition has several “substantial changes” over the first (2007), with its first part, about stories of Goans in Burma, reframed to avoid repetitions, while the second gives a “different perspective of the exodus” through experiences of non-Goans – as well as some pieces from other writers, including about a three-year-old Miss Richardson who successfully made the trek from Upper Burma to Assam with her mother and infant brother. Indian cinemagoers would know her later as Helen.
But these stories including of a mother, separated from her children, tackling a ruthless Japanese general, two Goan brothers who convinced a group of fleeing Irish nuns with orphans that they would be safer in Rangoon and not only accompanied them back there but made all necessary arrangements for their safety and sustenance, and a Congressman from Madras helping refugees arriving in Assam not only showcase human resilience and courage but a rare altruism too – and hence are eternal.
You will also learn how a future Odisha chief minister saved two Indian women and their elderly retainer, and who prevented anarchy in Rangoon after the Japanese pulled out.
By Vikas Datta