Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Songs of the Survivors - A Book Review

Songs of the Survivors, ed. Yvonne Vaz Ezdani, Broadway Book Centre, Panjim, 2007, pp. 289 by Teotónio R. de Souza
Oral testimony is one of the most valuable but challenging sources for the study of modern history, providing access to knowledge and experience unavailable to historians of earlier periods. However, it implies methodological problems of collection and interpretation, including the risk of re-enacting the role of the proverbial blind men of India who described an elephant after touching one single part of elephant's body. The British empire is in this book an elephant to contend with, and the goodies served to the imperial subjects, including the grateful ex-Burma Goans, constitute a serious challenge to the interpretation of the oral testimonies and record of lived experiences. Yvonne Vaz Ezdani, the editor of this volume is not unaware of the pitfalls. Her introduction sets Burma pretty well (in her perspective) and briefly in its geographical, cultural and historical context, but probably logistical difficulties did not permit her to ask her contributors some questions that could have elicited their responses about intra-community relationships, or about their day-to- day dealings with the Burmese population. This was essential when we are told that " this is not just a story of Goans in Burma, or Goans alone… It is a wider story of human determination to fight the odds, and also a story of yet another insightful chapter of the little- understood reality of Goan migration worldwide… Stories in the book also reveal other aspects of the Goan diaspora in Burma: why and when they went to Burma, how they earned their living there, how they adapted to the culture and lifestyles, what they felt about the land and the local people, and much more." We can see in these personal reminiscences of ex-Burma Goans how their traditional piety did not fail them through life's ordeals during the trek and during the difficult years that followed. Salman Rushdie may not have overstated in *The Moor's Last Sigh* the devotion of the Indo-Portuguese families for kababed saints and tandooried martyrs. In 1932 many of them came faithfully all the way to the feet of St. Francis Xavier. And with so many ex-Burma Goans in the *Songs of the Survivors* (Sunny Siqueira, Anthony John D'Cruz, Alex C. Fernandes, Patricia Carmen Therese (née Duarte), Francis Siqueira, Antoinette née Selkirk, Anthony Xavier Rego, L.C. Saldanha, Cajetan Bernard Silgardo, John Menezes, José Cordeiro, Alex de Souza) who made their living and brought cheer to others with music, Salman Rushdie's *The Ground Beneath her Feet* could once again convey fitting homage to these musical children of Goa who had learnt to rock and roll despite the ground cracking beneath their feet time and again. The editor tells us also that "this book aims at capturing the memories of a generation that is advancing in age. It hopes to help Goans understand another aspect of their own histories. It also seeks to record tales of determination and survival that are relevant to people everywhere. While aimed at the general reader, one hopes the scholar or historian may also find some useful information in the narratives of oral histories put down in print." But for being "a generation that is advanced in age" and closely related as family and friends, there could be little excuse for justifying opportunism as a very human tendency to want a good life. It may be true that when you don't get the opportunities in your home country you look for it elsewhere, and feel some gratitude and loyalty to whoever provides you with prosperity and status. But this is also a unique occasion to leave a question, that may appear crude and cruel: How do such simple and good people compare with other simple and equally good people who stayed put, struggled and even died in their resistance to the imperial-colonial logic in order to gain freedom for their countrymen? We have seen some other earlier Goan efforts at reaching catharsis after similar exit-ential tragedies, such as the one lived by Goan survivors of Idi Amin's expulsion of Indians from Uganda, in Peter Nazareth's scholarly fictional tale The General Is Up (Calcutta, Writer's Workshop, 1984) or in less scholarly edition of A Collection of Goan Voices by Susan Rodrigues. Such narratives, including the present one, whatever their literary form or academic quality, they are valuable records of human pathos. Even when some of them reflect faded memories as regards some details, they reveal by that very fact the human capacity to empty the debris of their past life-constructions and to look ahead with fresh hopes kindled and sustained by younger generation, as when Donald Menezes recalls in this book : "For ten days, we stayed at Kokine Lakes, bathing and swimming in the lake, singing, dancing, dallying with the girls, playing with the kids, joking with the elders and dashing for the trenches when the sirens went out. Our cheerfulness and helpfulness buoyed up the elderly". These and other, more or less heart-renting and comforting accounts raise long-term existential doubts. My critical comments are not intended here as discordant notes in the midst of so much music that resonates in this book, but as calls for greater self-consciousness of Goans as a community that needs to construct its own future, ceasing to be a play-thing of alien interests in exchange of short- term satisfactions. From time to time, tragedies have joined the Goans as Goans, or as relatives and friends from Goa into a fellowship of sufferers? However, Goans need to look frontally and question themselves as to how many of their fellow-Goans and countrymen they exclude from their fellowship and concern, consciously or unwittingly in good times. The differentiated caste- clubs in Uganda make me raise this question. The narratives in this book seem to be restricted to Goans of one caste, and curiously limited to Saligão and some surrounding villages, with a couple of exceptions of Benaulim and Divar. Beyond the village and family links, church celebrations and love for music it is difficult to perceive the "Goanness" in this book. From my private queries I got some responses, including thankfully from the editor herself, pointing to the existence of a Goan Club in Burma that was known as Portuguese Club, or about Goans who chose to distance themselves from Indians, who were seen in Burma either as exploiting money-lenders or as coolies working for half an anna. Goans preferred to be identified with the Anglo-Indians or with the Portuguese. We are also told that the Burma trek included a "White Route" for the Europeans, Anglo-Indians and Goans, and a "Black Route" for the other Indians. These colonial-racial biases could have merited some soul-searching or at least some passing criticism in these narratives. Contrarily, Gerard Lobo expresses unqualified gratefulness of Goans to Pax Britannica that permitted many to leave their motherland for parts of British India (what is now Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma) at times when there was little gainful employment under Portuguese. The editor herself presents a reading of the Burmese history and the behavior of her last kings from a British imperial perspective. We are told that the last king of Burma was "weak and arrogant", unlike his father who was a "shrewd diplomat" and maintained "correct relations" with the British by refusing to side with the Indians during the 1857 mutiny and even gave a big donation to the British victims of the Mutiny! Such a reading is a far cry, for instance, from *The Glass Palace* of Amitav Gosh, who handles Burma experiences of Indians very differently. For a historian born in India after 1947 this book represents a vintage of Goan nostalgia, blissfully unaware of the logic of the empires, be they British, Portuguese or Japanese. Though many contributors in this book refer frequently and gratefully to the Loretto Convent in Calcutta, where they were welcomed at the end of the grueling trek, while others made their way through Madras, or chose to rebuild their lives in places like Belgaum, where the cost of living was cheaper and had good schools and colleges, or in Bangalore, Bombay, Pune, Lucknow and Allahabad, where they found easy employment and supportive environment, these are all destinations that seem to be taken for granted, without questioning if it was Mother India, or Queen of England, or both that made them feel safe. Isa Vaz tells us that her family moved from Goa to Calcutta, and when the Allied forces announced victory in June 1944, she along with other children marched joyously on Chowringee Maidan to the tune of 'God Save the King'. Her family returned to Burma, but was back in India a few years later due to the Karen uprising. The bulk of these ex-Burma Goans lives happily today in India, and not in U.K. or Portugal. The publication of a book like this can provide a wonderful opportunity to the Goan writers and readers alike to go beyond reminiscences and to find some answers to the historical complicity of Goans, willingly or unwittingly, with the colonial powers and to their lack of national consciousness. Instead of stopping with the judgement of the rulers of Burma, past and present, we should be able to ask: What right did the British have to re-locate even the worst king of Burma to Ratnagiri? Or to deport Indian nationalist leaders, including the renowned Bal Gangadhar Tilak, to Mandalay? Does not the British exile of the King Thebaw remind anyone here of the present day Burmese Junta trying to erase the memory of Aung San Suu Kyi by placing her under house arrest? At least they have not yet exiled her from her country! If S.N. Bose and his INA were challenging the British in alliance with the Japanese in Burma, why is there so little appreciation for his efforts, even after Martin could improvise some music for celebrating Bose's triumphant entry in Manipur, following the fall of Imphal? It is curious that Goans play tunes for all masters; a recorded tradition that goes back to Albuquerque's military band following the Portuguese capture of Goa. The "Songs of the Survivors" has brought to life and to light one more little known chapter of Goa's history. Yvonne Vaz Eznadi deserves credit for the trouble such a venture involves. If "comfortable and serene lives were shattered and they (contributors to this volume) were plunged into chaos and refugees who fled to India", it is our common wish that true and lasting "comfort and serenity in life" may be forever theirs and ours, and may the ground never again slip from under our feet as a result of forgetfulness or insufficient consciousness of our collective responsibilities and destiny as Goans. --- the end ---