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By Salil | Issue No.2 Journeys | |

Burning bridges … a simple task?

Yvonne Vaz Ezdani

Yvonne Vaz Ezdani

I often have this recurring dream. I am in a lake. The water is calm but deep. I can’t swim but I have to keep moving. I have to go somewhere but I don’t know where. In every dream I have this vague fleeting sense of being in a situation I have no control over. I may sink. I may drown. But somehow I always make it to the other side.

I’ve stopped trying to analyse dreams now but for a long time I wondered if there was some anxiety about journeys lodged somewhere in my subconscious.

I recall journeys I have made in recent years, the meticulous planning, the visas, flight bookings, making sure I get special assistance to help me with baggage, assurance that someone will be at the airport to meet me etc. Journeys are mostly always predictable and happen as pre-planned.

But one journey was fraught with uncertainty and risks.

We were living in Burma. (I still refer to the country as ‘Burma” although ‘Myanmar’ has always been the word we used when we spoke Burmese). It was in the early 1980s. My husband was holding a Government job as Electrical Engineer in charge of a regional sub-division, I was tutoring students privately, our daughters were 4 and 2 and we wanted to take them to a place where they could receive a good education and grow up free and happy. Freedom of speech or of the press was not something we enjoyed at that time. The military regime which ruled the Socialist Republic of Burma made sure that they controlled the country with absolute power and strengthened the base of the Burma Socialist Programme Lanzin Party beginning from the grassroots levels. The eyes and ears of the party were everywhere.

But what made life more difficult was the pitiable economic conditions. Basic food and household commodities were rationed. We had to be satisfied with poor quality rice and small quantities of cooking oil because the prices in the black-market were sky high and unaffordable even for middle class citizens like us.

We had grown up enjoying a life of plenty. Now we had to do without so many things. Butter, cheese, pastries and other goodies were things we missed but we could do without them and anyway they were not available anywhere to tempt us. Local food products like fruits and vegetables were sold in the markets by local farmers and shopkeepers at reasonable prices so that was how poor people survived. But whatever the government nationalized and controlled became a scarce commodity.

We wanted out. My husband applied to be released from his job but his application was rejected many times. Without the release order we could not apply for passports. He decided to walk across the border to Imphal and then make his way to Lahore where a relative of his had promised to help him get a job in the Middle East. I was adamant that I and the children would go with him no matter what the risks. Rather than stay behind in Burma I wanted to be with my father and brothers in Goa while he found a job and built up some kind of secure life for us as a family. We argued over it and minutely discussed the pros and cons of taking such a big risk. We tried to get our daughters to speak English only, so that they would not speak any Burmese words and get us into trouble after we crossed the border. If we were caught as illegal immigrants it would have been the end of all our hopes and dreams.

A fortune teller told me that no matter how well we planned our trip, it would not happen that year and he was correct in his predictions. For some reason or other we could not get started. In the meantime I stormed heaven with desperate prayers. Then, out of the blue my husband got his release order. From the over 200 applications only 5 were successful and his was one of them.

We immediately set about applying for papers and visas that we needed. We had to pay about 50,000 kyats for what was called education clearance fees as both of us were graduates. The Burmese government was trying to prevent a brain drain but educated people were ready to pay and leave. I am so grateful to my father for sacrificing his own needs to give me 25,000 kyats which was a large amount in those days.

After a lot of running around, all our documents were ready. We booked our flights to Calcutta and till we boarded the plane we were so nervous. Many people had been stopped by the authorities at the airport and prevented from leaving at the last minute on some flimsy excuse.

But we were through. We had left everything behind, our jobs, our home, friends and family. I had to sell all the beautiful bits of jewellery my parents had given me; rubies, sapphires and other precious stones were not permitted out of the country. All we were allowed to take was 44 pounds of baggage, the equivalent of 20 US$, our wedding rings and a gold cross on a fine chain.

We did not know what lay ahead but we had close family in Goa and that was our anchor.

In terms of miles we did not have to travel so much, but to us it was a long, long journey.

Have I ever gone back? I am often asked that question.

The answer is ‘No’. We had often thought about it but somehow there was neither the time nor the money.

My husband used to go to visit his mother in Kalaw occasionally and in November 2001 a bombshell fell on us when we were informed that he had expired suddenly while he was there. I could not go for the funeral. Getting a visa from the Burmese embassy would have taken days.

I can’t explain why but for a long time after his death I did not want to go to Burma ever again. Did I want to burn all bridges behind me? I don’t have the answer to the question. I was deprived of comforting visits to his grave but I tried not to mind too much.

Recently my daughters and my sons-in-law convinced me that we should make a trip together to Burma. For their sakes I agreed. I don’t know how it will turn out, what I will discover or how I will feel. Maybe I will begin to have different dreams after the trip. I really don’t know. But I think that is precisely why I need to make this journey.


Yvonne Vaz Ezdani is the editor of Songs of the Survivors (Goa 1556), 2007. The book focuses on a dramatic moment of history—the Japanese invasion of Burma (Myanmar), and traces the impact of this life-changing experience for the many Goans living there. It is collaboratively written by two dozen contributors, including the editor herself. Yvonne herself lived in Burma till the early 1980s. 

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