“‘Oh my God, the sea’s coming in.’ That’s what she said. I looked behind me. It didn’t seem that remarkable. Or alarming. It was only the white curl of a big wave,” thought Sonali Deraniyagala while on holiday in Yala, a national park on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004. Deraniyagala, an economist who studied in Cambridge and Oxford, was with her husband Steve, her two boys Vikram (8) and Malli (5) and her parents. The wave that Deraniyagala was talking about was 30-feet high in Yala, it moved through land at 25 miles an hour, charged inland for over two miles, claiming and wrecking lives, before it returned into the ocean.
The author survived, but lost her entire family in the tsunami of 2004, when an earthquake under the sea near Indonesia triggered a tidal wave.
Most people remember being riveted in horror to their television sets as news of the tsunami sent reverberations across the world. Until then most of us, including Deraniyagala, hadn’t even heard of this tidal wave phenomena. As the author grapples with her unimaginable loss, she writes about her grief, in a raw manner that’s gut-wrenching to read. The memoir is devoid of statistics, you don’t find out how many people died, instead you realise who were some of the people who perished in the tsunami.
After the tsunami, instead of returning to her London home. Friends and family rally around her but she collapses – endlessly tracing back events, evoking memories and only resurfacing with a strong wish to die as well. She is numb with grief, alternating between fits of fury and suicidal thoughts, which she acts upon by slashing herself with a butter knife, burning cigarette butts into her skin and stashing sleeping pills. Her days get obliterated into a vodka and Ambien pill haze, she even hounds the Dutch family that moves into her parents’ house in Colombo. “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate,” she writes at one time poignantly.
At another point, she realises that she is now frightened of Sundays as that was the day “the wave came to us”. Guilt surfaces. At other times, a feeling of doom, as she writes, “When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I’ve lost them, I am full of shame. I was doomed all along”. Deraniyagala visits Yala again and again, scouring among the debris for fragments of the belongings of her family.
Her father-in-law accompanies her on the first trip – “He’d stood in that wind and spoken a few words into the air to Steve and the boys. That’s when something fluttered by his foot”. It turns out to be the back cover of a research report that Steve had co-written. These are moments that makeWave so compelling on the whole.
As Deraniyagala writes about the horrific event, it’s as if her thoughts are spilling onto the pages in short, almost staccato sentences, recalling the mind-numbing sorrow and the void in her life. Her words begin to uncoil slowly as she returns to London, after three years and eight months. She loses herself, and in some way reclaims herself, in those warm, happy memories of their life there: “I clasped a seashell in my fist… one of those cowrie shells I found in the house before it was rented. On its shiny surface still, Malli’s fingertips”. She finds her husband’s eyelash, marks from coloured pens on the kitchen table, the place where Steve and the boys would feed spiders in the garden, clinging to a familiarity that slowly begins to soothe her.
Wave is a haunting, difficult read about the nightmare of the tsunami and the wreckage it left behind. But it’s also a personal memoir about the beauty of relationships and their fragility. You can’t help but read it until the end, with short bursts of painful breaths, admiring the excruciating exquisiteness of her words. Wave will linger in your mind long after you’ve put it back on the bookshelf.
By Bijal Vachharajani on June 06 2014