Sonali Deraniyagala (2013) Wave Virago, London; 224 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84408928-4
On 26 December 2004, a massive undersea earthquake off the island of Sumatra in Indonesia triggered the deadliest tsunami in history. 184,000 people were confirmed dead with another 46,000 never found. The first and major impact was in Aceh province in the north of Sumatra but the tsunami moved rapidly across the Indian Ocean and eventually killed people in fifteen countries, reaching as far as the eastern coast of Africa. Sri Lanka was the second most affected in terms of deaths.
At that time, Sonali Deraniyagala was holidaying with her husband, young sons aged five and eight, and her parents near the Yala national park on the south-east coast of Sri Lanka. While talking to a friend at the door of her hotel room, Deraniyagala turned to see a massive wave barrelling towards her. She grabbed her sons, called her husband and they ran as fast as they could to escape. In the rush she did not call her parents in the room next door. The family jumped into a friend’s jeep and began to drive off, but the wave engulfed them. Deraniyagala was swept into the murky waters and, as she subsequently discovered, was dragged a long way inland and then back towards her hotel as the waves receded. She managed to grab hold of a tree and clung to this, surrounded by a waterscape that was suddenly alien and incomprehensible.
This book is a recollection of that event and her subsequent attempts to cope with the tragedy of losing her husband, sons and parents in the deluge. She senses very early that her family is dead and is angry with herself and the world that she has survived. In the immediate aftermath when she is taken to a local hospital, she is bitter and enraged with those around her, refusing to speak. When a small child is wailing with grief near her she does nothing to console it and hates it for being alive. It is not a pretty picture, but it is brutally honest. Who of us can possibly know how we would behave in the same circumstances? Her experience is something beyond imagining.
Despite having degrees in economics and working as an academic economist, Deraniyagala writes in lucid and stylish prose. We are carried through the ups and downs of her emotions and her slow and painful reconnection with life. For a long time she teeters on the shores of madness and self-destruction as a world without those nearest to her seems bereft of meaning and purpose. She also finds it hard to come to terms with the random nature of the event that wrought this destruction. In a world that previously made sense, this is something that cannot be explained and is therefore hard to accept.
Deraniyagala’s family split their lives between England and Sri Lanka. Both countries were ‘home’ to her young boys. In the early stages after the tsunami she spends more time in Colombo with relatives and friends, finding it hard to face the family home in London. Her return to England is fraught with chance encounters that trigger a flood of memories she would rather remain forgotten. Her sons’ friends ask awkward and painful questions and being with other families only reminds her that her own family is no longer there.
She spends time in New York, but even here she finds herself falling into long days of despair, unable to leave her apartment or cope with the busy city that bustles uncaring around her. It takes many years before she is able to deal with the past, but in the end memories and trivial items from her family life provide a kind of solace and renewed willingness to go on living.
Although this is a searingly honest and deeply sad memoir, there were times when I was chuckling to myself. These were over the passages describing her very middle class life in London. They occasionally read too much like extracts from The Middle Class Handbook (even a nanny finally makes an appearance two-thirds of the way through the book). An inappropriate response on my part, perhaps, but it did remind me that this important remembrance of things past is possible because of Deraniyagala’s education, connections and wonderful command of English prose. Given that tens of thousands died in the tsunami there must be many more survivors with stories to tell and many who have been driven to death or insanity by their experiences. Most of them would have been far less privileged than this author and we are unlikely to ever hear from them. We should therefore be thankful for Deraniyagala’s powerful glimpse into the abyss.
When Deraniyagala is first taken to a local hospital, her friend’s father Anton is also there. He searches frantically for his wife and daughter and asks Deraniyagala to take him to the morgue, which she does reluctantly. Anton is a doctor and perhaps being in a hospital again and being familiar with injuries and death he is able to engage more easily with those around him. We never hear of him again and I kept wondering how he had coped in the longer term. In the acknowledgements Deraniyagala thanks her therapist, someone who is completely absent from the story. What role did the therapist play? This is something I felt should have been included given the controversies over the utility of trauma counselling. Still, these omissions in no way detract from the tale.
Although the subject matter is often harrowing, this is an utterly engrossing book. Deraniyagala has shown great bravery in writing this memoir and it deserves to be widely read.