On December 26, 2004, while on vacation at the Yala National Park on the southern coast of her native Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala, a Cambridge- and Oxford-educated economist (a faculty member at SOAS, London and research scholar at Columbia University, New York), lost her parents, her husband and her two young sons in the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that she just miraculously survived.
In 2013, after years of therapy (she was treated by the famed American psychotherapist Mark Epstein who works in the area of traumatic experiences), she published her memoir Wave. The project was unintentional, emerging by accident as she reluctantly began exploring and unravelling the events that transpired in the water. Initially afraid of memories in all their details, she gradually came to the conclusion that she can only recover from this tragedy if she keeps those she has lost close to herself. If there’s one message she wants to convey, it’s this – love endures…
Through this book she has simultaneously discharged her grief (and guilt) in an honest, unsentimental manner and celebrated her relationships with her loved ones. We find her looking back at her childhood in a well-heeled family in Colombo, at her encounter with her English husband, Stephen Lissenburgh (also an academic) at Cambridge where they both studied, at their joyous life in London with their two precociously talented children Vikram (aka Vik) and Nikhil (aka Malli/Mal) which was regularly punctuated by trips to Sri Lanka.
Although Deraniyagala’s prose is simple and unadorned, it is profound and not easily forgettable. The book, all in all, affords a rare vicarious experience – it goes deep into unimaginable horror but manages to end on a cheerful note. A small minority of readers may find it difficult to sympathise with Deraniyagala because of her many privileges (the best education and occupation possible, a comfortable inter-continental existence, a readily available support network of relatives and friends who helped her battle her suicidal tendencies). That, I believe, would be most insensitive for loss is loss.
Read excerpts below:
But now I try to keep a distance from those who are innocent of my reality. At best I am vague. I feel deceitful at times. But I can’t just drop it on someone, I feel – it’s too horrifying, too huge…I can see, though, that my secrecy does me no favours. It probably makes worse my sense of being outlandish. It confirms to me that it might be abhorrent, my story, or that few can relate to it.
And there is a lovely web on the climbing rose this morning, very showy and intricate. But they can’t see it. So is it because I am hazy from sleep that I still feel a stab of wonder when I do? My desolation of last night is now dissolving, but is this just the cheer of the early sun? I wonder, but I am also certain that, for some time at least, I will keep returning to this house and to its warmth and comfort. There is a small snail edging across the table on the patio. The heat from its tiny body is thawing out the beads of frost that have studded the table overnight. It leaves a watery trail. They would be so stirred by this.
When I lie in our bed the power of their absence assails me. The sheets have not been changed since Steve and I last slept on them. I haven’t been able to bring myself to wash them, and so I sneeze all night. Steve’s sarong still hangs on the exercise bike by the window. But his shoulder is not under my head. On Steve’s pillow, the one his head hasn’t touched in nearly four years. there is an eyelash.