16 November, 2018

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Book Review: Wave By Sonali Deraniyagala

By Marcia Kaye –

It’s almost inconceivable that a memoir of such exquisite beauty could arise from an event as tragically horrific as the Asian tsunami of 2004. But Sonali Deraniyagala has created exactly that. In her starkly titled true story Wave, she describes losing her entire family — her husband, their two young sons and her parents, who all vanished under the water within a few terrible seconds. But slowly, agonizingly, she has put her life back together, chiefly through piecing together memories of her lost family members. She has brought them vividly to life for us, producing a fiercely moving tribute to them and a life-affirming testament to the strength of anyone —and all those — who have ever survived tragic loss. In a tribute on the book’s cover, Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author (The English Patient) calls Wave "the most powerful and haunting book I’ve read in years."

Deraniyagala, who was teaching economics at the University of London, was on a family holiday that fateful Christmas in the country of her birth, staying at a seaside resort on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Since we know the tsunami’s toll from the outset (230,000), Deraniyagala’s opening is ominous. "I thought nothing of it at first," she begins. "The ocean looked a little closer than usual. That is all." Within moments she and her husband, Steve, grabbed Vikram, almost eight, and Malli, five, and jumped into a jeep that tried unsuccessfully to outrun the churning water. Deraniyagala survived by clinging to a branch. The other five members of her family vanished. She never saw them again.

How does one cope after such a loss? As Deraniyagala tells it, one doesn’t. In shock and with a raging infection from having consumed so much filthy water, she can’t accept her family is gone. "They are my world. How do I make them dead? My mind toppled."

She takes us through the months-long bedlam of her grief. Cared for by relatives in Colombo, she initially refuses to drink anything alcoholic to help her sleep. But before long she’s polishing off half a bottle of vodka by late afternoon. Her relatives ration sleeping pills, but she easily buys hallucinogens from the corner pharmacy without a prescription. She doesn’t smoke but she stubs out lit cigarettes on her skin. Her relatives hide all the knives. She’s torn: she needs to remember; she needs to forget.

After six months Deraniyagala steels herself to revisit the site of the resort, accompanied by her father-in-law. Remarkably, they find vestiges of her family in that now-stark landscape: the laminated back cover of her husband’s research paper, a half-buried piece of Vikram’s green shirt, blue satin fabric from one of Malli’s dress-up costumes entangled on the branch of a dead tree.

It’s almost two years before she’s able to return to London, and another two before she can set foot in her house. As she sees her boys’ shoes by the bedroom door and an onion peel in a clay pot from the last beef curry Steve made, she’s able to start putting together fragments of the lives of her loved ones. This enables us to know them too, as she remembers Vik’s obsession with cricket, Malli’s theatrics, Steve’s culinary skills, her mother’s love of gossip, her father’s law library.

Deraniyagala explores both the predictable aspects of her grief, such as feelings of being completely bereft, as well as the unexpected ones; for instance, blame and shame. "I lost my dignity when I lost them," she writes. Her identity now escapes her. Is she still a mother? A daughter? She feels laid bare, her "story" too awful to divulge whenever a new acquaintance asks if she’s married or has children. Yet in not revealing the truth she feels deceitful. "I stun myself each time I retell the truth to myself, let alone someone else." She’s horrified that by mourning her sons first, then her husband, then her parents, there may be a pecking order to her grief.

But in discovering, or perhaps creating, a new identity — she is now a visiting research scholar at Columbia University in New York, working on issues of economic development, including post-disaster recovery — she doesn’t discard the old identity.Wave is somehow both jaggedly raw and beautifully crafted at the same time. Above all, it speaks to the power of the human spirit to survive, to love, to remember. It reminds us that these often mundane lives of ours and our families’ must be cherished, because we never know when an extraordinary event may come along to change it all.

Marcia Kaye is an author and journalist who spent time in Sri Lanka before the tsunami.
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Latest comments

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    1

    Your father and I were good friends as we were in the same profession.
    I used to visit him with clients from Homagama where he practised in 1970s.I remember ur sudden appearance in the chambers for a few minutes to be with your father.
    I was grief stricken when I heard about the tragic deaths of your mom daddy and children and husband.
    I was overjoyed when I saw this news about your book WAVE and I am happy that your indomitable courage and spirit remain undimmed.I hope this book will be available soon in SL. I wish you the Blessings of Triple Gem.

    • 0
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      Great courageous lady to recall such a tragedy and live to tell the tale.My best wishes to you and hopefully you will find solace in the dhamma .

    • 0
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      The Wave is avaiable in Sri-Lanka a The Barefoot Bookshop for Rs. 1700/- a copy.

  • 0
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    Sonali, you are a great lady, an icon to be remembered and followed by many women of this world, specially as we celebrated womens day yesterday 8th March, you are brave indeed and very courageous to gather up your life and start all over again although we know and understand it hurts, however life goes on. Trust and hope you will carry on with the love and understanding of all those around you and those near and dear to you are now in heaven and watching and waiting to be reunited with you. May you have all the blessings and courage you need with goodness and mecy following you for the rest of your life.

  • 0
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    I think Sonali is a very brave lady to come through this disaster mentally and physically. Her mental strength and composure is unmatched.

    Her experience will be invaluable if communicated to the victims of disasters in the North and other areas caused by the war. The pathetic sight of the families of the dead and disappeared is familiar to all of us.

    What is needed is the help and encouragement to come to terms with their problems and move forward in life. Sonali being a living example of human resilience could do much to encourage and motivate such people.

  • 0
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    HOW MANY SRI LANKAN WOMEN MUST HAVE EXPERIENCED GREATER TRAGEDY OF LOSING FAMILY , HOME, AND EVERYTHING ELSE THROUGH THIS KILLER WAVE.HOW MANY THOUSANDS OF THEM MUST BE STILL HAVING NIGHTMARES AND GET UP SCREAMING FROM THEIR SLEEP WITH NONE TO CONSOLE THEM OR COMFORT THEM. THEIR PROBLEM IS THEIR INABILITY TO PUT THEIR PAIN AND MISERY DOWN IN WRITING,AND HAVE WILD REVIEWS WRITTEN ABOUT THEIR ANGUISH SORROW AND HEART BROKEN EXPERIENCES. SONALI IS ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES WHO CAN DO THIS AND IN THE PROCESS TAKE IN THE SHEKELS WHICH MUS MAK HER FEEL GOOD. I FEEL DEEPLY NOT FOR SONALI BUT FOR THOSE WOMEN WHO STILL SHED SILENT TEARS OF BLOOD,FOR ALL TEHY HAVE LOST AND WHO CANT DO A DAMN THING ABOUT IT.

  • 0
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    Safa…. Send Rayappu & his bunch of 133 catholic clergy with Iddamalgoda to speak to the survivors of the war dead of a sponsored by you diaspora & the support of the Church.

    Leave Mdm. Sonali alone on this issue..

  • 1
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    The name “Deraniyagala” is nostalgic to me here in Switzerland. I was
    born on an Estate by Deraniyagala town and started my career there –
    a Grade 1/Class 1 (CEEF/CESU Agreement) Chief Clerk at the age of 24!
    As a Tamil I fell victim to the 1983 Ethnic riots when my son aged 20
    was murdered at the height of the riots and also 9 other tamils in
    Deraniyagala Town – Businessmen. This is all history. I wondered
    how her `ge` name is connected to that town? (Excuse me if this is off-topic)
    My regards and sad wishes to Sonali in our ever tormenting future in
    this world.

  • 1
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    LONE RANGER. An unbelievable and insensitive comment. Many people lost families and homes, not only in the tsunami, but in the many racial conflagrations that have engulfed this country. Some have written about their experiences-others could not or would not. Those of us who escaped without injury to body or soul have to be grateful to women like Sonali, who have had the courage to write about their feelings. To help us to understand. ‘Get the shekels’? But of course. If money counts for anything after you’ve lost everything.

  • 0
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    Why is that insensitive comment by lone ranger not edited out. It may not be violating the CT policy, but common decency should prevent this from being published. I escaped the Tsunami by the skin of my teeth and have done extensive work in those areas. People of all ethnicities died and worse, like Sonali, lived to face that loss. that was one time the whole country mourned and no one lit fire crackers of cooked kiribath on January First. Many people even postponed wedding celebrations that have taken years to plan to join mourning. this was how our nation acted collectively. may be a minority acted differently. tsunami was an unexpected tragedy that happened. Lone Ranger is so off his mark!

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    I THINK THIS IS A HIGHLY OVERATED BOOK ON THE DEC 2004 TSUNAMI THAT AFFECTED THE LIVES OF HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF LIVES IN SRI LANKA. IT TENDS TO FOCUS ON THE AUTHORS “PERSONAL” LOSSES IN THE TSUNAMI AND THE AFFECTS IT HAS ON HER FAMILY AND HER LIFE. AN INCIDENT OF THIS MAGNITUDE WHICH DESTROYED BILLIONS OF RUPEES OF BOTH MAN MADE AND NATURAL INFRASTRUCTURAL RESOURCES IN SOUTH ASIA IN OVER TEN COUNTRIES, THE IMMENSE LOSSES SUFFERED BY THOUSANDS OF FAMILIES BOTH IN PEOPLE AND IN BELONGINGS, IN MY OPINION SHOULD TELL MUCH MORE THAN WHAT DERANIYGALA HAS SAID. IF IT WAS A PERSONAL MEMOIR, THATS FINE, AND IT SHOULD REMAIN AS THAT. REVIEWING IT AS IT HAS BEEN DONE HERE, IS QUITE
    UNNECESSARY.
    “POSEIDON’S WRATH” A BOOK ON THE VERY SAME TSUNAMI WRITTEN BY ANOTHER SRI LANKAN WRITER IS FAR MORE ALL ENCOMPASSING AND GRIPPING.IT TELLS MUCH MORE OF THE AFFECTS THE TSUNAMI HAD ON THE “PEOPLE” LIVING IN OUR COASTAL BELT AND THE MISERY THEY WENT THROUGH. IT TELLS OF THE TRAIN TRAGEDY IN FRIGHTENING DETAIL , AND IT TELLS OF THE DESTRUCTION OF HUNDREDS OF LIVES IN THE CITY OF GALLE AS THE WAVE CRASHES INTO THE SOUTHERN CAPITAL. IT ALSO TELLS OF THE THOUSANDS OF BODIES HEAPED ONE ON TOP OF EACH OTHER AT KARAPITIYA AND IT TELLS OF THE HUMAN CLARION WHO FED ON THESE UNFORTUNATE VILLAGE PEOPLE.IT TELLS MUCH ,MUCH MORE AS A STORY THAN WHAT IS REVIEWED HERE AND AT HALF THE PRICE.

  • 0
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    Hi Sonali
    Truly a very courageous and heart rendering.
    You must go and continue to be strong and determined
    and take comfort that you had a very beautiful family in your
    even if it was for a short period.

    Sometimes God has an intended path for all of us.
    There is no rhyme or reason why things happen but
    we have to accept our lot.
    My brother Sanjay Gilani also died tragically and we miss him
    terribly. He attended Little Ilford School in Manor Park the same
    School as your husband Steven.
    My brother was also very bright and went on to study law which was
    quite an achievement from that school.Sanjay was an angel.
    I’m sure your family is watching over you and want you to carry on
    be the strong person and achieve greater heights.
    God bless Renu

  • 0
    1

    hai sonali,

    i’m very sad to here your own insident. But god bless for your life.
    and also another surprise 4 you. I have learn your story for my english lit.

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