Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

"I must stop remembering. I must keep them in a faraway place. The more I remember, the greater my agony. These thoughts stuttered in my mind. So I stopped talking about them, I wouldn't mouth my boys' names, I shoved away stories of them. Let them, let our life, become as unreal as that wave."

On December 26, 2004 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia at 7:58 AM local time. It was one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded and had a long period of thrust faulting - between 8 and 10 minutes, as a result of the Indian Plate subducting beneath the Burma Plate. This earthquake resulted in the elevation of the sea floor over the thrust fault  - over several meters which caused the displacement of large volumes of sea water. This displaced sea water resulted in a massive region wide tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in the areas around the Indian Ocean. It was known as the 2004 tsunami.

Steve, Vik and Malli
In 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala along with her husband, economist Stephen Lissenburgh their seven year old son, Vikram, and five year old son, Nikhil, (or Malli which means "little brother" in Sinhala, a nickname given by Vik) had journeyed to her native Sri Lanka for Christmas holidays. There they met her parents and together stayed for four days at the Yala National Park. They stayed at the Yala Safari Beach Hotel. The Park was in the direct path of the tsuanmi which arrived 90 minutes after the earthquake.

Caught in the tsuanmi, Sonali and her family tried to escape in a jeep but were overcome by the 30 foot wall of water. Sonali was separated from her family and washed up in a nearby lagoon. Her husband and children were nowhere to be found, as are thousands of others along the coast.

Sonali was taken to her aunt's home in Colombo where she was treated for her injuries and a serious sinus infection as a result of the heavily contaminated water. In a state of complete shock she was unable to talk and tell her family what she had experienced.

Several days later her parents bodies were found, as well as Vikram's body. Meanwhile her brother, Rajiv organized a search for Malli's body. Four months after the tsunami, Steve and Malli's bodies were found in a mass grave several miles down the coast.

In an instant, Sonali's life changed forever, her past, present and future gone. 

Wave is a brave and brutally honest retelling of what happened to Sonali and her family that fateful morning and how in the immediate months and past nine years she has struggled to cope with her family's tragedy.

Sonali's shock at what happened became numbness and an all out effort to avoid bringing up any memories of her husband and children. Her inability to cope with the magnitude of the loss she had suffered led her to abuse alcohol and prescription drugs in an effort to numb her pain. She was obsessed with finding pictures of the wave and searched the internet for ways to kill herself.

Bewildered by the loss of her immediate family, Sonali had not had much time to deal with the loss of her father and mother. Their family home in Colombo was cleaned up by her brother Rajiv who rented it to a Dutch couple. Unable to cope with the loss of this home, Sonali terrorized the couple for a month before slipping back into deep depression.

So great is her grief, and so deep is her inability to cope with what has happened to her, Sonali does not return to the home she shared with her husband and children for over three and half years!

Sonali feels that she abandoned her children because she did not look for them immediately after the tsuanmi. She loathes herself for not shrieking and crying in her deep grief over their deaths.

Everyday life is a reminder of her missing children, of their lives stopped, their potential, lost. Unable to cope with the absence they have left in her life, Sonali lives mostly in the past, small everyday things bringing back memories that at first were too painful to recall but which she seems to able to revisit a little more each year.

This account ends on only a slightly positive tone, with Sonali still struggling to find her identity and to cope with her loss. There is no closure, no redemption, no acceptance in Sonali Deraniyagala's memoir.  Readers will find this a tough book to finish (I did not - I skimmed the last 50 pages) as it is relentless in its portrayal of grief, guilt and an struggle to come to some kind of acceptance over what has happened.
"I suspect that I can only stay steady as I traverse this world that's empty of my family when I admit the reality of them, and me."

Book Details:
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagla
New York: Alfred A. Knopf       2013
228 pp.

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