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Sonali Deraniyagala

Little, Brown

Pages: 224 Rs. 399

In the wake of a wave, a survivor explores grief

Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir is about the terrible silence that inevitably follows a tragedy. It is a luminous ode to our unexpected reserves of grit, writes Hannah Green.

Hannah Green  29th Jun 2013

A snapshot from Indonesia, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami

s there a wrong way to grieve? Can you keep the memory of someone you have lost too close, or push it away with too much force? As though the pain of losing her entire family in one day wasn't enough, Sonali Deraniyagala seems to constantly torture herself with these questions in her memoir Wave. The book begins the day after Christmas in 2004, on the coast of Sri Lanka, moments before the tsunami carries her away in a rush of dull, awful colors and pain. As it is happening, she doesn't really understand. "Am I under water? It didn't feel like water, but it had to be, I thought." In a single day, Deraniyagala loses her two sons, Vikram and Malli, her husband Steve, and her parents. From this moment on, Deraniyagala recounts the grieving process.

Although the narrative is chronological, it does not follow the actual sequence of events so much as trajectory of Deraniyagala's memories. Flashbacks come with increasing depth and clarity as time goes by. After they first die, she can only see her sons in a blur. It hurts too much to remember what they looked like. Over time, they begin to come back to her. As she begins to allow herself to remember the past, she more fully understands the present as well.

There is little mention of practical details. Now she is in London, where she lived with her husband and children, now Colombo, at her parents' old house, now New York, but she doesn't say how she got there. Different places carry different imprints of her family, and she experiences life entirely through those memories. Any practical reasons for her travels, work-related or otherwise, go unmentioned. Her attempts to balance her grief are more consuming than her ongoing life.

This is not a memoir about moving on. It is a story of survival. At each stage there is no hope of getting past the tragedy of "the wave", the shorthand that Deraniyagala uses to describe that day. For years, she struggled to remain suspended between two potentially devastating states: that of truly knowing, and that of not knowing. To fully understand what she had and what she lost, she fears, will shatter her, "The more I remember, the more inconsolable I will be, I tell myself." But if she allows herself to succumb too completely to the lull of denial, the pain when she remembers reality will also be unbearable, "For three years I've tried to indelibly imprint they are dead on my consciousness, afraid of slipping up and forgetting, of thinking they are alive. Coming out of the lapse, however momentarily, will be more harrowing than the constant knowing, surely." The moments of beauty occur when she allows her memories to pierce through these fears. She remembers with surreal clarity, like high quality film- the brilliant colors stand out the most, even in ordinary moments, like this description of her son eating junk food:

"The slow crunch, crunch and the rustle of foil as he took a single crisp out of the pack, savored it with his eyes, lowered it into his mouth, and munched. And he repeated this until the last little smashed-up piece of crisp was gone. That was how he ate crisps ... His behavior was even more emphatic if I was around, to call attention to my cruelty, in not allowing him a daily ration of his favorite snack."

Deraniyagala began writing about her loss at the suggestion of her therapist. Her writing may have helped her to recover, but she has given more to her readers and to the memory of her family. Her sons and her husband will live for a long time within the pages of this book.

We never know more than she knows. It wasn't until years after the wave that a friend told her something very strange about that day. After the tsunami water receded, she was found spinning "like children do when they want to get dizzy and fall." In the timeline of the book, we also don't have this realization until years later. She didn't mention it in her original description of the tsunami, because she herself didn't remember. When she can't remember what her sons look like, we can't see them either. When, for the first time, she recalls how they looked together, on the couch or in the car, only then we begin to picture them. In this way, Deraniyagala keeps readers close. At the same time as Deraniyagala is remembering her family, we are just meeting them.

We get to know them through the intensity that loss has lent to her memories. Hers was the story of a truly beautiful life- the kind that makes the idea of falling in love and starting a family sound like an exciting adventure and not a daunting sentence. She married her college love. They managed to get into the same graduate school, and find work in London. When they weren't working, they spent their lives raising beautiful children, trekking through the jungles of Sri Lanka and the fish markets of North London. She reveals this life to us slowly. We are over halfway in before we even find out what her job is.

emembering is a rocky process. Her survivor's guilt changes form as time passes. There are moments, even, where she convinces us of the tortured logic of her shame. Her thoroughness in examining her own state of mind, and the clarity with which she presents it to us, are both astonishingly brave and enlightening.

Years after the wave, she questions herself relentlessly. Why didn't she look harder for her sons, she wonders. Because her maternal instincts told her that they were already dead? "And in those weeks and months after, when my friends and relatives were combing the country for Malli, I took no notice, or I insisted it was pointless. Why did I so readily accept this hideous reality? Because I was desperate to protect myself from hope in case that hope became dust? Or because I truly knew? I cannot say."

We are getting to know her also. Or, to be more exact, we are getting to know who she used to be. She starts by introducing us to a woman experiencing unthinkable pain. But slowly, as she begins to remember the woman she once was, we get to see how she has changed. Before the wave she was self-confident, enviably so. She describes her fearlessness before leaving to go to university in Cambridge, at eighteen; "I was leaving Sri Lanka for the first time, I'd never lived away from my family, and I was parting from all my friends in the girls' school I'd been to since I was four. But I was unperturbed. Everything that mattered then- studying, making friends, flirting- came easily to me, and I was cheerily secure."

This person is strikingly different from the woman who avoids conversation with strangers in case they question her about her family. Yet the past Sonali begins to come alive again as the book continues. As I read on, I was surprised to find myself laughing; such was the warmth and humor she used to describe her family.

Deraniyagala began writing about her loss at the suggestion of her therapist. Her writing may have helped her to recover, but she has given more to her readers and to the memory of her family. Her sons and her husband will live for a long time within the pages of this book. As we learn of them through the windows of her grief, in the end we see that it is worthwhile to care for others this deeply, even if one day we will lose them.

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