By the time I heard Sonali Deraniyagala’s voice over a Skype call, I had been waiting for months to talk to her. In that interval, I had read and re-read her impossibly poignant memoir Wave while watching the reviews proliferate online. Praise abounded (Michael Ondaatje dubbed it ‘the most powerful and haunting book’ he had read in years). It had been launched in March without fanfare, its author having previously reached an agreement with her American publishers that she would do few interviews and no T.V talk shows. Still Wave didn’t seem to need much promotion – almost effortlessly, the slender tome had become established as one of the most extraordinary accounts of the 2004 tsunami.
That December Sonali, then a lecturer in economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and her husband Steve were vacationing with her parents and her children in Yala on the south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka. 8 year old Vikram who ‘knew heaps about birds,’ loved the white bellied sea eagles that soared in the skies above the national park. Nikhil, whom everyone called Malli or younger brother thanks to Vikram, was equally at home. They were “blissfully happy” as a family, Sonali recalls. As Boxing Day dawned, she and her friend Orlantha stood watching Malli playing with his present on the veranda. She remembers Orlantha turning to her and saying simply, ‘What you guys have is a dream.’
Less than an hour later, when the thought occurred again to Sonali, its context was unimaginably different. A tsunami had torn through their hotel, overturned the jeep in which they were attempting to escape and separated her from her husband and children. As she looked up, a flock painted storks flew in perfect formation across a clear, blue sky. A strange, suspended moment of calm and then Sonali was dragged back into a reality where she was helplessly adrift, being carried by a giant wave far inland, her body being whipped back and forth by this inconceivably powerful force.
Looking back, Sonali says now: “That was the very first thing which I wrote about – being in the water itself; how utterly bewildering an experience it was, as well as being terrifying and mostly being extremely painful physically.” These first pages and most of what would become Wave were written in New York, where Sonali is a lecturer at the University of Colombia. Perhaps because she never imagined the book being read by a larger audience, Sonali spared herself nothing, writing about that day and the years that followed with a raw honesty. “In a way I started writing just to make sense of it for myself…I was really trying to work things out. Here was the unfathomable and I was trying to kind of make it comprehensible to myself, by dealing with little bits of it at a time.”
So she proceeded chronologically, through the chaos that had followed the tsunami where hundreds upon hundreds were missing or unaccounted for in Sri Lanka alone. Vikram’s body and that of his grandparents were identified in January but Steve and Nikhil were yet to be found – that news would take four months and the help of a lab in Austria which identified them among other bodies exhumed from a mass grave.
While Sonali waited for confirmation of what she already knew to be true, she planned her suicide, shied away from all recollections of her family and for a brief spell became alcoholic. Having lost everything – her past, her present and her future – to the wave, Sonali struggled to reconcile herself to her own survival. “If your whole life vanishes in an instant, at that point you can’t even really feel the grief, the main thing is just terror. If I was alone in a room for two seconds I felt like I was going to pass out.”
Sonali has since braved nearly a decade without her family. Having built a new life for herself in another country she had grown accustomed to evading questions about her past. For the longest time, new colleagues, casual acquaintances and even her neighbours in New York didn’t have a clue. That’s all changed since Wave was published. People approach her in supermarket queues and out on the street. “They mostly just want to talk,” says Sonali, sharing her “relief that people know and I don’t have this false identity…On the other hand I’m not at ease with the details that people do know. I don’t know, I have to work that one out.”
Readers are finding that Wave is as much about love as it is about loss; it is not one but two stories. One is the deliberate and unflinching examination of her own grief and her passage through it and the other the story of the life she once had. Though it had begun as an exercise suggested by her therapist, Sonali did not consider her writing cathartic. She wasn’t working her family out of her system – she was drawing them in close. She brought her two beautiful boys to life, painstakingly recording all she could of them and then she began on her husband and her parents. They are all there on the page, alive with detail, thrumming with life.
In Wave, Sonali has an extraordinary memorial to the people she loved, allowing us first to know and then to care for these strangers through her words. The book feels like an invitation into their home in in Friern Barnet, which Sonali keeps much as it was. She imagines that her boys would cringe to know their playroom was the same, their notes and unopened Christmas presents still intact. She loves that people stepping in can imagine that Vik and Malli are in the other room, her husband perhaps out at the store.
Explaining her instinct to stockpile her memories, she writes: ‘I can only recover myself when I keep them near. If I distance myself from them, and their absence, I am fractured. I am left feeling I’ve blundered into a stranger’s life.’ Sonali doesn’t shy away from the pain these recollections bring. “We were gloriously happy as a family and that makes the loss even more devastating…but to feel intolerable pain is worthy of what I lost. That’s the way I look at it,” she tells me now. Counter intuitively, living fully with her loss has allowed her to really embrace life. “It’s very enriching in that it opens you to joy and it keeps you alight,” she says.
Published in the Times of India (Crest Edition) on July 20, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Sonali Deraniyagala.