Sonali Deraniyagala’s haunting memoir is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read. It opens on the morning after Christmas in 2004, with Sonali, her husband Steve, their two sons Vikram and Malli, and her parents all staying at a beachside hotel in Yala, on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka.
That morning, when the infamous tsunami struck, everyone save Sonali herself was killed. Her parents, her husband, her two beautiful young boys, all washed away, dead, in one cosmically unfair instant. Perhaps adding to the injustice, Sonali herself sustained a few injuries but survived.
Many blurbs about this book refer to the tragedy that struck her life as “unimaginable” or “incomprehensible,” but these terms aren’t exactly right, for what she does here with this wonderful book is precisely the antidote for our inability to wrap our minds around such a personal and deep catastrophe. She walks us through it, makes us imagine it, compels us to comprehend it.
For she herself was not provided the luxury of having to merely imagine it. It reached right into her life and took from her everything she held dear, and she had no choice—barring the suicide that she so understandably contemplated in the early aftermath—but to struggle in fits and starts to cope, to fathom the monumental injustice done to her by God or the universe, to redefine what her life was, and to live it.
She captures her reaction to this incredulity that her story seems to evoke in others:
I am in the unthinkable situation that other people cannot bear to contemplate. I hear this occasionally. I friend will say, I told someone about you, and she couldn’t believe it was true, couldn’t imagine how you must be. And I cringe to be bereft in a way that cannot be imagined, even though I do wonder how impossible this really is. Occasionally an insensitive relative might walk away if I mention my anguish, and I reel from the humiliation of my pain being outlandish, not palatable to others (114).
This book, as you can surmise, is much more than a disaster story; very little of the book deals with the disaster itself. Sure, she survived the tsunami, but the nature of her survival is what this book explores, and what makes it such a resoundingly powerful piece of literature. It’s such a profound thing she has experienced—and goes on experiencing—in the wave’s aftermath: the loss, the remorse, the blame she put on herself, the wanting to die. It’s so much that it seems a daunting undertaking as a reader even, to willingly embark on entering a story so rife with grief and pain. But she somehow manages to tell her story, calmly, lucidly, with grace and courage so robust that it made me feel plainly inadequate, and with humor even. I found myself several times throughout the book with a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes, yet laughing. It’s an amazing thing she has accomplished; and I’m not referring to the book, but to her brave struggle to live well and to honor her dead family. And we the readers are all just innocent, safe bystanders, lucky in so many ways, but especially lucky that she’s shared her story with us.
There’s a particularly painful scene when, four years after the tsunami, she finally returns for the first time to the home where she lived with her husband and the boys. She writes:
Now I walk into every room, sit on the floor. The house is much as we left it. Here is our debris, but it is all intact. All of it. I am bewildered. I can’t join the pieces together. They are dead, my life ruptured, but in here it feels as it always did. They could have walked out ten minutes ago. This house has not lost its rhythm, it doesn’t need reviving. During the past four years, our life here often seemed unreal, vaporous, and maddeningly elusive. But now it emerges and breathes into me slowly from within these walls (96-97).
The yellowed ‘Guardian’ newspapers in the rack in the living room are from the first week of December 2004. Stuck on the wall of our study is a printout of four tickets to ‘The Snowman’ at the Peacock Theatre on the fifth of January 2005…. There is a pile of unopened Christmas presents on our bedroom floor…. And a calendar for 2005 that Malli made in school, with a delicate design of orange and gold dots that he had crafted with a little boy’s devotion. I am in shreds…. The boy’s shoes are by the kitchen door, dried mud on them still. There is even some onion peel in the clay pot Steve used for cooking beef curry. A shaft of afternoon sun falls across the red sofa in the living room and, as always, I can see dust drifting in the beam. On the floor by the fireplace is the large bronze pot I bought in Cambodia. Malli once did a pee in it. I put my hand inside and pull out some black chess pieces…. On our bed a few hairs, not mine, Steve’s and maybe Vik’s. Two dinosaur-shaped toothbrushes in the bathroom, and a basket of laundry…. I want to put them back in here. I just want to put them back. They would so want to be here, they loved this house (97-99).
What more to say? It made me weep for the children I don’t even have yet.
Read this book. Read it now.