Wave: A survivor's story

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (17/03/13)

Boxing Day, 2004, Yala, Sri Lanka: an idyllic family holiday on "the Emerald Isle," just off the south coast of India, was torn asunder by a wave. The wave was more than 30 feet high and surged two miles inland at 25 miles an hour. As it retreated, it took with it thousands of people, and left nothing but ruin in its wake. The Indian Ocean tsunami also hit Sumatra, the Maldives and Thailand. The overall death toll was in the hundreds of thousands, and a third of the lost were children. It was a disaster of proportions so enormous that to ever make sense of it seemed impossible. For Sonali Deraniyagala, it was the end of a charmed life. She and her husband, her two young sons and her parents were all swept away. Only she survived.

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Deraniyagala has written an intimate and profoundly affecting memoir of her life before and after that tragic event. She talked about her book Wave: A Memoir in a recent interview on The Sunday Edition.

She told host Michael Enright that she had not actually set out to write a book. "I wrote for myself. I was writing firstly to make sense of what happened in the water," she explained, adding that she started writing two years after the tsunami, when she was living in New York. She wanted to make sense of an experience that still seemed "utterly bewildering."

Deraniyagala saw her writing as "an act of exploring, because severe trauma and shock of the sort I had blocks out a lot of detail." But the details were there in her memory, and she wanted to recover them. "I think all the while, while I was in the water, a part of me was almost in shock, maybe, but observing what was happening." A few years later, she rewrote her account, and even more details came back to her.

Then three or four years after that, she started to write about her family. Initially, in a psychological defence against her grief, she had wanted to forget them, but "gradually, with the help of a therapist in New York, I was able to go back to remembering and recovering details of them and writing," Deraniyagala said. Although it was painful, she found that "it was a much better quality of agony than trying to forget."

When asked about the day of the tsunami, Deraniyagala described it as a "gorgeous day." Her family was to leave for Colombo, and her sons were playing with their Christmas presents outside the hotel room. She was chatting with a friend who was staying in the same hotel, and her friend pointed out the wave. To Deraniyagala "it seemed odd but not scary." But the water didn't recede, "and then there were more waves, [and] there was a lot of foamy, frothy water coming at us."

She called to her husband, and when he came, they realized the danger. They grabbed the children and started running up a road. Someone in a jeep stopped for them, but only two or three minutes later, she said, " the water rose up inside the jeep, rather than a wave hitting. We were rocking in it, and then the jeep turned over, and we were dispersed."

Deraniyagala clung to a branch, and the next thing she knew, she was standing in a swamp, throwing up blood, and coughing. "I was extremely stunned. It really felt and looked like the end of time."

In the first few months afterwards, Deraniyagala said that she felt terror, and then gradually, a kind of shame. "It was so dreadful surviving that I didn't feel guilty to have survived. It was more that I didn't want to survive," she said.

In Wave she writes that there was an unreality to the experience of losing her two sons. "They vanished in an instant. The fracture [was] so sudden and so complete" that she found herself wondering, "is this real, did I even have them?" Her memories were too painful, and she found herself blotting them out.

Deraniyagala said she was eventually able to pick up the pieces of her life "by allowing in memory, and that was really the key to recovering some of myself." She feels that she still has a family. "The writing has been my way of bringing them close, of bringing them to life in a different way for myself."




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