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Updated: August 12, 2013 22:17 IST

Outliving death

Ramya Kannan
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A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami: Sonali Deraniyagala;

Virago/Hachette India, 4th & 5th Floor, Corporate Centre, Plot No. 94, Sector 44, Gurgaon-122003. Rs. 399.

If ever you have been on one, a rollercoaster, you know, begins the ride with a crawl. And then, in no time, just at the point of fall, the cars pick up tremendous speed thanks to gravity and design, sweep you down, and then up and down again in a ride at once terrifying and tantalising. It is that buzz that most people take a rollercoaster for.

Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave begins with a roller coaster: In her first few pages, we experience that gentle crawl and then that breathless ride, before we are deposited on the other side of the tsunami. It’s probably a crime to call such a tragic premise racy, but the book does pick us up from the word go, and through its riveting pages, takes us where the author has been, coping with the enormous loss of her family to the tsunami.

The book begins quite languorously in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka, where Deraniyagala is holidaying with her family: husband, two young sons, and parents. “A white foamy wave had climbed up to the rim of sand where the beach fell abruptly to the sea.” And then, chaos is let loose, as the massive sheets of water come out of nowhere. The chase begins: the tidal wave at the heels of the fleeing people. But who can beat an angry sea?

On December 26, 2004, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her sons in the tsunami that she miraculously survived. In the Wave, she takes us further, beyond those horrifying moments to living and coping without the people that were her bedrock. Brutally frank, and honest, her tale weaves in and out of her darkest moments, sanity and sobriety to abandon and insanity.

She struggles to cope with the sudden way in which her family has been yanked out of her life, and not talking about it is a way of insulating herself against the loss. “I have coffee with a friend who must think he knows me quite well. To him I am here in New York to do research at Columbia… I am a carefree academic, he thinks. As we chat, I find I almost believe this story myself, so deft I have become at my trickery. This is mad, my pretence. I must come out with it. Now it’s on the tip of my tongue, but I push it back.”

The lost family

Her husband Steve, kids Vik and Malli are dead even before we finish the first chapter, and yet, they live on as Deraniyagala recalls the joyous moments of the life she had lost. Very vividly she paints pictures of the life they lived in England, and Sri Lanka, her courtship days, the birth of her sons, the boys’ tumble through the countryside, the family’s love of the wild, their friends, quirks, their traits of character. And that’s how, after they are dead, Steve, Vik and Malli grow on, and even age, just as if they had not passed on at all.

Running through all this, keeping it from drowning itself in sorrow and despair, is the author’s sense of humour, caustic at times, sharp all the time. It rides in tandem with self-loathing, regret, pain, depression and virtually all other emotions in the vast palette that Deraniyagala summons to her canvas. That, and her felicity for vivid descriptions of existent and imagined land and mindscapes, they make Wave the kind of book that has Michael Ondaatje wowing it.

“The most powerful and haunting book I have read in years…Sonali Deraniyagala has brought back to life in this stunning memoir all those she lost, so much so that we will never forget them, or their lives,” Ondaatje writes. Indeed, any one who has read the Wave, shares the sunshine with the family. It is that happy reminiscence that lifts the author out of her despondency, and the book, from predictability. “And the three silly boys would fall about laughing. Now I sit in this garden in New York, and I hear them, jubilant, gleeful on our lawn.” At the end of the book, we too can almost hear them.

(Ramya Kannan is a senior assistant editor with The Hindu)

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