Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave (Sri Lanka)

Image“I’ve berated myself continually for bringing my family back to Sri Lanka that December. What was the need?“

Wave is Sonali Deraniyagala’s personal hell. While visiting her Sri Lankan home in 2004, the massive tsunami that ripped through South Asia left her muddied, cut up and mindlessly spinning in circles. Among the more than 225,000 killed were her parents, husband and two young boys.

Enduring such individual tragedy is pretty unimaginable. The scope of her loss leaves even Deraniyagala baffled – not to mention at times depressed, addicted, bitter, listless and mean. Her account is not only heartbreaking but, it would seem, astonishingly honest. She recalls arriving at the hospital and sitting next to a boy of about 12, crying for his parents. She says she ignored him, offering no comfort and thinking instead, “You stayed alive in that water because you are so fucking fat. Vik and Malli didn’t have a chance. Just shut up.” She also discusses at length her incessant tormenting of a Dutch family that moved into her parents’ house following the wave.

In the same way we don’t speak ill of the dead, I think there’s a social tendency to consider survivors of tragedy as shining beacons of hope – people like stories about the triumph of the human spirit. You know the story arc: someone who faced unspeakable pain and hurt and rose above it to help others in similar situations, or something equally heroic. But I think the reality for almost anyone, particularly those who lead a relatively privileged and secure life like Deraniyagala (or me, or almost everyone I know), is that this situation would be absolutely crushing, and Deraniyagala makes no effort to present herself as anything other than broken.

That’s not to say she hasn’t come to grips on some level with what she’s been through – I would imagine it’s impossible to write a book like this without some acceptance of her situation. She eventually manages to return to her London home, where her boys’ toys still litter the rooms. She recounts a whale-watching trip, unbearable at first without her nature-loving son Vik before it evolves into a soothing, comforting experience. And while her progress sometimes feels like one step forward, two steps back, it’s encouraging. Deraniyagala still inspires as a survivor – not a hero but just as a human, who faced the worse and is still moving forward, inch by inch.

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