Author: Sonali Deraniyagala.
Genre: Non-fiction, memoir, natural disaster, survival non-fiction, substance abuse, grief, death.
Country: Sri Lanka.
Publication Date: 2013.
Summary: In December 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala, her English husband, and their two little boys travelled from London to the seaside resort of Yala on the south coast of Sri Lanka to spend Christmas with her parents. On the morning of December 26, they were packing to leave for Colombo when they saw an unusually large wave approach far too close to their hotel. They began to run, but very soon water engulfed them and Sonali was separated from her family in the churning currents. She never saw them again. This is a memoir of those first terrifying moments, and of all that followed. It is also a portrait of a young family's life and what came before, with all the small moments and larger dreams that suddenly and irrevocably ended. It is a raw and poised account of the devastating event that all at once changed Sonali's life as she knew it, and of her long journey since in search of understanding and redemption.
My rating: 8/10.
My review: This book was difficult for me to get in to (and to go on with), because the first feeling I experienced while reading it was anger, and I'm not a big fan of books that piss me off. It may be insensitive to say, but it was the way I felt. I was furious when the narrator became an awful human being during the tragedy - she had zero compassion or understanding for any of the pain and suffering around her, to a pretty extreme level when she is "annoyed" by an injured, terrified, and lost child. I found it even more infuriating how she practically immediately gave up on her family. Even though neither of her parents or children, or her husband, are found for a long while, she makes no effort to look for them to spare herself the pain and the suffering if they end up dead. It's that if I found so hard to deal with. I can't even fathom anyone I love (especially my Mom, since I can't relate to having either husband or children at this point in my life) missing, and possibly injured and lost in a natural disaster, and not spending every ounce of energy I have looking. She spends more time looking for fragments of their belongings on the beach after she knows they are dead, than she spends looking for them when she doesn't, and that is a concept I find it almost impossible to wrap my mind around. However, it was the unsentimental honesty with which Deraniyagala describes all of these events that eventually won me over. She realizes what her actions imply, and struggling with the guilt of it is an enormous part of her healing and acceptance process, and I found that admirable, since in a memoir she had the option of painting herself in any way she pleased (especially when it came to things she was feeling and thinking). It was that lack of emotion and sentiment (atypical for this kind of subject matter) that ironically built such a real feeling of a family and life she lead before the tragedy. By giving glimpses into the most casual, banal, and every-day details, this memoir quietly drives the feeling of the enormous loss even deeper, because it's those everyday details and seemingly insignificant moments that add up to a life. By describing everything from her stint of substance abuse, to every thought and feeling that boomerang inside of her for years, without over-dramatization or epic, tear-jerking descriptions, it doesn't give you the catharsis, as a reader. That lack of catharsis, and ultimately lack of any resolution to her story aside from the fact that gradually she manages to accept what has happened to her, is what makes this story personal, and not as easy to wipe from your mind as a Hollywood disaster flick usually is. It brings you closer to what it feels like to be a human going through something like this than any documentary or dramatization yet has. It leaves you feeling hollow and a little shell-shocked, but it gives you a slimmer of hope and light as the author faces her deepest anxieties over the course of the years. I personally loved the realization to which the author comes that she cannot run from memories. That embracing the beauty that was her life, and her family, is the only way to move forward and be able to live. It's common to bury, run from, and try to avoid the things that hurt us the most, and I agree and appreciate the message that accepting and facing is the only way forward, no matter how long it may take, or painful it may be.
♥ They'd squabble, trying to stretch a too-small mosquito net over two adjacent beds, and argue about how dark the room should be. Vik wanted some light, Malli did not. He'd say, "Don't be scared, Vik. It's good when it's all really black. You can see your dreams better."
♥ Broken and bewildered, my brother had the house cleared and packed away, painted and polished, all in the first month or two after the wave. For him, that was the practical thing to do, to impose order on the unfathomable, perhaps. I had been collapsed on a bed in my aunt's house at the time and could not contemplate returning to my parents' house. I quaked at the very thought of it.
Now, in this stillness, sterile with the odour of varnish and paint, I hunted traces of us. A pencil stub with the end chewed off perhaps, a scrunched-up grocery bill, a hair floating across the floor, a squiggle made with a pen on a wall, a scrape of a fork on a table. But there was nothing. No dent, no chipped paint on the wooden banister along the stairs where a ball had been lobbed too hard. The drops of crimson nail polish
♥ All of this now sharply in focus just by being within these walls, my vapour-filmed mind clearing for a while. I looked out the window and saw the lime tree in the front garden. The tangy smell of those lime leaves, when they are torn into small pieces, I know that so well. Familiar insect noise filled the outside, crickets rubbing wings together, cicadas vibrating tiny abdominal membranes. A few moments of quiescence. Home.
♥ He'd written three cheques on our last day in London, for the gardener and the milkman and for the boys' school dinner. Those two words, school dinners, were all it took. I shattered.
For one thing, my mind had not even murmured those words in all these years. How could I have forgotten? How could I have shut this out? I could now hear our daily conversations. Vik telling me that he'd had sausages again at lunchtime, Malli shrugging his shoulders and walking away when I ask if he's eaten any vegetables. And I could see Steve sitting right where I was, signing that cheque with the pen that is still on the desk, tearing it off and putting it in Vik's schoolbag. I would have seen that dinner bill lying around for days and left it for him to deal with. I would have picked it up when I sat at that desk reading a chapter of a student's thesis, stopping too frequently to read a film review on the Guardian website or to gaze at a shaft of late sun firing the redbrick chimneystacks of the houses across the street.
But it was not simply that I had forgotten about something as commonplace as school dinners that got me that night. As I stared at the stub in Steve's cheque book, I was held for a few moments in the coherence and safety of the life we had, when so much seemed predictable, when continuity was assumed. There would be more bills for Steve to sort out, more sunsets for me to get distracted by while he did just that. And as the wind gusted against those windows, I saw how, in an instant, I lost my shelter. This truth had hardly escaped me until then, far from it, but the clarity of that moment was overwhelming. And I am still shaking.
♥ I am the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate. I hear this occasionally. A 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.
Such a puny life. Starved of their loveliness, I feel shrunken. Diminished and faded, without their sustenance, their beauty, their smiles. Nothing like how I was that day before the wave, when we sat in the back of a jeep and watching a young male leopard leaping across the branches of the troop of a palu tree, supremely poised and scornful of the troop of monkeys that taunted him from the surrounding canopy. And nearby a haze of blue-tailed bee-eaters drifted in dust-filled light. Sometimes, even now, I can summon the lift of those birds. For some moments it takes me away from my fear and my shame.
♥ In these past years, I've pushed away thoughts of my children's everyday hurts and fears, suggestions of their frailty and tenderness. It's easier to remember my boys with humour or to recall their cheek. But now as I dare to peer more closely at the, they emerge more whole.
For years I've told myself it's pointless to cherish my children's personalities and their passions, for they are now dead. But here in our home I am surrounded by proof of it all. I unlock my mind a little and allow myself to know the wonder of them.
♥ By knowing them again, by gathering threads of our life, I am much less fractured. I am also less confused. I don't constantly ask, Was I their mother? How can so much of my life not even seem like mine?
I can recover myself better when I dare let in their light.
♥ I invite monks to the house to perform a Buddhist ceremony, one that passes on merit to the dead. My parents observed these rituals. Now in their living room that is fragrant with freshly cut jasmines and incense, three monks sit on chairs that have been draped with pristine white cloth. One of the monks strikes a match and lights the brass oil lamp on the table in front of him. He unwinds a reel of white thread and passes it among me and my friends, who are sitting across from the monks on woven grass mats spread on the floor. Then the three monks begin their invocations. But as they harmonize their chanting, I still find it inconceivable that my family left this house one December morning and never came back. If anything, tonight feels like my very first night in this house, some thirty-five years ago, when there were more monks and more chants and life here was about to begin. I hold on to the white thread that's being blessed with prayer and conjure those other glowing oil lamps around the now-absent pond.
♥ The men working on the boat tell us they haven't sighted whales in this sea for some days now. Not since the tsunami in Japan, they say, and they wonder if these creatures were disturbed by it. It is five days now since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And I've not been able to keep away from those television images. As much as they horrify me, I want to see the meanness of that black water as it crumples whole cities in its path. So this is what got us, I thought, when I saw waves leaping over seawalls in Japan. This is what I was churning in. I never saw the scale of it then. This same ocean. Staring at me now all blue and innocent. How it turned.
Where were these whales when the sea came for us? I wonder. Were they in this same ocean? Did they feel a strangeness then? Another whale who was in the distance has come closer now. I hear a loud, low bellow as it exhales. Now the whale inhales. Resounding in this vastness I hear a doleful sigh.
I am hushed. I sit now on a damp cushion on the floor of this boat, not compelled anymore to grab every glimpse of these whales. My earlier discord eases. I don't dread whales without Vik. I don't need so much to duck and dive from remembering. I am unclenched and calmed by the beauty of these creatures, by their pureness, and I savour this relief. Then again I look.
♥ Seven years on, and their absence has expanded. Just as our life would have in this time, it has swelled. So this is a new sadness, I think. For I want them as they would be now. I want to be in our life. Seven years on, it is distilled, my loss. For I am not whirling anymore, I am no longer cradled by shock.
And I fear. Is this truth now too potent for me to hold? If I keep it close, will I tumble? At times I don't know.
But I have learned that 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.
♥ I suspect that I can only stay steady as I traverse this world that's empty of my family when I admit the reality of them, and me.
For I am without them, as much as I am on my own.
And when I hold back this truth, I am cut loose, adrift, hazy about my identity. Who am I now?