What is most striking to me about this memoir of the tsunami which hit Sri Lanka December 26, 2004 is the clarity with which Deraniyagala shares her sense of dislocation, devastation, and despair following the deaths of her entire family. She recalls rising water in words that take one’s breath, and then her stunned silence and blank lack of emotion when she describes the tsunami’s aftermath, when she alone of her family remained, covered in black mud and clinging to a tree.
What I never knew and was grateful to Deraniyagala for sharing, was how we humans react to the massive insult of a natural disaster. Aid workers must have come across this kind of shock in their work with victims of earthquakes and floods, but I never knew, had never experienced such a thing. I am in awe that Deraniyagala could relate her pain to us, despite what it must have cost her. She didn’t have to do it. I hope it helps.
The ravaging sense of guilt and crippling loss of self-worth as she scrabbled in the remains of her life felt lacerating. Her unflinching honesty in describing her loss of control and the pain of her survival when all others died, ripped from her arms, is excruciating. Her parents had also died in the wave, so apart from a brother and extended family, she had nothing to anchor her to her life as a mother, wife, and daughter.
It took six years before she could bear to remember the love she had for her children and her husband, and to tell us how they played, or what they liked to eat. She becomes joyous then, in recalling the boys at school, their favorite subjects, or how she met her husband and how they first traveled to Sri Lanka to stay in her parents’ house. The precision, clarity, and eloquence of her memory and her language honors them, and enshrines her love for them.
It is just as revealing to discover that people can actually find a way forward even in the face of such heart-rending grief. The grass grows back; the spirit renews. It seems impossible, but it is still true.
Deraniyagala reminds us that finding one’s way back to oneself through an overwhelming and lasting grief is not, in fact, to forget…but to remember. When Sonali remembers, and can speak the truth, she finds joy in the remembering, and in who she was with the people she loved. She can piece back together who she is by remembering who she was. The beauty of her memories, and the imaginings of her sons—Vikram would be fourteen!—makes me celebrate her bravery.
The reading of this memoir by Hannah Curtis is terrific. To say the material is difficult is understatement, but Curtis pulls it off.
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