On the 26th of December 2004, the Eastern, Southern, South Western and North Western coasts of Sri Lanka are devastated by the Tsunami catastrophe, leaving behind a stunned and shattered island to bury the dead – or their remains. Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of loss and trauma – the retrospective account of a mother/wife who loses her family to a single tidal stroke – is a memorable and powerful rendition looking back on this fateful day. Wave is about Deraniyagala’s husband, her parents, and her two kid sons who died in a single morning, ending in utter tragedy a holiday season spent in her native country of birth. Deraniyagala and her family had earlier arrived on the island from their home in England, and were resorting in Yala in the South Eastern part of the country on the 26th.
A close scrutiny indicates that Wave, in fact, is a story with three interwoven threads. The Tsunami encounter and its consequent events drilled with personal trauma and gradual – but, hard – acceptance is the dominant of these threads; but, it is emphatically infused with a second thread to do with Sonali’s English home and family life. These two tracks incessantly cut across each other in an overwhelming juxtaposing of loss with joy; fatality, with happiness and hope. The third thread focuses on the “recuperation” (for the want of a word) upon Sonali’s difficult return home; and of the time between 2004 and 2010. Taken together, the narrative is overlaid with personal grief – a trigger of a composite range of happy and homely memories with the angst of the “sole survivor” – which, at times, makes Wave a difficult and even tedious read: a tester of the reader’s threshold for an overdose of trauma.
Intriguingly, of a growing corpus of Lankan / Lankan-related literature which focuses on the Tsunami crisis, Deraniyagala’s is an unlikely biographical tale which has received global transmission. It is by no means isolated in its poignancy, for there may be countless thousands of similarly harrowing tales from coast to coast; if at all not yet narrativized as is the story of the elite Sonali Deraniyagala. But, at least, one other text that comes to mind is the recently published short novel by Eric Illeyapparachchi, Paadha Yaathra (පාද යාත්රා) which is also set on the day of the Tsunami, exploring the fates of a cluster of people who, at strategic points of the book, connect with each other. Illeyapparachchi’s book, to be honest, failed to engage my imagination, as it read more-or-less as a rehashed dishing out of the “Tsunami stories” one used to read in the Lankadeepa newspaper. However, to Illeyapparachchi’s credit, the craftsman in him takes over when Illeyapparachchi paints with a surreal brush the chaotic re-definition of the Tsunami-struck universe: a universe where realities snap and blur, possibilities refresh and where identities get displaced, disfigured and recycled.
In Illeyapparachchi’s case, emotions and grief feature less or little. The diabolical inexplicability of the turnaround leaves everyone too dazed for human reaction. Only a smattering of non-Lankan characters seem to have an energy left in engaging with the chaos within the frame/logic of the pre-Tsunami world. This is an intriguing intersect, as Sonali in Deraniyagala’s text, too, is a “non-Lankan” presence; for she is presented to us as a fully immersed English national. The depth of her loss – even at the immediate aftermath of the assault – is not even shadowed in Illeyapparachchi’s character portrayal. Perhaps, Illeyapparachchi’s creative priorities are different; maybe, the dispassionate detachment is a ploy used by the writer for his own project does not hinge on the personal nature of Deraniyagala’s cathartic recollection. However, in exciting reader empathy, Deraniyagala has a very timorous voice articulated through her disturbing story.
Reviewing Deraniyagala in the New Yorker, Teju Cole asks as to “why… some unconcerned individual, someone who has not been similarly shattered, wish to read this book?”. For Cole, the biography is a meditation of impulses such as grief and rage; and a study as to how they have to be contained and mastered: a case study of self-transformation and self-containment. He, in support, quotes a writer who reflects on Greek tragedy, where the horror and the trauma has to be “lived” as a part of the Aristotelian requirement of catharsis.
The theory aside, why, indeed, must some unconcerned individual read Deraniyagala’s Wave: the story of an affluent, socially and economically empowered woman’s vigil at a catastrophic encounter? What are we, the mass audience, in search of in reading line-to-line of Sonali’s breakdown? Is, in Sonali’s heart-wrenching agony, embedded the satisfaction of the reader? In other words, is the Sonali Deraniyagala saga successful for the very trauma and powerlessness of the narrator’s situation? Would Sonali Deraniyagala’s publishers undertake the story had – hypothetically – the family been rescued? Would there be a story if such a miraculous rescue been effected? Don’t we, the mass readership, earnestly wish the family to die even as we read Sonali’s husband, children and elders being carried away by the wave? These question are enough reason for our reading experience to be disturbing.
If Sonali Deraniyagala had a better conscience she shouldn’t have published this book for a global audience. By doing so, she has deserted among the intricacies of narrativization – the inevitable mazes of story-telling and story-selling – a more precious organic part of her, which is now being sold over the counter for Rs 1300 each (the translation, by Malini Govinnage is a bargain, at 400 rupees each). We read Wave in search of the thrill and sadistic satisfaction we may derive from the momentary consumption of Deraniyagala.