I remember returning to Chennai for a winter break from college when the tsunami had struck. Both my grandparents were alive then. I remember strolling the ghost town a couple of days after the storm had gone. The roads were desolate stretches and fishermen’s boats had been swept off the shores, parked on the main road. The consequences were worse in the Andamans and further south in neighbouring Sri Lanka. Few mainstream international news channels covered the disaster with the verve or gumption reserved for the U.S. elections or the progressing war in Iraq then.
Colombo native, globe-trotting economist Sonali Deraniyagala tells a harrowing tale of loss as a survivor of the December 2004 tsunami when she was holidaying with her English husband, two sons, and parents. She loses them all to the “wave” which goes on to acquire treacherous import throughout the course of the book. The wave of her grief is the arc of this tale, one masterful account of a holiday gone wrong, a life that could have been, a life that was, and a life that stopped. Her life is divided into the two epochs of before the wave and after, seven years into her grief and she is still haunted, “I trip up constant, between this life and that… A rush of footsteps in the apartment above me is all it takes… I think it’s the boys, upstairs, another scuffle. ‘Knock it off,’ I almost shout. ‘I am trying to Mum’ I hear Vik, ribbing me as he aims a ball at his brother’s head. Then I have to accept that I don’t have them. I am in New York.”
London based economist Sonali’s narrative explodes with homesickness, forever present, drenched with mad, excruciating details of her routine whether she is reminiscing about Steve’s recipe of homemade raan (Indian lamb) and his preparation, her sons’ fights, smells, repartees, or dealing with the pressures of adjusting to her life after memory –addressing old enquiring neighbours to whom she presented a casual reserve or forgetfulness feigning the existence of her dead family somewhere.
And grief is entirely what constitutes her story, not her husbands’, not her sons’, not her country’s, but hers. She alternates often between memory and belief, “The more I remember, the more inconsolable I will be, I’ve told myself. But now increasingly I don’t tussle with my memories. I want to remember. I want to know. Perhaps I can better tolerate being inconsolable now. Perhaps I suspect that remembering won’t make me any more inconsolable. Or less.” Her grief is fed by catharsis, rage, anger, depression, resistance to fate, failed suicide attempts; this is her self-actualization moment. Others who have lost will find empathy here, those who have not will grapple with empathy humbly.
Events in history can sadden those unconnected with it. Man-made disasters evoke only slightly lesser awe than natural ones that defy expectation or odds provoking more fear than the former. The devastation wreaked by the tsunami acquired gothic proportions, became associated with myth, superstition, and rendered human beings powerless. It is this despair that seethes through the sparse, cutting prose of a woman who has lost everything except her spirit. This is the story of Sonali’s triumph over a storm, grief, and over every other shortcoming in faith. Witness searing wit, a breathtaking journey and a brave memoir that deserves every prize in the genre simply for its regenerative power. The next book I am reading The Siege about the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks will also cover grief I know, but from a different footing.