Friday, March 29, 2013

Surviving ("Wave" by Sonali Deraniyagala)

Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala's memoir of surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, begins with strange, frothy ocean waves reaching further on shore than she's ever seen. Thirty pages later, the entire event is over: a tsunami, unlike anything the world has ever seen before, has claimed lives in fifteen countries and decimated entire villages, washing away everything--houses, vegetation, people--as though they never existed, and in a matter of mere minutes*. Deraniyagala survived, clinging to tree branches and somehow managing the violent, muddy deluge; her husband, two sons, and parents did not. By the time Deraniyagala realizes this fact--"accepts" would not be the right term, as we'll soon learn--we the reader also realize there are almost 200 pages left in her book. This imbalance--the pages in our left hand are scant, the pages in our right are not--tells us that we have barely scratched the surface of how this one unimaginable tragedy has affected Deraniyagala, who is now suddenly and irreversibly alone.

In memoirs like these, attention is usually given to those involved before the tragedy strikes: in lengthy expositions we see their lives, their backgrounds, their personalities, all of which enhances the pain we feel when they're suddenly taken from the writer and, simultaneously, the reader. In defying this convention and beginning with the tragedy, Deraniyagala walks us through the pain she feels in everyday situations that come from being a survivor--walking into her house, preparing lunch, talking with neighbors--all of which trigger one heartrending memory after another. It makes her past, her life before the tsunami, seem like nothing more than distant, painful memories, as though what happened that day by the ocean split her life into two. There was her life before the tsunami--fun, exciting, filled with laughter and contentment, now lost and untouchable, dangerous, even aggressive in its attachment and prevalence--and her life afterwards, filled with drug abuse, alcoholism, rage, suicidal thoughts, and utter helplessness. We know she still has her job at a nearby college, but it's never mentioned; she seems to exist only in bedrooms and empty apartments, all haunted. Her friends and family try to console her, mend her, watch out for her and protect her, but it's to no avail--they cannot relate to her, cannot understand her pain, and she pushes them away, ignores them, lashes out. Page after page, chapter after chapter, Deraniyagala seems to slip further and further away from herself, from those around her, from any hope of being saved.

And yet, for seven years--the scope of the book's remaining 200 pages--Deraniyagala learns how to coexist with the memories and the pain...and "coexist" is the best possible term to use. She doesn't overcome the heartbreak--even seven years on, walking the beaches of Miami or whale-watching in the Indian Ocean, there are still just as many triggers as the hours after the tsunami struck. She doesn't accept it or manage it, only "coexist" with it. After all, coexisting is often all we can do when our lives are interrupted by the unforeseen and unimaginable, and Deraniyagala seems to know that as the book closes. This is something she will never be far from, and understandably so, and it's something she can't control. She must live with it--the reminders, the loss, the pain--but part of living with something is living.

*Even today, almost nine years after the tsunami, we still don't know the scope of its effects. Hundreds of thousands were killed, though we'll never have an exact number. Tens of thousands remain unaccounted for and are most likely dead, their remains--and any closure for their families--irretrievable. And more than a million people were displaced from their homes.